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Vanessa Bell

2 of 21 portraits of Vanessa Bell

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Vanessa Bell

by Duncan Grant
oil on canvas, circa 1918
37 in. x 23 7/8 in. (940 mm x 606 mm)
Purchased, 1963
Primary Collection
NPG 4331

On display in Room 24 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • Vanessa Bell (née Stephen) (1879-1961), Painter; sister of Virginia Woolf. Sitter in 21 portraits, Artist or producer associated with 14 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Duncan Grant (1885-1978), Artist. Artist or producer of 9 portraits, Sitter associated with 31 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Bell began to work with Grant, a younger painter, whose work she admired, from around 1913 and they subsequently fell in love. Its use of rich, vibrant colour and pattern demonstrates Grant's adoption of a Post-Impressionist style. At the time the portrait was painted, Bell was also experimenting with bold colour and simplified form in her own painting.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG 7145: 'Work in Progress' (based on same portrait)

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  • Gibson, Robin; Clerk, Honor, 20th Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1993, p. 13 Read entry

    Like her sister Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell was an innovator in her field. Taught at the Royal Academy Schools by Sargent and influenced by Whistler and the New English Art Club, she was inspired by the Post-Impressionist exhibitions organized by Roger Fry in 1910 and 1912, and her sober, tonal painting underwent a radical change. Simple design, bold use of colour and experiments with abstraction characterized a transitional period before she settled into a personal form of representation that had much in common with the work of Duncan Grant. In 1907 Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell, but lived with Duncan Grant from 1913 and together they worked for the Omega Workshops as well as collaborating on various decorative schemes, most notably in their own home, Charleston. The painting is one of two magnificent portraits of Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 207
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 215
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 48
  • Spalding, Frances, The Bloomsbury Group, 2013, p. 44
  • Spalding, Frances, Insights: The Bloomsbury Group, 2005, p. 40
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 195 Read entry

    The Gallery’s Collection contains two portraits of the painter Vanessa Bell made by Duncan Grant (1885– 1978), of which this is the later work. During the years preceding and following the First World War, Bell, sister of the great modernist novelist Virginia Woolf, was a leading exponent of avant-garde painting in Britain. Vanessa and Virginia were the daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen, the first editor of The Dictionary of National Biography. After their father’s death in 1904, they moved to Bloomsbury with their brothers Thoby and Adrian and began holding the gatherings that formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group. These ‘at homes’, as they were known, attracted, among many others, the writers and art critics Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry and Vanessa’s future husband Clive Bell, whom she married in 1907. Vanessa was greatly impressed by the two exhibitions of Post-Impressionist painting that Fry organised in 1910 and 1912, contributing work to the latter. In 1913 she established a relationship with Duncan Grant. The rich palette employed in Grant’s portrait reflects both his and Vanessa’s adoption of less literal, more expressive colour at this time.

Placesback to top

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Events of 1918back to top

Current affairs

Despite the suspension of the Suffrage movement during the war, the Government finally agrees to grant women the right to vote as recognition of their vital role in the war effort. However, The Representation of the People Act only extended the franchise to female householders and university graduates over 30. Equal rights to men were not granted until 1928.

Art and science

War Poet, Wilfred Owen, is killed in action just a week before the end of the war. His poems, including Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth, tell of the horror of war in the trenches and the tragic loss of a generation of young men who enthusiastically signed up to fight in a war that became seen as futile rather than glorious.


British representative, Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, signs the Armistice calling a ceasefire on the 11th November 1918 and ending the war. Germany and Austria loose their empires and become republics. Around the same time a global flu pandemic brakes out - known in England as Spanish Flu - killing 50-100 million people within a year compared to 15 million fatalities from the four years of war.

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