When George Clooney wrote The Monuments Men, about the mission to save art from the Nazis, he left out its only female member. Does Anne Olivier Bell mind? Not a bit
Anne Olivier Bell Photo: EVA VERMANDEL
In the New Year’s honours, Anne Olivier Bell received an MBE. At 97, she wasn’t impressed.
“When I used to read these lists, I’d think, ‘Commander of the British Empire – that’s quite grand.’ Member is not worth having, really. But my children said, ‘Go on’, so in the end I accepted.”
Bell was honoured for services to literature and art: recognition – slightly overdue – of the 25 years she spent meticulously editing the five volumes of diaries of her aunt-in-law, Virginia Woolf, and her work restoring Charleston, the country home of the Bloomsbury Group.
But the gong should also be seen as acknowledgement of a brief but vital chapter in Bell’s remarkable life: the 15 months she spent in Germany after the Second World War as the only female officer among the so-called Monuments Men, an Allied band of 350 art historians and scholars responsible for protecting historic buildings and artworks from the ravages of war. Formed in 1943, with its work continuing into the next decade, it returned to their rightful homes five million artworks seized by the Nazis for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum.
Previously a wartime footnote, the “men’s” achievements are now in the spotlight thanks to George Clooney and the imminent release of The Monuments Men, which he directed, co-wrote and in which he stars. Set during the final days of the war, the film focuses on the American officers’ raid on German salt mines, where priceless looted artworks were about to be destroyed, because the Nazis – realising their cause was lost – wanted no one else to claim them.
“I don’t know anything about the film,” Bell says. “I don’t know who George Clooney is, though I hear he’s very handsome.” Does she wish it featured her younger self? “Oh no! I’ve always been very shy.”
The last surviving member of the 60-strong British section of the Monuments Fine Arts and Archives unit, Bell studied at the Courtauld Institute in London and was working at the Ministry of Information when she was recruited aged 30. Her fiancé had been killed in the war and she’d thought “it was the end of the world”. Her posting gave her life renewed purpose.
“I was recruited by a very posh young man at a party,” she recalls, sitting in the cosy, book-jammed study of her cottage in the Sussex Downs, just three miles from Charleston. “I was bored by my work in the Ministry of Information, concerned about all the bombing and destruction, and had something of value to offer, so I agreed to go to Germany.”
Bell’s job, co-ordinating the work of British officers, was mundane compared to some but none the less essential. Granted the civilian ranking of major, she was stationed in Bünde, north-west Germany.
“I arranged where cars went, collected bids for materials to mend churches and cathedrals – and usually got about a tenth of about what people were asking for. It was interesting but sometimes very worrying. Conditions were awful, the roads were appalling, motor cars didn’t go and telephone calls kept breaking up three-quarters of the way through a conversation.”
There was constant tension with the British Army, which was focused on rebuilding the country and had little sympathy for saving art, museums and churches, instead of lives.
“The military caused us a lot of anxiety. We didn’t have much power and they were always trying to commandeer castles as their messes and we were always trying to stop them, because they’d ruin them. Then they wanted to flood some salt mines where a lot of material, like rare books from museums, had been stored, because they’d found unexploded mines. They said, ‘In three weeks’ time it’s going to be blown up.’ And we were saying, ‘You can’t do this.’”
The behaviour of other Allied forces disappointed her too.
“Some Americans, still in Germany, stole some of the art. They seemed to think they had a right to take away pictures as compensation for having to fight.” The Soviets had also removed pictures from where they had been stored in Berlin during the war. “Sadly, I found out that quite a few caught fire and were destroyed.”
Anne Olivier Bell at the Ministry of Information in 1942 (centre)|
She shows me a copy of her diaries, the originals of which are in the Imperial War Museum. On 17 November 1945 she writes: “German priests from the US zone arriving in Hamburg to claim church bells” (which had been commandeered to be melted down for armaments). “The pastors all got them back eventually but it took a long time.” And on 29 November: “Rodin statue found in Rhineland. Belonged to Düsseldorf.”
Living in military headquarters, Bell had little contact with local people but, as she was fluent in German, she did communicate regularly with museum directors, all of whom had to be interrogated to prove they had no Nazi sympathies before they could resume their posts.
“Once, I invited a very civilised, educated, intelligent curator to dine at the mess, to talk about how best to return artworks to museums, but some of the officers refused to eat with him. They said they could never sit down with a German. Silly!”
Bell’s work was honoured by the American government in 2007, and yet – conscious, perhaps, of the havoc that was wreaked on Germany by Allied bombings – the British government has never acknowledged the MFAA’s achievements. “I don’t think they noticed what we did at all,” she says, seemingly unconcerned.
Born in the middle of the First World War, Bell claims that she is now “deaf, half-blind and can’t remember anything”. Her mind, however, remains pin sharp. “It’s a bonus that I’m still here,” she says with a smile. Six years ago she crashed her car into her garden fence and emerged shaken and speaking with difficulty. Doctors said that she had brain cancer, and her family gathered at her bedside. “They gave me a few weeks.” But after a few months her speech began to recover. “It turned out it wasn’t cancer at all; it was a small stroke,” she says.
Bell had a bohemian upbringing. Her father, Ambrose Popham, was Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, while her mother, Brynhild Olivier (a cousin of Laurence Olivier), was a member of the Neo-Pagans, an upper-class social circle that had socialist sympathies and advocated a liberated, back-to-nature existence, including nude bathing. The writer Lytton Strachey, the economist John Maynard Keynes and the poet Rupert Brooke, who briefly courted Brynhild before becoming besotted with her sister, were all members.
Unusually for that period, when she was six Bell’s parents divorced. She attended a progressive, co-ed, vegetarian school in Hertfordshire, followed by St Paul’s Girls School, then studied art history at the Courtauld, where she met Graham Bell, a penniless artist. In 1937, on a lonely trip to Paris “doing” the galleries, she bumped into him again and felt a strong attraction.
“He was very entertaining, very interesting, very clever.” It was a shock when a friend asked him, “How’s your baby daughter?” “It never occurred to me he would be married, but the next day we went to the Louvre and he explained he was in an unhappy marriage, but in those days you couldn’t be divorced until you had been together three years.”
Back in London, Graham asked to paint her portrait. “That’s a well-known way of getting off with girls, so I was flattered,” Bell says, chortling. The result, in the Tate’s collection, shows a thoughtful young woman. “I never considered myself a beauty. I’ve got a large nose and a skinny face, but I think there’s something to look at.”
They planned to marry as soon as he could divorce. But then war broke out. Graham joined the RAF and Bell stayed in blitzed London, working at the Ministry of Information and as a volunteer air-raid warden. One day in 1943, when Graham was stationed in the north of England, Bell’s flatmate turned up at the Ministry with a telegram. Graham and his entire crew had been killed in a crash during a training exercise. “I’ve blotted out the misery of it,” she says now. “It was too painful. I thought, ‘That’s the end of everything I hoped for.’”
Anne Olivier Bell as an air raid warden (left)
After Germany, Bell worked in publishing and at the Arts Council, where she helped provide artists with canvas and paints, which were hard to come by then. One of those artists was Vanessa Bell (no relation to Graham), the sister of Virginia Woolf and linchpin of the surviving Bloomsbury set. “I’d been told Vanessa was secretive, that she never wanted to meet anyone.” But when she was introduced to Vanessa at a party “she was charming. She lived in the country and it was jolly difficult to find anyone who’d sit for her, so she asked me to do it.”
From 1950 she stayed several times at Charleston, sitting for Vanessa (although eventually her portrait was painted out and replaced by one of Vanessa’s daughter, Angelica). “It was lovely there, such luxury, with someone coming in to draw your curtains every morning,” she says.
The Bloomsbury Group was, of course, famous for its complex love affairs. Did she witness much bed-hopping? “No! The atmosphere was very respectable. Clive [Bell, Vanessa’s husband] had a great many mistresses but they never came. After dinner we used to go to the drawing-room and the others would talk about stuff like French literature that I didn’t like to contribute to. But once the others had gone to bed Vanessa and Duncan [Grant] used to talk about the family and things I could understand.”
Vanessa and Clive’s son Quentin, the ceramicist, was living in the house. “At first he seemed rather absurd to me, with his ginger beard. But then he asked if he could model my head in clay and was so nice to me that when he drove me to the station in the horse and cart I gave him a kiss when I said goodbye. Shortly afterwards I got a terrifically hot love letter, which quite knocked me over.”
The pair began courting and then went on holiday to Italy. “We had a lovely time and I suppose in the end I got pregnant. Quentin was thrilled.” Their 44-year marriage was to be one of the longest of the Bloomsbury unions. “I was 36 and thought I’d never meet anyone to love again, so I was rather pleased.”
Anne Olivier Bell with Quentin on their wedding day, 1952, and her daughter Virginia in 2011
Angelica, who died two years ago, criticised her upbringing (for one thing, she grew up thinking Clive Bell was her father, only to discover that in fact it was Duncan Grant), but Quentin always supported his mother. “He thought Angelica had some of the facts wrong. I admired her, she was a marvellous cook and brought up four children, but she did have an unhappy life.”
The couple had three children: the author Virginia Nicholson, and Julian and Cressida, who are artists. Quentin wrote an acclaimed biography of Virginia Woolf, while Bell edited her diaries.
Having only ever seen Woolf at a party she attended with Graham (“in a long, red dress looking very distinguished and beautiful, but I would never have dared speak to her”) for 25 years Bell immersed herself in her world. “Some people said Bloomsbury was pretentious nonsense and they were a lot of twits, but Virginia was a wonderful human being, though I’m not so addicted to her novels. I wouldn’t re-read them for pleasure.”
After Vanessa’s death in 1961, Bell also became keeper of the Charleston flame, helping restore the house, which now attracts 25,000 visitors a year. It will celebrate its centenary in 2016, the same year as Bell. She says she’s too old “to do anything anymore”, but, as the last link to the Bloomsbury Group and the Monuments Men, she is still sought out by visitors from all over the world. “I haven’t any imagination,” she says, cheerily. “But I was lucky to spend my life among fascinating people.”