Quentin Bell, the younger son of Clive Heward Bell and his wife, Vanessa Bell, the daughter of Leslie Stephen, and the sister of Virginia Woolf, was born on 19th August 1910. He was brought up in the family home at 46 Gordon Square and at Charleston Farmhouse, near Firle. Like his brother, Julian Bell, he was educated at Leighton Park School, the Quaker boarding-school in Reading.
In 1933 Bell was forced to spend seven months in a sanatorium in Switzerland followed by convalescence near Monaco. In 1935 he returned to Italy and had his first exhibition at the Mayor Gallery. But later that year he decided to become a potter rather than a painter and enrolled himself at Burslem School of Art. While living in Stoke-on-Trent he became an active member of the Labour Party. Eventually he set up a studio at Charleston Farmhouse, where his artist mother Vanessa Bell and her former lover, Duncan Grant, also worked.
According to Leonard Woolf, Bell became a member of the Bloomsbury Group: "in the 1920's and 1930's when Old Bloomsbury narrowed and widened into a newer Bloomsbury, it lost through death Lytton (Strachey) and Roger (Fry) and added to its numbers, Julian, Quentin and Angelica Bell, and David (Bunny) Garnett."
His parents had been pacifists during the First World War. Bell was willing to joined the British Army after the outbreak of the Second World War but as was in poor health he was rejected on medical grounds. He therefore worked on the farm owned by John Maynard Keynes near Firle. He also joined his mother Vanessa Bell and her former lover, Duncan Grant, in providing wall-paintings at Berwick Church, that were completed in 1943. He was also employed by David Garnett in the political warfare department of the Foreign Office.
In 1947 Bell published his first major book, On Human Finery, a study of the history of fashion. He married the art historian, Olivier Popham, on 16th February 1952. Soon afterwards he became a senior lecturer at King's College, Newcastle upon Tyne. He moved to Leeds Art School in 1959. He also taught at Slade Art School and Hull Art School before in 1967 becoming professor of the history and theory of art at Sussex University.
Bell had been a member of the Bloomsbury Circle, a group that included Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell , Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, Adrian Stephen, E. M. Forster, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Desmond MacCarthy, Mary MacCarthy, Duncan Grant, Arthur Waley and Saxon Sydney-Turner. He was therefore in a good position to publish Bloomsbury (1968) and a two volume biography of his aunt, in his much acclaimed Virginia Woolf: A Biography (1972).
According to his biographer, Charles Saumarez Smith: "After retiring from his post at Sussex in 1975, Bell was able to spend more time and energy on his pottery. In 1985 he and his wife, Olivier, moved to a smaller house next door to the park in Firle and each morning he would wake up early and disappear to his kiln, only emerging for gin and ginger beer in the evening. He undertook a mixture of work, some rough, painted plates and mugs, which he saw as belonging to an artisan tradition, but also more ambitious ceramic sculpture. Neither style fitted comfortably within the work of contemporaries, as his pots were too utilitarian to be regarded as art and his ceramic sculpture too conventionally figurative. But this in no way deterred him from turning out a great amount of work which was both vigorous and affordable, a crossover between the Omega workshop and folk art."
Bell helped establish the Charleston Trust, which was responsible for saving his mother's house. Other books included a novel, The Brandon Papers (1985), a collection of essays and lectures in Bad Art (1989), and a series of character sketches, Elders and Betters (1995).