Queer Places:
42, Evelyn-gardens, Kensington
1, Fitzgeorge-avenue, West Kensington, London
The Ashmolean Museum and Art Gallery, Oxford

Charles 'Charlie' Francis Bell (1871, Richmond, Surrey, England, UK - April 5, 1966, London, England, UK) was educated privately. In 1896, a family friend recommended him to Charles Drury Fortnum, who in turn suggested to Arthur Evans that he assist in the great Renaissance collection that Fortnum planned to bequeath to the University art gallery. Bell became Assistant Keeper at the Ashmolean Museum in 1896. It was around this time that he met the Renaissance art scholar Bernard Berenson. At that time, the collections of the Ashmolean were yet ungrouped, having been recently been moved into their new location. Bell organized and cataloged the collection on a very meager budget while Evans spent much time excavating in the middle east with Bell largely in administrative control of the Museum.

In 1908 it became The Ashmolean Museum and Art Gallery and in the following year Bell was made first Keeper of Fine Art. Bell rehung the collection, creating one of the most attractive museums in Britain. An expert in British Portraits he published little but had interesting influences.

He took a scholarly interest the portrait paintings held at Oxford, providing advice to Rachel E. Lane Poole (d. 1937), compiling a catalog of the collection. Bell was appointed secretary to the committee responsible for organizing the first of a series of exhibitions of Oxford historic portraits. He wrote other works on English portraiture quickly becoming an authority on the subject. In 1910 he was invited to succeed Lionel Cust as director of the National Portrait Gallery, but Bell declined, remaining at the Ashmolean the rest of his career. In 1911, he helped found the Walpole Society with Alexander J. Finberg (1866-1939) and Cust. Lane Poole's catalog of portraits, 1912, became the standard in the field. Bell also became interested in medieval ceramics and drawings, of which the Ashmolean had a strong collection.

T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) (1888-1935) brought fragments of pottery for identification and the two frequently discussed medieval art and architecture. Ultimately this resulted in Lawrence’s donations of Augustus John’s oil portrait of Feisal and charcoal sketch of D. G. Hogarth used in his ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ to the Ashmolean.

In 1922 Bell met and carefully shaped Oxford student Kenneth Clark’s early career. Clark’s first book,’ The Gothic Revival in Architecture’ was completed utilising Bell’s notes and is dedicated to him. Clark, notably friendly towards gay men such as Keith Vaughan and others, would succeed him at the Ashmolean.

Kenneth Clark wrote: "In 1922 I believed him to be an old man.... He was descended from one of the famous Macdonald sisters, and so was a cousin of Baldwin, Burne Jones and Rudyard Kipling, whom I never heard him mention, although his grandfather, Ambrose Poynter, had been one of Kipling's dearest friends. He had entree into every great collection and intellectually distinguished milieu in England and Italy. But he had no wish to shine in the great world, only to excel in certain precise and narrow branches of art history".

In fact, Bell was not a blood relation of the Macdonald sisters. He was the son of Robert Courtenay Bell (1816-1896), a banker, and Clara Poynter ( 1834-1927). His uncle Sir Edward John Poynter, director of the National Gallery, had married Agnes Macdonald, a sister of Edward Burne-Jones's wife; she was in turn aunt of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Bell was the great-great-grandson of Thomas Banks, the sculptor. His older brother, Edward Hamilton Bell, was the first curator of the John G. Johnson Collection, and assistant director, Pennsylvania Museum of Art.

In Italy, Bell introduced the young Clark to Berenson, now the scion of Renaissance art historians, though Bell held him in less esteem than art historians did.

In later years, Bell also fostered the education and career of Cambridge student Francis Watson, eventually director of the Wallace Collection.

He retired in 1931 and was succeeded by Clark.

He was a close friend of Edward Croft-Murray.

He willed his personal library to Watson. A homosexual connected in the larger circle of the famous Oxford esthetes, Bell published relatively little given his expertise. Colleagues remarked that the fastidious Bell preferred to have others publish his notes, as in the case of Clark's book on the Gothic revival, "so that others could take the blame". Some indication of his accomplishment lies in the dedication of books to him, which, in addition to Clark's The Gothic Revival (1929), included Osbert Sitwell's Winters of Content (1932). "He was a died-in-the-wool documentary art historian who disliked poetic effusion and admired those who attempted to put art history onto a scientific footing" (Whiteley). Geoffrey de Bellaigue wrote that Bell was a "fierce and acerbic art historian of great breadth of learning who set himself and others standards of perfection which few could achieve, let alone maintain." He was once observed kicking an exhibition catalog that he thought poorly written across his library floor.


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