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The ‘Monuments Woman’: Anne Olivier Bell

We remember the extraordinary life of art historian, editor and Bloomsbury Group member Anne Olivier Bell, who has died at the age of 102.

Anne Olivier-Bell motorbike dispatch service
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Anne Olivier Bell (far left) with the Motorbike Dispatch Service of the Ministry of Information

In November 1945, Anne Popham – a research assistant in the Ministry of Information – was approached at a party by ‘a foppish young man’, who asked if she would be interested in joining the Museums, Fine Arts and Archives branch of the Allies’ Control Commission. Known as the ‘Monuments Men’, this was a division made up of art historians who had accompanied allied troops into Italy trying to ensure that works of art and historic buildings were protected from bombing, and – where possible – returned to their owners.

Hunting stolen paintings: working with the Monuments Men

One of the first cohort of students joining the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1934, who had put her art history training to use in the Ministry of Information’s Photography Division, Anne Popham was well-qualified for the new task facing the Monuments Men immediately after the war: to track down and identify the vast numbers of paintings, sculptures and rare books which had been stolen by the Nazis and hidden in castles, monasteries and salt mines across Germany, and return them to their rightful owners. Joining an international group of 345 art historians, curators and archivists, Anne was one of the few ‘Monuments Women’ recruited.

The full story of the Monuments Men has still received relatively little recognition, although it was the subject of a 2014 film directed by George Clooney. However, the work of Anne and her colleagues played a vital role in preserving thousands of priceless works of art.

Life with the Bloomsbury Group

Even without her work as a Monuments Woman, Anne lived an extraordinary life by any standards. The daughter of A. E. ‘Hugh’ Popham, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, Anne studied at the Courtauld Institute before joining the Ministry of Information when the Second World War broke out, living in a Canonbury Square flatshare a few doors down from George Orwell.

After returning from Germany, Anne worked at the Arts Council, where she helped provide artists with canvas and paints, scarce resources in postwar Britain. This brought her into contact with Vanessa Bell – which led in turn to a romance with her son, Quentin, whom she married in 1952.

Anne’s life and career became intimately linked with the Bloomsbury Group. Working with her husband on his Woolf biography, in the 1970s Anne became the editor of the five-volume edition of The Diary of Virginia Woolf, a masterpiece of Bloomsbury scholarship.

Following the death of Vanessa Bell in 1961, Anne worked to restore Charleston, the Bloomsbury Group’s country house in the South Downs, and remained living in the nearby red-brick cottage she had shared with Quentin to the end of her life. One of the last links to both the Bloomsbury Group and the Monuments Men, Anne was awarded an MBE in 2014 for her services to literature and art. However, she remained self-deprecating about her achievements. ‘I haven’t any imagination,’ she remarked in a 2014 interview, ‘but I was lucky to spend my life among fascinating people.’

 

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