Why it's time to save Vanessa Bell from the beasts of Bloomsbury

Self Portrait (detail), Vanessa Bell, c.1915
Self Portrait (detail), Vanessa Bell, c.1915 Credit: Yale Center for British Art
Can a major Vanessa Bell exhibition prove that there’s more to her than a famous sister and a scandalous sex life?

Although she died when I was six, I do have powerful memories of her,” says Virginia Nicholson, referring to her grandmother, the British artist Vanessa Bell. Now 61, Nicholson, an author and social historian, is a long-term trustee at Charleston, the 18th-century farmhouse on the Sussex Downs where Bell lived, with other members of the Bloomsbury Group, from 1916 until her death in 1961, aged 81.

“I spent my childhood holidays at Charleston,” continues Nicholson, whom I meet at her home, a beautiful old farmhouse about 10 miles down the road from Charleston. “After lunch, if we were good, we were allowed into the dining room. Nessa, as she was to me, loved strong black coffee. She would take a sugar lump and say, 'Shall we have a brown duck?’ ” Nicholson smiles. “There was a...


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