Sussex artist Vanessa Bell gets first major exhibition

Self-portrait by Vanessa Bell
Self-portrait by Vanessa Bell

Dulwich Picture Gallery might seem a million miles from the heart of the Downs but for the next few months the spirit of modernist icon Vanessa Bell lights up a series of rooms with more than one hundred paintings, ceramics, photographs and fabrics.

The south London gallery has a tradition of serving up mouth-watering treats by artists who may not always have received the attention they deserve.

Bell is often overshadowed by the painter Duncan Grant – who lived with her at Charleston near Lewes – and by her sister Virginia Woolf. It is appropriate then that this exhibition should be showing now, coming as it does just over a hundred years after Bell and Grant’s arrival at Charleston and the subsequent creation of Bloomsbury in Sussex.

This show demonstrates the range of Bell’s work, beginning with the slightly conservative paintings of her youth. Then around 1910, following her marriage to Clive Bell and the influence of the Post-Impressionists, everything changes. Her paintings come alive with an exuberance of colour and form, which Virginia once described as “painting with a rough eloquence.”

The exhibition has been curated by Sarah Milroy and Ian Dejardin and is divided to reflect the development of Bell’s life as an artist. There are, of course, the portraits for which she was to become so famous, including many of Virginia, and her years of experimentation with abstracts, one of the first artists in the country to pioneer this form of art. But it was a form she was not happy with and she soon returned to what was, for her, real life.

For me her interiors are the jewel of this exhibition. Despite her unorthodox lifestyle, there is a love of domesticity at her heart and, in particular, her love of Charleston. This is summed up in a tiny painting of the Downs around Charleston, painted after she arrived at the house where she was to live for the rest of her life.

An added bonus at Dulwich is the smaller exhibition entitled Legacy, which features for the first time ever Bell’s photo albums including many pictures of childhood summers at St Ives. Alongside are the photos taken by musician Patti Smith during a residency at Charleston a few years ago.

Vanessa Bell continues at Dulwich Picture Gallery until June 4. Visit

Vanessa on Vanessa

One of the highlights of this year’s Charleston Festival will be the appearance on May 28 of stage and screen legend Vanessa Redgrave reading from Vanessa Bell’s letters chronicling her years at Charleston.

She will be joined by Bell’s granddaughter Virginia Nicholson, who has selected the letters and will put them into context.

The event begins at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £30 from 01323 815150 or

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