Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - 20th Century British Art

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)   BIOGRAPHY

Still life of flowers in a vase, violet and pink chrysantemem, late 1940's
Unframed (ref: 4780)

Signed in pencil

Watercolour, 19 3/4 x 16 in. (50 x 40.5 cm.)


Provenance: given by Vanessa Bell to Su Hua Ling Chen in the late 1940's; thence by descent to her daughter Ying Chinnery in 1990.

The Provenance of this watercolour holds the key to an extraordinary story: It was given in the late 1940's by Vanessa Bell to Su Hua Ling Chen (1900-1990) an artist and writer and wife of the renown essayist Chen Yuan. In the 1930's Su Hua was the lover of Vanessa Bell's son Julian. Julian Bell was at this time working at Wuhan University where Su Hua's husband Chen Yuan was Dean of Arts. When Chen Yuan found out about the affair (Julian was working in his department), Julian agreed to resign to avoid a scandal. Julian Bell subsequently went to fight against Franco and died in Spain. Chen Yuan and his circle were considered the Chinese equivalent of the Bloomsbury set but being more conservative by nature Su Hua's affair caused a tremendous scandal. Chen Yuan left China and came over to the UK to head the Sino British Arts Council, and was later made permanent delegate to the UNESCO. Su Hua followed her husband to England in 1947, and made friends with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Through Julian Bell she had already corresponded with Virginia Woolf who encouraged her to write short stories in English, published as Ancient Melodies in 1953, by Hogarth Press, (run by Leonard Woolf). The preface to Ancient Melodies was written by Vita Sackville West (a good friend of Su Hua) - J.B Priestly praised it as the best book written in 1953.

Su Hua only saw Vanessa Bell very discreetly, not wishing to mention this re acquaintance with the Bell family to her husband. For this reason the watercolour remained hidden from view and only came to light when her daughter Ying discovered it after her mothers death in 1990. This explains the remarkable vibrancy of the watercolour whose pristine colours have never faded.

Su Hua is referred to in letters by Vanessa Bell simply as 'Sue'. Julian Bell wrote about his affair in letters sent to his mother and a friend, published in: "A Journey to the Frontier- Julian Bell and John Conford". Su Hua has also been the subject of two other books: one book published in 2006 by Sasha Welland, (her great niece), A Thousand Miles of Dreams, and another by Prof. Patricia Laurence of Columbia University, Lily Briscoe's Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism, and China.

Chen Yuan is still renowned in China (known as Chen Xiying). He never, however, after the liasion between Su Hua and Julian Bell, regained the height of his literary powers.

We are gratefuly to Ying Chinnery for assistance.

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)

Vanessa Stephen was the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Jackson (18461895). Her parents lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, London, and Vanessa lived there until 1904. She was educated at home by her parents in languages, mathematics and history, and took drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook before she attended Sir Arthur Cope's art school in 1896, and then studied painting at the Royal Academy in 1901.

During her childhood, Stephen and her sister Virginia were sexually molested by their half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth.

After the deaths of her mother in 1895 and her father in 1904, Vanessa sold 22 Hyde Park Gate and moved to Bloomsbury with Virginia and brothers Thoby (18801906) and Adrian (18831948), where they met and began socialising with the artists, writers and intellectuals who would come to form the Bloomsbury Group.

She married Clive Bell in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian (who died in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War at the age of 29), and Quentin. The couple had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Vanessa Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the painter Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica in 1918, whom Clive Bell raised as his own child.

Vanessa, Clive, Duncan Grant and Duncan's lover David Garnett moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of First World War, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Firle, East Sussex, where she and Grant painted and worked on commissions for the Omega Workshops established by Roger Fry.

Vanessa Bell's significant paintings include Studland Beach (1912), The Tub (1918), Interior with Two Women (1932), and portraits of her sister Virginia Woolf (three in 1912), Aldous Huxley (19291930), and David Garnett (1916).

She is considered one of the major contributors to British portrait drawing and landscape art in the 20th century.

She is portrayed by Janet McTeer in the 1995 Dora Carrington biopic Carrington, and by Miranda Richardson in the 2002 film The Hours alongside Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf. Vanessa Bell is also the subject of Susan Sellers' novel Vanessa and Virginia.

See all works by Vanessa Bell