This pensive portrait of Vanessa Bell’s daughter in law, Anne Olivier Bell, was painted at Charleston in 1954 and is a study for a larger work, now in a private collection.

Born Anne Olivier Popham, in the very heart of Bloomsbury, London, Bell was educated at Marjorie Strachey’s school in Gordon Square, just a short distance from Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury home (1904-1907) at 46 Gordon Square. She briefly trained as an opera singer in Germany before returning to study Art History at the Courtauld Institute.

During the war, Bell was hired as a research assistant at the Ministry of Information. Quietly formidable, in 1945 she was approached by “a foppish young man” at a party who proposed that she might join the Museums, Fine Arts and Archives branch of the allies’ control commission in occupied Germany; a programme designed to rescue European masterpieces from the destruction of war and prevent further damage to historical monuments...

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This pensive portrait of Vanessa Bell’s daughter in law, Anne Olivier Bell, was painted at Charleston in 1954 and is a study for a larger work, now in a private collection.

Born Anne Olivier Popham, in the very heart of Bloomsbury, London, Bell was educated at Marjorie Strachey’s school in Gordon Square, just a short distance from Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury home (1904-1907) at 46 Gordon Square. She briefly trained as an opera singer in Germany before returning to study Art History at the Courtauld Institute.

During the war, Bell was hired as a research assistant at the Ministry of Information. Quietly formidable, in 1945 she was approached by “a foppish young man” at a party who proposed that she might join the Museums, Fine Arts and Archives branch of the allies’ control commission in occupied Germany; a programme designed to rescue European masterpieces from the destruction of war and prevent further damage to historical monuments in Germany.[1] This team of distinguished archaeologists and art historians later became known as the so-called Monuments Men, responsible for supervising the return of over five million seized artworks to their rightful homes.

In 1952 Bell married Quentin, the son of Vanessa and Clive Bell and subsequently immersed herself within the Bloomsbury mentality, though not without a cautious outset. In a 2016 interview, Bell recalls being initially ‘terrified by these clever people’ she met at Charleston.[2] It was Vanessa Bell, her mother-in-law, whose gentleness initiated a strong bond between the two, creating a welcoming wave which rippled throughout the household.

Bell is perhaps best known for her work as the editor of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries. Her work researching, compiling and editing the five-volume edition of The Diary of Virginia Woolf took over twenty years. This research remains a vital source of Bloomsbury scholarship, and reflects Olivier Bell’s devotion to and unequalled expertise about Bloomsbury. In 2014 Bell was awarded an MBE for her services to arts and literature.

By the time this portrait study was painted, Vanessa Bell’s children had grown up and she was entertaining her grandchildren at Charleston. She had become a colourist, relishing the opportunity to capture simple natural beauty using bolder brushstrokes and refined techniques. Suffering her first bout of rheumatism in 1953, Bell found herself bound to her Sussex home for most of that year. She watched the Queen’s coronation on television with her friend Edward le Bas rather than celebrating on the streets.

The present work depicts Anne Olivier Bell reclining on the well-known ‘Sickert sofa’ in the Charleston studio. Rendered in finer detail in the full-length portrait, for which this study was conceived, the sofa still stands in the Charleston studio. The date at which this work was painted also indicates that Olivier Bell was pregnant during the sitting, offering a deeper understanding of the maternal bond between Vanessa Bell and her daughter in law. This touching portrait has remained within the family since its completion, only now entering the market in the hope of raising funds to support the Charleston Trust

[1] O. Bell quoted in R. McCrum, ‘HG Wells, Keynes, Orwell ... my years at the heart of the Bloomsbury Set’, 12th June 2016 [available here]

[2] Ibid.

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500 Years of British Art