NEW YORK — Anne Olivier Bell, who edited the diaries of Virginia Woolf into five landmark volumes and was a rare surviving link to the Bloomsbury Group, the coterie of English artists and intellectuals prominent in the first half of the last century, died July 18 at her home in Firle, England. She was 102.
Her daughter Cressida Bell confirmed her death.
Anne Bell was also thought to be among the last members of the so-called Monuments Men, a unit that worked to protect and recover artworks during and after World War II. One of the many famous people with whom she rubbed elbows during her long life was George Clooney, who directed and starred in a 2014 movie about that unit. In a 2017 interview with The Scottish Daily Mail, she described meeting him at the film’s premiere.
“I said to him, ‘I’m very pleased indeed to see you, but I must confess, I don’t really know who you are,’ ” she said.
She was interviewed often late in life, and self-deprecation toward having been a part of so much history was generally her attitude.
“I haven’t any imagination,” she told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2014. “But I was lucky to spend my life among fascinating people.”
Anne Olivier Popham was born on June 20, 1916, in London. Her father, A.E. Popham, was an authority on Italian drawings and keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum. Her mother, Brynhild (Olivier) Popham was a cousin of the actor Laurence Olivier.
She attended St. Paul’s Girls School, then studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She had a relationship with artist Graham Bell, whose “Miss Anne Popham” (1937-38) is a portrait of her. They planned to marry once he could obtain a divorce, but when war came he enlisted in the Royal Air Force and was killed in a training accident in 1943.
During the war Mrs. Bell was a research assistant at the Ministry of Information, and just after the war ended in 1945 she was recruited to join the Monuments Men — the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section — which had been created in 1943 by the Allied armies and was still at work, although hostilities had ceased.
She was sent to the British zone of occupied Germany, where she coordinated the activities of officers in the field, who were trying to repair damaged churches and other things of architectural or artistic significance. The Axis enemies had been vanquished, but the preservationists had a new rival of sorts: the British army, which, she said, was not particularly conscious of artistic and cultural heritage.
“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,” she told The Telegraph. “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.’ ”
She returned to England in 1947. While working at the Arts Council of Britain, where she edited catalogs and helped prepare exhibitions, she met artist Vanessa Bell (no relation to Graham), a sister of Virginia Woolf. The sisters were central members of the Bloomsbury Group (named after a London district), along with E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and others.
Quentin Bell, a son of Vanessa and Clive Bell, began courting her. They married in 1952.
“I was 36 and thought I’d never meet anyone to love again,” she said years later, “so I was rather pleased.”
She assisted her husband in the writing of his 1972 book about his aunt, “Virginia Woolf: A Biography.” Then it was her turn: In 1977 she published “The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1.” She would edit four more volumes; the last was published in 1984.
“For Olivier (as she was generally known) her finest achievement was the painstaking editing of the five volumes of Virginia Woolf’s diaries,” her daughter said by e-mail. Just how painstaking that work was is evident from Anne Bell’s preface to the first volume, where she wrote of untangling the quirks of Woolf’s dates, abbreviations and more.
“Her spelling is so consistently good,” Bell wrote, “that the rare eccentricities are perpetuated (lovabilility is a lovely word); obvious inadvertencies have been silently corrected. Her spelling, often phonetic, of proper names is less reliable, but is retained, and the correct version given in a square bracket or footnote.”
Scholars and reviewers were quick to praise the diaries for illuminating a writer sometimes considered off-putting.
“For those who are afraid that Virginia Woolf is beyond their understanding,” Marcie Hershman wrote in reviewing the first volume in The Boston Globe, “this first diary will prove a fascinating rebuttal.”
Quentin Bell died in 1996. In addition to her daughter Cressida, Anne Bell is survived by another daughter, Virginia Nicholson; a son, Julian Bell; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Bell, who lived to be among the last links to several eras, was conscious of how time can cause matters once familiar to become obscure. In the 1980s she helped found the Charleston Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving a farmhouse associated with the Bloomsbury Group. In Volume 1 of the diaries, she talked about wanting to commit her knowledge to paper before it was gone.
“There is not likely to be another edition of these diaries for perhaps half a century,” she wrote. “In that time much pertinent information that I have acquired from within the circle of family and friends will have vanished for ever unless it be recorded now.
“Moreover, the obstacles and obscurities born of time and distance will become increasingly impenetrable; names that are household words to some may become — may already be — Greek to others. When Virginia Woolf wonders whether to stretch out her hand for Rob Roy or says she saw a painted lady near Glynde, can we be sure that she will be understood?”