Cressida, 55, is a dynamo of creativity. In her Hackney studio, her main work is producing a range of sheer, large silks, sold through her website and also at Charleston, the Bloomsbury Group’s country home in East Sussex, where her grandmother retreated in 1916 with artist Duncan Grant. “People have no idea what physical work printing is. It’s hard slog,” says Cressida.
These colourful silks are collected and worn by the likes of Joanna Lumley. One design, Mexican Tulips, will be made into a dress for the next series of ITV drama Mr Selfridge, specially printed on delicate chiffon to get the Thirties look.
Industrious like her ancestors, Cressida also sells rugs and hand-painted lamp shades with assured, vibrant patterns, and does book and magazine illustrations. In addition, she holds cake-decorating classes and is designing a mug for the Royal Academy.
“I just enjoy designing things,” she says. “The most fun ever is designing a new fabric pattern, printing it, and then trying it on and flouncing round the studio in it.”
All the Bells were and are artists. Raised in a farmhouse near Leeds by her father Quentin, a potter and academic, and her mother, Anne Olivier Bell, an art historian, Cressida was the youngest of three. Her elder brother, Julian, is a painter, and Virginia — now Nicholson — is a writer. “There were sculptures all over the garden and my father hand-sponged the bedroom I shared with Virginia.”
But Quentin’s pottery wheel and kiln were at Charleston, so the family moved to East Sussex, just a short drive away from the famous house with its painted rooms and romantic gardens. They went there every week. “And Duncan [Grant] came to dinner every Saturday. He was such a nice man, he never said an unkind word about anyone.”
In 1972, when Quentin published his prize-winning biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf (Vanessa’s sister), Cressida’s parents bought a shabby Georgian house in a then-grotty bit of Islington with the proceeds. It cost £18,000 and was intended as a pied-à-terre.
Then, Cressida, who had always wanted to be a designer, went to Saint Martin’s School of Art, followed by the Royal College of Art. At Saint Martin’s, her close contemporaries were the now world-famous milliner Stephen Jones, fashion designer John Galliano, and painter Peter Doig. At the RCA, she specialised in textiles, graduating with a master’s degree in 1984.
She immediately set up her first studio in Hackney, printing textiles. “Hackney was as cheap as chips, but it’s so posh these days,” she says.
By now, Cressida and her sister Virginia were living in the top half of the house in Islington. The area was still run-down, deserted at night. They had a sitting tenant downstairs, who paid £4.80 a week and had an outside loo. When he left in 1989, Cressida took over the house, at which point her Charleston gene came out and she let rip, decorating it with lots of colour and pattern.
“One day, the builders over the road, who had been watching me paint my bedroom walls with stripes, said, ‘Why don’t you just buy wallpaper, love?’” she laughs. She decorated several rooms with hand-crafted wallpaper, as well as painting lamp bases and lamp shades, a chest of drawers, and a fireplace surround. There are also two rugs she designed, made by Christopher Farr.
The kitchen, where the self-confessed party girl likes to give lively dinners, was inspired by Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. A riot of pure turquoise, cream and coral walls, it is adorned with Iznik plates, and shelves displaying her ceramics collection. There are also many pieces made by her father, including the tiles around the sink — decorated with the letter “V” for her sister — as well as many of his figurative ceramics, more tiles and a fireplace surround.
The little walled garden, for which Cressida designed prettily curved brick steps up from the kitchen, has a country feel. Its pocket-size lawn is surrounded by as many colourful, scented plants as she can pack in — geraniums, roses, lavender, agapanthus, an abundant vine and an apple tree. “I love colour and I love blowsy,” she says.
What she loves less is a cheeky, plump, bulb-eating squirrel, and she breaks off to shoo him away.
She built the back wall herself: “Virginia was hod-carrier, I was brickie.” Cressida’s long-term partner, DJ Paul Beecham, who she met when she was a student, lives in the house much of the time, while keeping his own house, too.
A pure artist who never stops working, Cressida thinks in patterns and designs, lives and works among them, and her versatile output is huge. She says her inheritance — the artistic reputation and output of the Bloomsbury Group — has affected her in terms of a sort of sensibility of line and colour.
“I’m proud of my background,” she says. “The Bloomsbury Group was revolutionary, they changed things, and I think that’s an impressive legacy.”
What it cost
- House in 1972: £18,000
- Estimated value now: £1.5 million
Cressida’s top tip
If you have a cheap old piece of wooden furniture you are bored with, why not paint it? Strip back or sand any old paint for a smooth finish, then prime it with ordinary emulsion, watered down a bit if the wood is bare. Once dry, paint with the base colour you want. Once that’s dry, draw your design in light pencil, then paint in using leftover paints or tester pots. Once thoroughly dry, varnish with semi-matt, matt or gloss varnish, according to the finish you want.
Get one of Cressida’s clever cookery posters with everything you need to cook lots of dishes. There’s one for vegetarians and for non-vegetarians, with each poster available for the discount price of £12 (plus £3 p&p, shipping to UK destinations only). Visit the Cressida Bell website and enter the code H&P in the coupon box on the left hand side of the shopping cart page.
- Shop for Cressida Bell’s silks and other designs.
- Help restore Charleston’s glorious painted interiors by crowdfunding through the Art Fund.