A blue plaque to painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant has been unveiled at their former home in the London district that gave its name to the Bloomsbury Group.
The marker is the second at 46 Gordon Square, which already has one for their friend and fellow group member, the economist John Maynard Keynes. There are over 1,000 blue plaques in the capital, but No 46 is now one of only 20 “double blue” properties.
Vanessa first lived at the house with her siblings, including Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), after they moved there from their Kensington childhood home following their father’s death in 1904. In spite of Bloomsbury’s opulent architecture and cultural landmarks such as the British Museum and Slade School of Art, it was then down at heel and relatively affordable.
The Scottish artist Duncan Grant moved in with Vanessa and her husband, the art critic Clive Bell, in 1914. Vanessa and Grant — a conscientious objector in the First World War — become close there before moving to Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex two years later, along with Vanessa’s two sons and the writer David Garnett, a lover of Grant’s.
Clive and Vanessa Bell’s romantic relationship had finished long before, but they remained friends. Although Grant was gay and had many lovers, Vanessa would live with him in an open relationship for the rest of her life. Their daughter, Angelica, was born on Christmas Day, 1918. Angelica would later marry David Garnett, her father’s former beau. Given such tangled romantic lives, it was quipped that the Bloomsbury Group “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”.
If Charleston is the location most associated with the Bloomsbury Group, 46 Gordon Square was formative in the intellectual set’s development and the site of early literary and artistic gatherings. Core members didn’t only include Post-Impressionist painters such as Grant and Vanessa Bell, but also writers including Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, and the economist Keynes.
“His genius as an artist seems to overflow so into his life and character”Vanessa Bell on Duncan Grant
During their time at Gordon Square, Bell and Grant were both prolific in their output, and their paintings included Grant’s Interior at Gordon Square (circa 1915) and Bell’s Apples: 46 Gordon Square (circa 1909-10) — a view from the drawing-room balcony to the square that is still recognisable.
Vanessa filled the Regency townhouse with carefully chosen mementoes from her and her siblings’ childhood home, such as Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic portraits of their mother and other eminent Victorians including Charles Darwin, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning. However, instead of William Morris wallpaper, they decorated the walls with washes of plain distemper.
“Things that one had never seen in the darkness,” her sister Virginia remembered, “Watts pictures, Dutch cabinets, blue china — shone out for the first time in the drawing room at Gordon Square”. From this room, Woolf continued, emerged “the germ from which sprang all that since came to be called . . . by the name Bloomsbury”.
The man already commemorated by a plaque at No 46, JM Keynes, moved into rooms there in 1916 as a tenant of the Bells. A former lover of Grant’s, he took the lease of the whole house in 1918, and remained there until his death in 1946. In the meantime, Clive Bell kept a pied-à-terre in the property until 1924 and sometimes came into conflict with Keynes. In one row over an uncomfortable bed, Bell suggested in unvarnished language that Keynes ought to take it because he was the less sexually active.
As for the nature of Vanessa Bell’s enduring love for Grant, she wrote to her son Julian in March 1937: “He is so incredibly full of charm, his genius as an artist seems to overflow so into his life and character & he is so amusing too and odd and unaccountable that lots of people I think don’t see clearly what to me is really his most adorable quality — his honesty — disinterestedness absolute sincerity & simplicity of character which make me depend upon him always.”
Other London properties with the distinction of two blue plaques include 29 Fitzroy Square in nearby Fitzrovia, former home of George Bernard Shaw and, later, Virginia Woolf.
Ahead of the unveiling, English Heritage also announced four new members of its panel of experts who consider the public’s suggestions for new blue plaques. They are Professor Tilly Blyth, a history of science specialist and head of the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies; YolanDa Brown, the saxophonist and composer; Dr Shini Somara, the mechanical engineer, broadcaster and author; and BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny.
Professor William Whyte, architectural historian and chairman of the blue plaques panel, said: “The extraordinary and wide-ranging expertise of our panel is a key part of what makes the English Heritage blue plaques so admired and so trusted as memorials. The fascinating, lively and always high-quality discussions with the existing panel have ignited what I imagine will be a lifelong love of the blue plaques scheme. I look forward to welcoming Tilly, YolanDa, Shini and Petroc to deliberate with us soon.
“I am also pleased to reveal our final plaque of 2023, celebrating two of the most influential painters of the early-to-mid twentieth century, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Bell and Grant were two of the key artists in the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of artists, writers and intellectuals who delighted in the exchange of ideas.”
Commenting on his appointment, Trelawny, said: “I am delighted and honoured to join the blue plaques panel. So many of my favourite musicians and composers are commemorated with a plaque — from Britten and Mozart to Yehudi Menuhin, who received the honour earlier this year — and I am excited to play a part in making sure that legacies like theirs continue to be remembered and celebrated.”
Somara said: “I’m thrilled to be serving alongside such an impressive line-up of fellow panellists. I love the idea of meeting people who have dedicated their lives to their own unique subjects. This cross-pollination of disciplines is so essential because human intelligence, when put to good use, is incredibly inspiring. I hope that the stories of the people we choose to commemorate with a blue plaque might incentivise us all to fulfil our greatest potentials.”
The image at the top of the article shows a bust of Duncan Grant by fellow Bloomsbury artist Stephen Tomlin, displayed in front of Vanessa Bell’s painting ‘Grace Higgens in the kitchen’. Photo: Paul Quezada-Neiman / Alamy Live New