Radical Perspectives in Oil and Ink: Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and the development of English Modernism. An article by Andy Stewart MacKay

Two sisters: one a painter, the other a writer. Born Victorians but striving to live freely as independent women in the inter-war period, through their work they transformed the role of women in the arts and became epicentre of the English avant-garde.

Vanessa BellVirginia Woolf

The desire and the need for personal freedom permeated the lives of the painter Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf (1882-1941); they simply could not and would not answer to anyone other than themselves. It is difficult to overestimate the degree to which their Victorian parents affected their live and work. The profound loss of their saintly mother Julia Stephen in 1895 and the relief brought by the death of their domineering father Sir Leslie Stephen in 1904 ostensibly set them free to create alternative lives.

46 Gordon Square Bloomsbury

Without formal education but intimately connected to the key cultural players of their time, they used their modest inheritance to set up home in the shabby London district of Bloomsbury. Half-deliberately severed from the past and purposely alienated from their extended relations, Vanessa’s and Virginia’s closest friends in youth – like those of contemporary urbanites today – became their live-in family. Hierarchical familial structures were consciously avoided in favour of democratic, communal or, more specifically, collegiate living. Unable to reconcile their liberal ideals with the Grand Narratives of their day – Capitalism, Imperialism, Christianity and Marriage – Vanessa, Virginia and their friends implicitly set themselves apart: identifying as left-wing atheists because they refused to be subjugated by conservative and religious dogmas; branded bohemian because they valued a variety of sexual arrangements; passionate artists because they could generally afford to avoid the everyday tyranny of monotonous toil. Without negating the very real value of their liberal humanism, nowadays it can sound very much like a philosophy of the privileged few. One cannot forget Margaret Schlegel’s admittance in E. M. Forster’s Howards End that ‘independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means’. And here is the defining Bloomsbury conflict – lying only just beneath the surface: a desire-for as well as a rejection-of the comforts and security of the previous generation.

Virginia Woolf

Such tensions proved fruitful for Virginia who spent the next forty years of her life writing out personal negotiations with the past, creating unparalleled visions of the modern world and our place within it. Vanessa too forged a path all of her own, painting vigorously for the next sixty years in a manner faithful to her own convictions of life, love and philosophy. Undeniably part of the Establishment yet also self-proclaimed Modernists, the Stephen sisters conceived of themselves as outsiders and this is the key to understanding their work as well as their importance for the British avant-garde.


Andy Stewart Mackay’s first book, ‘Angel of Charleston’ will be published next year.

ATTENTION ALL STUDENTS: Join Andy at Tate Britain THIS SATURDAY  24 November at 11am for a morning of Modern British Art. Tickets only£10, call the office or email us to book your place now: +44 (0) 1379 871800 info@arthistoryabroad.com

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