This article was previously published in the special edition, ALUMNAE (December 2018).
1916 – 2018
PG Dip 1937
An indomitable figure of twentieth-century culture, Anne Olivier Bell (née Popham) is an alumna whose substantial achievements, though very much appreciated, are too often hidden in the shadow of others. The only alumna to have lived through both the Representation of the People Act 1918 and its centenary, daughter of A.E. Popham, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, Bell grew up in Bloomsbury, and was immersed in the Bloomsbury Group (her first school was Marjorie Strachey’s on Gordon Square). Once adult, Bell trained in Germany to become an opera singer (one likes to think she crossed paths with Wilfrid) but, unsuccessful in launching a career in London, returned to the family trade and enrolled at the still young Courtauld Institute.
Bell is perhaps most widely known as one of the ‘Monuments Men’ – a group whose very name fails to acknowledge her contribution. At the outbreak of war, Bell had been working for a German art historian who was promptly interned, leaving her to join the Ministry of Information and serve as an air-raid warden during the Blitz. In the last year of the War, Bell was sent to Europe to protect art from further destruction and to recover works stolen by the Nazi regime and return them to their owners. The only woman on the team, she was responsible for the coordination of information and efforts, but garnered unpopularity from colleagues for her willingness to spend time with Germans, even when they could help uncover hidden artefacts. Largely overlooked by British authorities, the ‘Monuments Men’ were celebrated in a 2014 George Clooney film – Bell attended the UK premier at the age of 98, despite the film’s focus solely on men at the expense of others involved.
The majority of her life, however, was spend in fierce defence of the Bloomsbury Group. Following an invitation to Sussex to sit for a portrait by Vanessa Bell in 1950, Anne Olivier Bell was introduced to her son, Quentin Bell, whom she married two years later. After moving to Sussex for Quentin Bell to take up a professorship there, the pair worked on researching a monumental biography of his aunt, Virginia Woolf, which he published in 1972. Far more merit-worthy, however, are the five volumes of Woolf’s diaries that Bell published from 1977, edited with the benefit of her vast and detailed knowledge of the Bloomsbury Group’s complex happenings. Her work, recorded in the humble publication Editing Virginia Woolf’s Diaries, remains a pillar of Bloomsbury scholarship and earned her honorary degrees from the universities of Sussex and York.
By the ’70s Bell became the majestic matriarch of the Bloomsbury progeny and took on responsibility for the promotion of the group’s legacy. After the death of Duncan Grant in 1978, Bell established a trust for the preservation of Charleston Farmhouse, which was thus able to open to the public in 1986, and ensured the survival of the Bloomsbury Group’s ethos through the annual Charleston Festival. She offered discerning advice to those writing on the subject and remained as President of the Charleston Trust from its foundation in 1980 until her death in July this year.