Picks and Pans Review: Vanessa Bell

updated 02/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Frances Spalding

The lives of most of the leading actors in Blooms-bury, that tight London literary enclave that thrived in the early decades of this century, have been dissected countless times. But Spalding has provided something new in this engrossing, if at times uncritical, study of the painter Vanessa Bell. She was admirably connected: sister of Virginia Woolf, wife of art critic Clive Bell, mistress of Roger Fry, another prominent critic, and then lifelong companion of the homosexual artist Duncan Grant. (Years later, in a characteristic Bloomsburian permutation, Vanessa's daughter, Angelica, would marry Grant's ex-lover David Garnett.) Vanessa accepted Clive's infidelities and Duncan's homosexuality so uncomplainingly that Spalding likens her to the 1460 Piero della Francesca painting Madonna della Misericordla. Throughout her lifetime Vanessa was, in fact, a radiant and soothing presence in Bloomsbury. Woolf once described her as "a bowl of golden water which brims but never overflows." Spalding's narrative is captivating, even if at times she tends to forget that while Bell was a major character, she was, after all, only a minor painter. (Ticknor & Fields, $22.95)

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