Vanessa Bell’s Attic studio at Charleston: Its History, Impact and Future

Diana Wilkins

Abstract


The artist, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), used the attic studio at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex for the last twenty years of her career.  Her son felt that Bell’s move to a studio at the top of the house was linked to her reclusive nature, but the original plans for the studio indicate more complex reasons.  The most important factors may have been the need to provide extra working space and to accommodate Bell’s family who sought refuge at Charleston ahead of the Second World War.  Initially, Bell had planned a large new studio on the ground floor, but she economised by creating three smaller studios, including one in the attic, away from visitors and domestic demands.  Working in the attic studio, Bell created subtle compositions and searching self-portraits that often incorporate the room’s physical characteristics.  Reappraising Bell’s achievements during these years provides a more balanced picture of her late style, which has sometimes been clouded by a narrative of withdrawal and inferred decline.  Returning the studio to a museum space open to the public would help preserve Bell’s legacy by allowing visitors to immerse themselves in her final working environment.


Keywords


Modernism, Bloomsbury, late style, women.

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References


Primary Sources

The Keep, Brighton:

University of Sussex Collection, The Charleston Papers c.1865-1964

Tate Gallery Archive, London:

Letters from Vanessa Bell to Duncan Grant 1909-57, TGA 20078/1/44/219

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List of Illustrations

Figure 1: Powell Architects, Extract from Proposed Plans for Ground Floor Charleston Farm, February 1939, plan CHA/E/146, 58 x 73 cm, ink on paper, Charleston, Sussex. © Charleston Trust

Figure 2: Powell Architects, Extract from Revised Plans for Ground Floor Charleston Farm, April 1939, plan CHA/E/147, 48 x 70 cm, ink on paper, Charleston, Sussex. © Charleston Trust

Figure 3: Powell Architects, Extract from Revised Plans for Second Floor Charleston Farm, April 1939, plan CHA/E/147, 48 x 70 cm, ink on paper, Charleston, Sussex,. © Charleston Trust

Figure 4: Anon., Vanessa Bell, Angelica Bell, Duncan Grant, c.1939, photograph CHA/PH/270, 21.5 x 16.5 cm, Charleston, Sussex. © Charleston Trust

Figure 5: Anne Olivier Bell, Vanessa Bell’s Studio [East Wall], 1959, photograph, 7.9 x 7.9 cm, Charleston, Sussex. © Charleston Trust

Figure 6: Anne Olivier Bell, Portrait of Vanessa Bell, 1959, photograph, 7.9 x 7.9 cm, Charleston, Sussex. © Charleston Trust

Figure 7: Decorations in attic studio - Vanessa Bell, (a) Studio Door, 1939, 177 x 81 cm, oil on wood and (b) S-shaped Design on Studio Door Frame, 1939, 44 x 9 cm, pencil on wood; and Angelica Garnett?, (c) Female Figure on Cupboard Door, ca. 1939, dimensions unknown, oil on wood, Charleston, Sussex. Photos: Diana Wilkins, 2017

Figure 8: Vanessa Bell, Still Life by the Studio Window, c. 1950, oil on canvas, 68 x 61 cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, Aberdeen. © 1961 Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

Figure 9: Vanessa Bell, Still Life of Flowers in a Jug, 1948-50, 50.8 x 40.6 cm, oil on canvas, private collection of Bannon & Barnabas McHenry. © 1961 Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo: Julie Magura, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art

Figure 10: Vanessa Bell, Self Portrait, c.1958, CHA/P/64, 45 x 37 cm, oil on canvas Charleston, Sussex. © 1961 Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Grant. Photo: Charleston Trust




DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.24134/be.v3i1.135

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