Julian Bell by Vanessa Bell

Vanessa Bells’ Bedroom: Julian Bell was the eldest child of Vanessa and Clive Bell. He spent much of his childhood at Charleston before going up to Cambridge, where he became a member of the Apostles much like many first generation Bloomsbury figures.  His first sexual encounter was with Anthony Blunt, the famed art historian who later confessed to being a Soviet spy. Julian Bell was a poet, and taught English in Wuhan, China before going to Spain as a volunteer ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War, where he lost his life in 1937.

Julian Bell, by Vanessa Bell 1908

Julian Bell, by Vanessa Bell 1908

This tender portrait by Vanessa Bell depicts her first-born son Julian sleeping.  Bell’s artistic gaze takes on a new maternal dimension, Bell turning to the medium of paint to express and explore the intensity of a new kind of love.  Mother and son developed a deep closeness, and throughout Julian’s life, his mother was his most important figure.

Julian felt no qualms in telling his mother of his first sexual experience in a letter of 1929, ‘My great news is about Ant[h]ony. I feel certain you won’t be upset or shaked at my telling you that we sleep together.’[1]

Vanessa Bell was quick to reassure her son, ‘You are right, of course, my dear, in thinking that I shall not be shocked – I am only delighted at anything that makes you happy.’[2]

The affair was not long lasting, and by the end of the year Bell had set his sights on the opposite sex.  Although he resumed heteronormative relationships from this point on, he was unusual in how candidly he spoke and wrote of his relationships with friends, family and the objects of his affections.  Against emotionalism, he felt compelled to speak the truth at all times.

Bell spent two years teaching at Wuhan University in China, returning after his affair with the dean’s wife was uncovered.  Unlike the pacifists of the first generation of the Bloomsbury group, Julian Bell felt a great compulsion to take part in the resistance in Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.  After lengthy debate the compromise of a volunteer ambulance driver role was settled on, as it was considered a safe position.  However, within weeks Bell was killed during heavy fighting, one of 500 volunteer men and women from Britain to suffer this fate.


[1] Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, Julian Bell: from Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War, Stanford, California: Standford University Press, 2012, p. 74.

[2] ibid, p. 75.

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