Clive Bell – a biographical sketch

art critic and Bloomsbury socialite

Clive Bell portraitClive Bell (1881-1964) was raised at Cleve House in Seend, Wiltshire. His father William Heward Bell was a rich industrialist who had made his money in coal mining at Merthry Tydfil. He fashioned himself Squire and re-built part of the house in the style of a Tudor mansion, adding a family crest. Clive was educated at Marlborough (a ‘public’ school – that is, private), then at Trinity College Cambridge. It was there that he met Thoby Stephen, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and Leonard Woolf. After university, he went to study in Paris, originally intending to do historical research. He was very influenced by the art he saw there and switched his studies to painting.

Back in London, when his friend Thoby Stephen invited fellow students home to an evening discussion group in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, Clive met Thoby’s sisters Vanessa Stephen and Virginia Stephen. It was there that the network of friendships and liaisons was formed which became known as the Bloomsbury Group.

He became romantically attracted to Vanessa Stephen, but she turned down his first two proposals of marriage. However, in 1907, following the deaths of both her father and brother Thoby, she accepted him. They had two sons, Julian and Quentin, both of whom went on to become writers.

In 1909 he met Roger Fry by accident on a railway journey and became involved in the promotion of modern art which culminated in the famous Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1910. Fry became a close friend of the family, and in 1911 went on holiday with them to Greece and Turkey. When Vanessa became ill, it was Roger Fry who nursed her back to health, and the pair began an affair, leaving Clive Bell to turn his romantic attentions back onto an old flame, Mary Hutchinson (who also had affairs with both Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria).

He published his first major work, Art, in 1914. In this he set out his idea of ‘significant form’, which is a notion that foregrounds the importance of form in painting over its overt subject matter. Like almost all other members of the Bloomsbury Group, he was opposed to the first world war, and in 1915 published a controversial pamphlet, Peace at Once, calling for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. This was considered an outrageous suggestion by the establishment of the time, and his essay was burned by the Public Hangman.

His relationship with Vanessa had virtually come to an end, although the couple remained on friendly terms, and Clive was a regular visitor to the family home at Charleston in Sussex. Vanessa had in fact moved on from Roger Fry to Duncan Grant, and even though he was an active homosexual, they spent virtually the rest of their lives together.

However, Vanessa had another child, Angelica. The father was Duncan Grant, but for the sake of propriety, she was given Clive’s name and passed off for nearly twenty years as his daughter. This deception and its dramatic consequences are described in Angelica’s memoir Deceived with Kindness.

His friend from Cambridge, Lytton Strachey described the various facets of Bell’s personality:

His character has several layers, but it is difficult to say which is the fond. There is the country gentleman layer which makes him retire into the depths of Wiltshire to shoot partridges. There is the Paris decadent layer, which takes him to the quartier latin where he discusses painting and vice with American artists and French models. There is the eighteenth-century layer which adores Thoby Stephen. There is the layer of innocence which adores Thoby’s sister. There is the layer of prostitution, which shows itself in an amazing head of crimped straw-coloured hair. And there is the layer of stupidity which runs transversely through all the other layers.

© Roy Johnson 2004

Bloomsbury Group links

Red button Bloomsbury Group – tutorials, critical studies, resources

Red button Bloomsbury Group – portraits and biographies

Red button The Bloomsbury Group – Who Were They?

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