The textile artist, literary art director, muralist and fashion designer Cressida Bell – Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter and Virginia Woolf’s great-niece – invites me into her studio in Hackney Central. I am greeted by a wash of colour: geometric dots, kimono-hued patterns, a ménagerie of lampshades, assistants, an Indian bust by her ceramicist and art historian father Quentin Bell and designs, which are all ready to be sent to individual clients, major London museums and literary magazines.
Looking at her I fancy I see in her eyes some sort of fog, the Woolfian fog, the Vanessa Bell rictus of those arch-lintelled, roundish eyes – I would say “with the impenetrability of a tornado”, but then that would put my visit to a boho corner of civilised productivity irruptively and teasingly out of kilter. (And I’m sure that if Cressida had a penny for every time she’d been told she had Bloomsbury eyes, then she’d have a studio of Anselm Kiefer-like proportions.)
Vanessa Bell has her first ever retrospective starting on February 8 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, also starring her photographs, alongside punk-poet Patti Smith’s, of life at Vanessa’s ideas hub, Charleston, in Sussex.
Although she is looking forward to the show, Cressida tells me that her father, Quentin, had a complex relationship with the Bloomsbury matriarch: Vanessa’s other son, Julian, died in action in the Spanish Civil War aged 29, and Quentin felt jealous of his mother’s grief. “It was really hard to cope with, for my father. Because he wasn’t enough. And I think he felt quite hurt that he wasn’t the apple of her eye, that Julian had been the apple of her eye. He felt a slight ambivalence to Vanessa as a result.”
Vanessa Bell, with a practical grasp of how to pursue applied art and painting, ran Charleston as an “artwork come to life” (with attendant infidelities with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant rather mirroring William Morris’s problems with his wife, Jane, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti at Kelmscott Manor).
Cressida remembers: “It was lovely when it was a working house. As children, we stayed in the kitchen with the cook, Grace. You could go into the kitchen, but you couldn’t go into the studio. That was sacrosanct.
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