Popped over to see the new Vanessa Bell exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery last weekend – don’t tell a soul but it was essential research for my new whodunnit – and was rather blown away by her work.
I didn’t know much about her, except the obvious – Virginia Woolf’s sister, member of the Bloomsbury Group, lived at a house called Charleston where everybody painted and slept with everything that moved (or didn’t). A lot of even this scant knowledge has been tainted by my love of the BBC Radio 4 spoof Gloomsbury, featuring the blissful Miriam Margoyles as Vita Sackcloth-Vest, Alison Steadman as Ginny Fox and John Sessions as D H Lollipop. At first I was a bit resistant to anything that parodied the struggles of a woman who eventually killed herself – but then I gave in to the laughs. The real Bloomsbury folk probably took themselves seriously enough for anybody, after all.
Though I’ve read plenty of Virginia Woolf, my favourite is her most down to earth work, A Room of One’s Own, though even that is quite divorced from most people’s reality ( a lot of female writers have soldiered on without money or rooms of their own – Jane Austen springs to mind). With Vanessa Bell, though, I liked it all. I chiefly loved the colours of her work – everything had a glow. It’s very reductive but nowadays the palette she worked in would be called ‘autumnal’ – queue visions of those Colour Me Beautiful ladies with swatches of material to drape over your shoulders. In fact, Vanessa often painted Virginia and, whether by accident or design, looks as though she was struggling to ‘bring out’ her sister’s true colours – the face is often left blank or put mysteriously in the shade, as though even one who knew Virginia Woolf so intimately could never quite either define her character or divine her thoughts. Under one canvas there was a quote from Virginia to Vanessa, saying words to the effect that it was unfair she was such a great painter, as she had produced offspring, too – unlike her childless sister.
Vanessa Bell designed all her sister’s book covers, and created textiles as well. In the gift shop, it was slightly horrifying to find that these distinctive, splashy, swooping textiles were on offer as tea towels. The outpourings of these Bloomsbury sisters, so conscious of the need to make their mark in a man’s world, reduced to mere domestic fripperies? Well, everyone has to wash up. Yes, of course I bought one. And it’s beautiful.