Every time you refer to her as Virginia Woolf’s big sister, Vanessa Bell rolls her eyes at you from the grave. An acclaimed modernist painter and founding member of the lauded Bloomsbury group, Bell also dominated the world of modernist book cover design. Bell was the queen of the unclean line, and her book covers were the visual manifestation of her sister’s uninhibited, musical prose. If you fear asymmetry, read no further. If you crave kinetic graphics and broken rules, carry on.
A brief word on Bell’s early life: she, like Woolf, reaped the benefits of upper middle class respectability and ‘a room of one’s own,’ that is, a physical and figurative space for creativity to grow. Bell, nee Stephen, was the daughter of literary critic Sir Leslie Stephen. She was raised in a family that celebrated independent thought and artistic expression (may we all be so lucky). And she had talent. From the start, Bell was hungry to create. Her older stepbrother George Duckworth once recalled his stepsister’s disdain for high society gatherings and anything that wasn’t art, citing how she “resented the forced pomp of these occasions with some vigour, longing only for her paints and easel.”
In fact, Bell’s only lifelong commitment was to her paints and easel, and to the Modernist ideals that defined her work. We could discuss Bell’s open marriage to art critic and founding Bloomsbury member Clive Bell, her relationships with modern art critic Roger Fry and painter Duncan Grant, and the series of love-polygons that dominated her personal life. But we’re here to admire Bell’s work, which, unsurprisingly, garners far more interest than the ‘scandalous’ life she led at the forefront of the Modernist movement.
Known primarily for her paintings, which featured then-radical use of brushstroke and color, Bell also believed in the value of art in the commercial world. Along with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, Bell founded the Omega Workshops, which emphasized color and pattern for products like textiles, furniture, and pottery.
Then, of course, there are Bell’s book cover designs, decadent in their deviance from clean lines and dust jacket norms. Virginia Woolf once told Bell, “Your style is unique, because so truthful, and therefore it upsets one completely.” When we examine any one of the 38 book covers Bell designed for Woolf, we see shapes formed with a vivaciousness and urgency that only the Modernist period would inspire. In a world dominated by software programs that promise utmost symmetry and a market that demands tidy design, Bell’s book covers remind us of the joy in reading. And in creating book covers.
Often, when we read about Modernism, we can easily find the period inaccessible to those who did not live the Bloomsbury lifestyle. Bell’s designs, however, remind us how the mantra make it new resonates beyond the art world and beyond the twentieth century. These unbothered covers could teach us a lesson or two about breaking the rules.
Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.