Vanessa Bell exhibition catalogue with an essay by Virginia Woolf


Dating from 1930, this slim pamphlet accompanied a solo exhibition of Vanessa Bell’s artwork in Mayfair, London. Like her sister Virginia Woolf, who supplies an introduction to the exhibition, Bell was a central figure within the Bloomsbury Group (so called after the area of London in which this circle of artists and writers lived and worked).

Bell exhibited regularly with the show’s organisers, The London Artist’s Association.[1] The exhibition’s funders included the economist and Bloomsbury intellectual John Maynard Keynes, and renowned art collector Samuel Courtauld.

What defined Vanessa Bell’s artistic style?

From around 1910 until the end of World War One, Bell embraced artistic experimentation and rebelled against the Victorian values into which she had been born. Influenced by Post-Impressionism and major European artists such as Matisse and Picasso, Bell pushed the boundaries of British art. She applied vivid colour and bold, simplified forms to her paintings and designs. Her works realised a key principle of modernism: the emphasis of form over content. They are, Woolf suggests, pure expression: ‘They give us an emotion. They offer a puzzle’.

Bell is recognised as one of the first British artists to paint non-representational subjects.[2] Here, Woolf highlights Bell’s innovation, writing, ‘Mrs. Bell has a certain reputation it cannot be denied... She is reported (one has read it in the newspapers) to be “the most considerable painter of her own sex now alive”’.

After World War One Bell developed a style that, although more naturalistic, was strongly informed by her avant garde period. This exhibition displays Bell’s post-war work, featuring still lifes, portraits and French landscapes.

Virginia Woolf on gender and art

‘That a woman should hold a show of pictures in Bond Street…is not usual’: Woolf opens the introduction with a bold statement about gender and art in the early 20th century. The novelist confronts the limitations imposed upon women’s creative potential by a society that promotes constraining ‘feminine’ values such as innocence and domesticity. In particular, Woolf addresses the recent incidents of art schools banning women from drawing from live nude models on moral grounds. Woolf thus highlights the radical aspect of Bell’s art, which often featured nude subjects.

[1] Frances Spalding, ‘Bell, Vanessa’, Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online (Oxford University Press) <> [accessed 3 August 2015].

[2] Ibid.

Full title:
Recent Paintings by Vanessa Bell. With a foreword by Virginia Woolf. February 4th to March 8th 1930.
estimated 1930, probably London
The London Artists' Association, Virginia Woolf
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

Related articles

An introduction to To the Lighthouse

Article by:
Kate Flint
Capturing and creating the modern, Literature 1900–1950

Focussing on Virginia Woolf’s representation of time, consciousness and the rupture caused by World War One, Professor Kate Flint reveals how To the Lighthouse is a carefully structured, psychologically complex novel that ultimately asks the reader to reflect on their own ever-changing experience of being in the world.

An introduction to A Room of One's Own

Article by:
Rachel Bowlby
Gender and sexuality, Exploring identity

Professor Rachel Bowlby examines A Room of One’s Own as a key work of feminist criticism, revealing how Virginia Woolf ranges beyond the essay’s official topic of women and fiction to question issues around education, sexuality, and gendered values.

Culture quake: the Post Impressionist exhibition, 1910

Article by:
Will Hodgkinson
Art, music and popular culture, European influence

Will Hodgkinson looks at the art exhibition which radically changed the course of art and culture in Britain.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

To the Lighthouse

Created by: Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf has long been recognised as a seminal text in the modernist canon. Using her ...

A Room of One's Own

Created by: Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own began as two lectures, written to be delivered at the women-only ...