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A celebration of celebrities (a pride of lions)

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Vanessa Bell, by Frances Spalding. New York and New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields. 399 pp. $22.95. Artist Vanessa Bell sat serenely in the garden, making doll clothes for her children, . . . but her sister, writer Virginia Woolf, knew there were ''volcanoes under her sedate manner.''

Vanessa was a paradox. On the one hand, this quiet earth mother doted on her kin and stabilized her eccentric friends; on the other hand, her smoldering energy found release in living and loving as she pleased, with painting as her core.

Using largely unpublished sources, art historian Frances Spalding focuses on this artist, whose work has receded in public memory since the 1930s. Spalding includes a collection of black-and-white as well as color photographs of Vanessa's Post-Impressionist-influenced painting.

Vanessa's family and intimates - among them reviewer Clive Bell, art critic Roger Fry, and artist Duncan Grant - add texture to this tightly woven biography. All were part of England's Bloomsbury crowd, those upper-class intellectuals whose rebellious behavior and modernist art set the establishment on its ear.

Spalding does not judge the independent Vanessa - she just records an unconventional life. E.L. The Bread Box Papers, by Helen Hartman Gemmill. Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Dorrance & Co. 275 pp. $22.95.

E.L. was Dickens's ''little darling,'' Dumas's dinner guest, a character in Henry Adams's best-selling novel, ''Democracy.'' Elizabeth Lawrence, wife of a wealthy diplomat, was a 19th-century ''Auntie Mame'' whose conversation sparkled like the finest crystal on her dining table.

Writing letters as she traveled from Washington to London to the Continent, E. L. observed her times with an eye for customs, costume, and convention - an ear for drawing-room dialogue and behind-the-fan gossip.

With a cache of Elizabeth's letters recently discovered in an old family breadbox and a musty scrapbook of pressed flowers, photographs, and vintage post cards, the author stirs E. L. The Bread Box Papers into a tasty concoction - rich as plum pudding.

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