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Vanessa BellRoger FryDuncan Grant

Marriage, friends and lovers

One of Thoby Stephen's university friends, Clive Bell, asked Vanessa to marry him in 1905 but she declined. She also initially rejected a second proposal from him in 1906. In this letter she states her reasons, feeling that although she valued his friendship she did not want marriage. However, after the sudden death of her brother Thoby from typhoid fever in 1907, she changed her mind and accepted Clive's proposal.

Two sons, Julian and Quentin were born in 1908 and 1910, and although Vanessa continued to paint, her time was increasingly taken up with looking after them. Clive Bell, writing to Virginia Woolf in 1908, bemoans the effect motherhood has had on their relationship:

I see nothing of Nessa. I do not even sleep with her; the baby takes up all her time.

Letter from Clive Bell to Virginia Woolf, 1908
Letter from Vanessa Stephen to Clive Bell
Letter from Vanessa Stephen to
Clive Bell
  © Henrietta Garnett.
All rights reserved.

Vanessa, Quentin and Julian Bell
Vanessa, Quentin and Julian Bell

© Tate Archive, 2003
In 1911 Vanessa began a relationship with Roger Fry, whom the Bells had met the previous year. The relationship developed when Fry nursed Vanessa through illness while on holiday with the Bells in Greece and Turkey. She and Clive had grown apart after the children were born and although they remained friends and Clive continued to support Vanessa financially, he resumed an affair with a previous mistress.

Another friend who joined the Bloomsbury Group was Duncan Grant. Vanessa admired his work and purchased one of his paintings, The Lemon Gatherers. In time she became close to Grant and he replaced Fry in her affections. Despite Duncan Grant's promiscuous homosexuality, they were devoted to each other and lived together for the rest of her life.

In 1918 the couple had a daughter, Angelica, who in apparent contradiction of their rejection of the stifling morality of the time, they pretended was the daughter of Vanessa's husband Clive Bell.

During the war, Vanessa and Grant moved to the Sussex countryside, so he could avoid conscription by working as a farm labourer. They rented Charleston Farmhouse near Firle, and moved there in October 1916 with Vanessa's children and also David 'Bunny' Garnett, Duncan's current lover. After the war Vanessa moved back to London but Charleston was kept on as a summer home.

The 1920s were a period of relative calm for Vanessa, in both her personal life and artistic career. She and Duncan regularly visited Italy and France making contacts with other artists, and they continued to work together on decorative schemes.

Duncan Grant and Angelica Bell
© Tate Archive, 2003

Duncan Grant and Angelica Bell