Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)

The London Group (TLG) is teaming up again with Waterloo Festival over two exhibitions at this year's edition, later in June. We both have a shared past: the Festival of Britain 1951, for which St John's served as the 'Festival Church' and several artists from the TLG contributed. David Redfern, Archivist at TLG, explores artists featured in the 1951 celebrations in a series of articles. Last week, we met William Gear, this week - Vanessa Bell.

Many of you will have heard of Vanessa Bell as an artist in her own rite, or perhaps as Virginia Wolf’s sister. Bell trained at the Royal Academy Schools and was elected to The London Group in 1919. Influenced by contemporary French painting, she was a great friend of the writer and critic Roger Fry and an enthusiastic participant in the Bloomsbury Circle. In 1914 she painted the revolutionary work “Abstract Painting” now in the Tate Collection Later in life Bell lived at Charleston farm in Sussex with the painter Duncan Grant. She showed fifty-seven paintings in twenty-three exhibitions with The London Group up until the beginning of the Second World War and continued supporting the group sporadically thereafter and in 1964 the Arts Council mounted a memorial exhibition.

Left: Vanessa Bell, 1902 | Centre: Vanessa & Virginia, 1894 | Right: Virgina Wolf, 1902

At the age of 72, she was asked by the Arts Council to show in the “60 paintings for ‘51” exhibition as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations where she presented ‘The Garden Room’. It was a busy year for her as, typically, she also exhibited with The London Group in two exhibitions which the Group organised that year, one in February and one in November, both at the New Burlington Galleries in Old Burlington Street W1. Bell would still have been living at Charleston Farm in Sussex and used London Group exhibitions as her London outlet. In the February exhibition she showed ‘Arums and Tulips’, priced at £25, ‘The Fallen Willow’ £45, ‘Red Apples’ also at £45 and ‘Portrait of a Writer’ at £60. For the November exhibition she chose to show ‘Carnations’ priced at £30, ‘An Actress’ at £40 and ‘A Sussex Barn’ (in the Charleston Collection) also £40. What price these paintings now?

“Three Women”, 1913, Vanessa Bell, exhibited in the “London Group Retrospective Exhibition 1914 - 1928” in the New Burlington Galleries. Lent by Roger Fry esq.

The Festival of Britain was intended as a fresh start for the country. During the war women had taken over many of the jobs which men had been doing, but as these men returned to their occupations, women were squeezed out. As in the economy, so in the art world. Only four of the fifty-four artists shown in the “60 paintings for ‘51” exhibition were women, whilst The London Group had a much healthier gender balance, showing in their 1951 exhibitions many women artists including Charlotte Adeney, Eileen Agar (1933), Celia Bedford, Eileen Bell, Phyllis Bray (1933), Anne Buchanan (1971), Diana Butler, Joanna Caney, Pamela Chard, Daphne Chart, Ruth Collet, Vera Cuningham (1927), Pamela Day, Elsie Farleigh (1931), Mary Fedden (1959), Elsie Few (1940/43), Mary Gardner, Angelica Garnett (Vanessa Bell’s daughter), Edna Ginesi (1933), Mary Godwin (1914), Mary E. Groom, Phyllis Hallet, Nina Hamnett (1917), Primrose Harley, Jocelyn Herbert, Gertrude Hermes (1935), Leonie Jonleigh, Karin Jonzen (1948), Iris Keightley, Helen Lessore, Charmian Longstaff, Ursula, McCannell, Mary Martin (1959), Sylvia Melland, Margaret Mellis, Sibyl Milnes, Elizabeth Muntz (1927), Esther Parkinson, Wendy Pasmore (1958), Madeleine Pearson, Mary Potter (1940/43), Rachel Reckitt, Anne Redpath, Mary Reid Hart, Pauline Rutter, Ethel Sands (1913), Joanna Shelton, Mary C. Sholton, Hilda Scott, Beryl Sinclair, Stella Steyn, Margaret Thomas and Philippa Whittington. The dates shown in parenthesis are the dates of the artists’ election to The London Group. No apologies for listing so many women artists as it is intended to be an acknowledgement of the number of women artists practicing at the time but, apart from London Group open submission exhibitions, with very little support or exposure. Some are well known today, others may deservedly come to prominence in the future. The Surrealist artist Eileen Agar has a major exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery (May/August 2021), Mary Fedden, Margaret Mellis and Mary Potter are commercially successful and others enjoy significant recognition as artists of their time, and were also partners or wives of well-known male artists who were al;so members of The London Group, for example Phyllis Bray, Mary Fedden, Elsie Few, Edna Ginesi, Mary Martin and Wendy Pasmore. Vanessa Bell was a pioneer for British women artists and deserves even more recognition than she already enjoys.

I don’t know if any of you are fascinated, as I am, by coincidences, but on the day I wrote this article, in the evening I discovered that Vanessa Bell had died on this date, April 7th, in 1961.

David Redfern

The London Group Archivist

April 2021


The London Group was set up in 1913 by thirty two artists creating a powerful artist-run group to act as a counter-balance to institutions such as the Royal Academy. The founding group created a unique structure for an organisation, that has gone on to successfully nurture the careers of many of Britain's best-known artists.