The Monuments Men

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Anne Olivier Popham Bell ( 1916 - Present )

Anne Olivier Popham was born on June 20, 1916 in London, England. The second of six children, she was the daughter of A.E. ‘Hugh’ Popham, a distinguished authority on Italian drawings and Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. Her father was involved in the transfer to safety of the British Museum’s collection, which was moved to Wales in advance of the German Blitzkrieg on London.

Popham’s education directly prepared her for work as a Monuments Woman. She studied art history at the Courtauld Institute in London from 1934 to 1937 under art historian Anthony Blunt and worked in the Institute’s Conway Library. She then conducted research for the great expert on Peter Paul Rubens, Dr. Ludwig Burchard.

In 1941 Popham joined the Ministry of Information as a research assistant in the Photographs Division, and later the Publications Division, where her work was largely concerned with the production of informative booklets published by His Majesty’s Stationary Office. In 1945 she was recruited for service with the MFAA by another Rubens expert, Monuments Man Sqdr. Ldr. E. Christopher Norris, who had given lectures on the artist at the Courtauld Institute while Popham was a student. She was transferred to the MFAA Branch of the Control Commission for Germany, and in October was stationed at Bünde in Westphalia, the Divisional Headquarters. The highest ranking female officer at headquarters in Bünde, she was in charge of coordinating not only the day-to-day organization of the office, but also that of the Monuments Men in the field. Her meticulously detailed diaries from this time are preserved at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Following her return home from Germany in 1947, Popham joined the Art Department of the Arts Council of Great Britain. In this position, she prepared major exhibitions in London and the provinces, and served as editor of their respective exhibition catalogues.In 1952 she married Quentin Bell, who later became Professor of History and Theory of Art at both Leeds and Sussex Universities. He was the son of Clive and Vanessa Bell, central figures in the ‘Bloomsbury Group’, of which Vanessa’s sister, Virginia Woolf, was a participant. After raising three children, Anne Bell worked with her husband on research for his acclaimed 1972 biography of his aunt, Virginia Woolf. Thereafter, she undertook the editing of Woolf’s complete diaries, an exhaustive project which spanned twenty-five years and remains today as an authoritative source on Woolf. Published in five volumes, the project earned her an appointment as Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and two Honorary Doctorates from both York and Sussex Universities.

Anne Olivier Bell currently lives in Sussex, England near to Charleston, country home of the Bloomsbury Group. The Charleston Trust, of which she is Senior Trustee, has overseen the restoration of the historic house, which is now open to the public. The only known surviving British member of the MFAA, she is still actively associated with the Bloomsbury Group. In 2014 she was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for “services to Literature and the Arts.”