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Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant letters to Kenneth Clark and Jane Clark

Call Number: MSS 39

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises correspondence from the artistic partners, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, to the art historian Kenneth Clark and his wife, Elizabeth “Jane” (née Martin). The correspondence was written over a course of approximately fifty years, with the earliest letter dating from circa 1920 and the latest from 1969. Seventeen letters in the collection are undated. The letters are broad in scope and give a deep insight into the artistic endeavors and personal lives of these four prominent figures of the artistic and cultural scene of twentieth century Britain.

A large portion of the collection pertain to major artistic, often collaborative, works by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and reflect their eclectic creative range. Eighteen letters relate to Kenneth Clark’s commission for Grant and Bell to decorate a full dinner service on the theme “Famous Women” and give an account of the discussions between the trio surrounding the commission’s theme, where to have the service pieces manufactured and who the “famous women” subjects should be (see various letters from Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to Kenneth and Jane Clark dating from 1932 December 13 to 1933 July 26). The correspondence also gives an account of Grant and Bell’s interior decoration work and details their artistic processes in designing interiors for the National Gallery Restaurant, Berwick Church, Sussex and The Devonshire Hill School, Tottenham (letters from Duncan Grant to Jane Clark, 1942 June and 1942 June 4; Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark 1943 March 9, and Vanessa Bell to Jane Clark 1944 March 4.) One letter references Duncan Grant’s work in theater design, with Vanessa Bell informing Kenneth Clark that Grant has been kept busy working on costumes for a ballet at the Old Vic, for a run of The Enchanted Grove, opening in March 1932 (letter from Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark 1932 February 22). Three letters evidence the events surrounding what became known as the “Cunard Affair,” an incident in which Cunard White Star Ltd. asked Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to submit panels to decorate their new flagship liner RMS Queen Mary. Cunard later rejected the panels, even after their completion, and denied Grant compensation claims for loss of reputation. As this correspondence demonstrates, the affair saw many prominent figures, including Kenneth Clark, vocally express their support for Grant and Bell in the national press (letters from Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark, 1935, 1935 April 17 and 1935 April 28). The close collaborative endeavors of both artists are reflected in their work with the Bloomsbury Group-affiliated Omega Workshops, which provided an income to a variety of artists, including Grant, Bell and Wyndham Lewis. The ethos and financial operation of the Workshops are made apparent in a letter from Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark where she asks Clark’s advice on dealing with manufacturers and expresses her desire to support new, younger artists through the company (letter from Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark, 1945 March 27).

The correspondence gives details about a variety of exhibitions and artistic events taking place in and around London and Sussex (where the four were variously resident) and shows the respect Grant and Bell had for Kenneth Clark’s opinion on such matters. Grant seeks Clark’s advice regarding ideas Grant has had for a “modern section” of an exhibition of British artists and for a wartime exhibition of lithographs by artists including Graham Sutherland, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Eugène Delacroix, amongst others (letters from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Clark, 1937 November 17, 1945 February 23 and 1945 March 5.) Similarly, in a letter to Kenneth Clark, Vanessa Bell seeks out the “disinterested” opinion of the art historian on an exhibition of works by painter and critic Roger Fry following his death.

The high regard in which Grant and Bell held Kenneth Clark is also clear in their remarks on his criticism and ideas. Throughout their friendship, Clark sent both artists copies of his latest publications and both are enthusiastic in the feedback they give him in their letters. Two letters, sent to the Clarks on Kenneth Clark’s presentation of his 1956 book The Nude: a study in ideal form to both artists, especially convey the way in which Clark influenced opinion and discussion in Grant and Bell’s artistic partnership. Grant tells the Clarks that he and Bell were “delighted” by the gift, commenting that they “are all, in various degrees, interested in Sex and Art” (letter from Duncan Grant to Jane and Kenneth Clark, 1956 December 7.) In a letter to Kenneth and Jane Clark from Vanessa Bell, written the same day, Bell jovially informs Kenneth Clark that he has divided their “apparently united household” and remarks that he has "written something which is evidently going to stir us all up and make us talk and think and dispute and try to find out what we really feel about the things we care most for" (letter from Vanessa Bell to Jane and Kenneth Clark, 1956 December 7). Other letters in the collection provide an insight into Grant and Bell’s responses to Clark’s Looking at Pictures and Ruskin Today (letter from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Clark, 1964 December 4, and from Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark 1960 December 19.) However, while Bell and Grant clearly venerate Clark’s ideas, the regard held by Clark for the two artists is also apparent. The influence held by their opinion on his professional decisions is perhaps discernible in a letter sent by Grant to Jane Clark in which Grant entreats her to encourage her husband to publish his studies on the work of Rembrandt. Three years later, Clark did indeed publish a book on Rembrandt, titled Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance.

The collection provides a glimpse into the wider connections the letters’ authors and recipients held in the artistic, literary and cultural world of twentieth century Britain. Throughout the correspondence, references are made to a plethora of artists, authors and other creatives who make visits to Grant and Bell, collaborate with them on projects and invite their involvement in various exhibitions and events. These acquaintances include, among others, the writer, J.R. Ackerley, critic and journalist, Desmond McCarthy and art collector, W.W. Winkworth (letter from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Clark, 1961 October 19; to Jane Clark 1949 July 28, and from Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark 1933 May 11). Frequently, Grant and Bell, especially, make references to “Roger,” their friend and painter Roger Fry. The close relationship held between Fry, Bell, Grant and the Clarks is obvious in a letter where Bell writes to Jane Clark to say that Fry has suggested that a screen Bell is producing for Clark will not go well with the existing decoration in Clark’s bedroom (letter from Vanessa Bell to Jane Clark 1933 May 24).

Broader developments and happenings in the contemporary art and manufacturing scene are discussed frequently throughout the correspondence. For instance, Grant writes to Jane Clark about her promise to finance the printing for the first prospectus for Claude Rogers and John Passmore’s Euston Road School (letter from Duncan Grant to Jane Clark, 1937). References are made throughout the letters to various art dealers, galleries and institutes, including Colnaghi, Agnew’s, the Lefevre Gallery and The Courtauld Institute of Art and much of Bell, Grant and the Clarks’ discussion of their Famous Women Dinner Service revolves around which pottery manufacturer to use. Indeed, regarding this last topic, the letters give specific details about the operations of various prominent pottery companies including Wedgwood, Poole Pottery and The Ashtead Pottery, the last of which Bell discloses has closed “owing to hard times” (letter from Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark 1933 January 6). The collection items themselves are also indicative of the expansion of the mass production of art witnessed in the lead-up to the period. For instance, two of Grant’s missives to Clark are written on postcard reproductions of artworks by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Andrea Mantegna (postcards from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Clark, 1936 and 1942 August 8.)

Perhaps the most obvious external influence in the artistic contexts described in the correspondence is that of the Second World War and many of the letters relate to the artistic activities of the four during the conflict. Kenneth Clark was the Chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, a government agency established to artistically document the war. Clark commissioned Grant to paint St Paul’s Cathedral, new perspectives of which had been revealed due to bomb damage sustained during the Blitz. The new views of the city revealed by bombings are described by Grant in one letter as making London look “like Ancient Rome” (letter from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Grant, 1941). In the same year, Grant suggests to Clark that he commission Quentin Bell to create wartime agricultural works (letter from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Clark, 1941 November 29.) In addition to the production of artistic works, wartime efforts to exhibit art are evident in the correspondence. Ten letters from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Clark revolve around requests by Grant to Clark to lend pieces to Miller’s, a gallery – founded by Frances Byng Stamper and Caroline Lucas – operating from 1941 to 1945 in Lewes, Sussex. The letters show that Clark was able to help the gallery exhibit works by a number of prominent artists including Constantin Brâncuși, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Edgar Degas (letters from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Clark, 1941 November 29 and 1942 January 12.)

The collection also offers an insight into the way in which technology influenced both artistic practice and day to day life in the first half of the twentieth century. Grant’s letters especially reveal how the development of photography and photographic slides changed the ways in which art was displayed, although often his writings reveal that these technologies continue to require a level of expertise. In one instance, for example, Grant writes to Kenneth Clark to change the date of a lecture he is giving in Lewes so that the chemist will be available to “manipulate the slides” (letter from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Clark, 1942 October 21). The expanding role of the telephone in facilitating everyday communication is also apparent in the letters and Vanessa Bell frequently tells the Clarks that they may “ring her up” in London if the wish to contact her and apologizes that her and Grant’s Sussex home, Charleston, is not yet fitted with a telephone (letter from Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark, 1935 March 30, and an undated letter to Jane Clark May 29.)

The letters convey close friendships between the four and record many important and poignant moments in their personal lives. Throughout the collection, Grant and Bell send their support to the Clarks on the occasion of family illness and thank the couple for their best wishes for their own household’s health, in turn. Four items stand out for the deeply emotive circumstances to which they pertain. One is a letter from Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark, thanking him for his sympathy note after the suicide of her sister, Virginia Woolf, in 1941. She writes that “it is a help to know that those besides those who her knew her well understand what they have lost” and encourages Clark, and the younger generation more widely, not to lose courage (letter from Vanessa Bell to Kenneth Clark 1941 April 15). Twenty years later, Grant penned similar letters to the Clarks on the death of Vanessa herself. Thanking Kenneth for his sympathy note, Grant tells his friend that letters "from people expressing their affection and admiration for Vanessa although they of course in a way add to one's sense of general loss, give one some courage to face up to one's own desolation" (letter from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Clark 1961 April 18). In a letter to Jane Clark, written the same day, Grant expresses the great pleasure that her memories of Bell have given him and notes that “several people in their letters have remembered [Bell’s] sense of humour. I now realise of course that this is true but I always took it for granted” (letter from Duncan Grant to Jane Clark 1961 April 18). A letter from Grant to Jane Clark in July 1937 relays the “terrible news” of the death of the poet, and son of Vanessa and Clive Bell, Julian Bell while working with the Red Cross during the Spanish Civil War. Grant writes frankly about the effect the event has had on Vanessa Bell, who “has completely collapsed physically. She is in bed & very weak & can hardly eat anything" (letter from Duncan Grant to Jane Clark 1937 July 21). In addition to such major life events, the correspondence also provides an insight into the more quotidian subjects that the four discussed, including the country walks surrounding Charleston and recommendations for dentists (letter from Duncan Grant to Kenneth Clark 1942 October 21 and an undated letter from Vanessa Bell to Jane Clark).


  • ca. 1920-ca.1969


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open without restriction.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund


The collection is arranged chronologically.


.42 Linear Feet (1 box)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The collection comprises correspondence from the artistic partners, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, to the art historian Kenneth Clark and his wife, Elizabeth “Jane” (née Martin).

Biographical / Historical

Duncan Grant (1885-1978) and Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) were British painters and designers associated with the Bloomsbury Group--an influential group of writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists who lived or worked in around Bloomsbury, London in the first half of the 20th century.

Born in Aviemore, Scotland in 1885, Duncan Grant studied at the Westminster School of Art from 1902 to 1905, where he was supported in his learning by the French painter, Simon Bussy. Grant went on to develop his artistic skills in both Italy and France, spending a year studying at Jacques-Émile Blanche’s Académie de La Palette school in Paris in 1906. In 1909, Grant moved to Fitzroy Square in London close to many members of what would become the Bloomsbury Group, including Virginia Woolf, then known as Virginia Stephen. The Bloomsbury Group came to have major influence on art, literature and philosophy and was at the forefront of changing ideas about sexuality, feminism and pacifism in the period. Duncan Grant was the friend, and lover, of many prominent members of the group, including Vanessa Bell, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey. In 1913, the painter and art critic Roger Fry established Omega Workshops, of which Grant and Vanessa Bell were directors. The workshops produced furniture, pottery and textiles and sought to provide an income to the young artists of the Bloomsbury Group, and others. During the First World War, Grant was a conscientious objector and he and Vanessa Bell set up a house (named Charleston) in Firle, Sussex, where they, and other conscientious objectors, lived and worked throughout and after the war. Although most of Grant’s love affairs were homosexual, Grant and Bell had a daughter named Angelica in 1918, who took the name of Bell’s husband, Clive Bell, with whom both Grant and Vanessa had an amicable relationship. Influenced by the Fauves and Cézanne in the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1910-11, Grant spent the early part of his career working in the Post-Impressionist mold. Grant’s artistic range was prodigious, with his works comprising a variety of mediums including paintings, textiles, pottery, theatre sets and costumes.

Born in London in 1879, Vanessa Bell was an artist similarly associated with the Bloomsbury Group. Although often overshadowed by her more famous sister, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell was an accomplished and influential artist in her own right. Bell was educated at home, taking drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook, before attending Sir Arthur Cope’s art school in 1896. She went on to study painting at the Royal Academy in 1901. After the deaths of her parents, Bell moved to Bloomsbury where, alongside her sister and brothers, she began to socialize with members of the Bloomsbury Group. Like Grant, Bell was inspired by the Post-Impressionists, creating works with distinctive vision and bold colors and forms. Later in her career, she turned to Abstraction. From the First World War onwards, Bell lived between Charleston and London, in unconventional households which at various periods included Grant, his lovers, her husband, art critic Clive Bell, and his lover Mary Hutchison, and her two sons by Bell, Julian and Quentin, and her daughter by Grant, Angelica. Bell’s children followed in their mother’s creative legacy, with Julian becoming a poet, Quentin an art historian and author and Angelica an artist. Bell’s creative output was extensive and eclectic, incorporating painting, photography, ceramics, fabrics, interiors, decorative screens and works on paper.

The recipients of Bell and Grant’s letters, Kenneth (1903-1983) and Elizabeth “Jane” Clark (née Martin) (1902-1976), met as students at Oxford University and married in 1927. Jane was the Irish daughter of Emily Winifred Dickson, the first female Fellow of any Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland or Britain. Kenneth Clark was a prominent British art historian, aesthete, author, museum director and broadcaster. Greatly influenced by John Ruskin, Clark began his career as fine art curator at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum, before going on to be the director of the National Gallery (at the age of 30). He remains the youngest person ever to hold the position. As Chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee, and as an advisor to the Ministry of Information, Clark was a major influence on the exhibition and commissioning of art during the Second World War and on the production of propaganda films to support the war effort in Britain. In his post-war career, Clark expanded into broadcasting; he was one of the founders of the Independent Television Authority in 1954 and his 1969 BBC television series Civilisation is often credited with determining the scope and direction of television documentary in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the latter years of his life, he acted as a trustee of the British Museum and served as Chancellor of the University of York. One his last projects in the artistic sphere was to support a campaign to create a Turner Gallery for the Turner Bequest.

Guide to the Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant letters to Kenneth Clark and Jane Clark
compiled by Victoria Hepburn; edited by Francis Lapka
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts Repository

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