I can’t remember when I first became aware that my parents had named me Virginia Nicholson after my great-aunt. It must have been when I was quite small. Of course she was long dead, but my awareness of her combined feelings of awe and melancholy. Her very surname–Woolf–had frightful echoes of “Little Red Riding Hood“.
At some point, my father, Quentin Bell, told me that his aunt was a literary genius who had bouts of insanity. He said she had imagined that the birds outside her window were singing in Greek, and that King Edward VII was lurking in the garden undergrowth, spouting obscenities.
The “mad aunt” seemed comic to me at the time, but her story was overshadowed by fear and despair: She had ended her own life by drowning. The fallacy that literary gifts are closely allied to lunacy and melancholia lodged in my immature mind.
My own childhood in the early 1960s was a sunny one, untarnished by shades of the past. I was unaware of Woolf’s increasing fame, just as I was oblivious of Bloomsbury and all it stood for.
I had no notion that my grandmother Vanessa Bell and her lifelong companion-in-art Duncan Grant were foremost among the British Post-Impressionist painters, nor that my grandfather Clive Bell was the first critical advocate of Picasso and Matisse in the country.
The big biographies had yet to be written, the Tate Gallery retrospectives were unthought of, the movies were as yet unmade, As a child I wrote stories for the love of it. “She’ll be a write like Virginia…” my father would say.
My brother, sister, and I were taken on holiday to my grand-parents’ home in the soft landscape of the southern Sussex Downs, where my father had grown up in a remote country farmhouse named Charleston.
The three of us slept in the attic, in one corner of which was a strange curtained cupboard full a fantastical dressing-up things.
Downstairs, the room were progress of color and pattern: The green dining-room table, adorned with a necklace of white circles against a salmon background, glowed in front of black walls, hand-decorated with chevrons in gray, against which hung vivid paintings.
Matisse-style goldfish swam in a painted bowl on a mantel and on a rug on the drawing-room floor.
Flowers and sculptural forms in pink, lemon, and green processed across doors and cupboards, while, against an azure sky, full bosomed goddesses presided over the fireplace.
The house had its own pottery, too, where my father kept lovely slimy crocks of clay, and worked all summer long to replenish the household breakages. On wet days he taught us tachism, an abandoned art form ala Jackson Pollok: You aimed a brush loaded with paint at a piece of paper.
And there were days when my grandmother lured us into the studio with bribes: sixpence an hour to sit for her and Duncan.