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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Love my way

by Inga Walton, 5 July 2022

Virginia Woolf, 1902 George Charles Beresford
Virginia Woolf, 1902 George Charles Beresford. National Portrait Gallery, London. Purchased 1983. © National Portrait Gallery, London

‘Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.’
Virginia Woolf

With writers like Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry – and a reputation for rebellion, artistic experimentation and sexual freedom – it’s not surprising that the members who made up the Bloomsbury Group are still celebrated today. The recent exhibition Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love and Legacy, curated by Becky Gee at York Art Gallery in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, London, examined the artistic output and personal lives of the Bloomsbury coterie through paintings, sculpture, works on paper and published texts. It also drew on the growing interest in examining the Bloomsbury Group with a focus on sexual diversity and gender identity, and their legacy to the wider queer community and, indeed, to British art.

The show coincided with a new edition of the 1997 book The Bloomsbury Group by art historian Frances Spalding, who has published widely on the principal figures concerned. Yet ‘Bloomsbury’ remains a rather elastic term for a group that was never clearly delineated. It encompassed a fluctuating number of friends whose philosophies, interests, work and relationships overlapped, often harmoniously, and created a lingering mystique or ethos. As the American writer Dorothy Parker tartly remarked, the personalities associated with Bloomsbury, ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’. The emotional entanglements and unconventional living arrangements of various members of the Group were the subject of bewilderment to many contemporaries and continue to exert a fascination for audiences.

As the art historian Quentin Bell observed: ‘certainly they were not alone in protesting against the irrationality and cruelty of sexual superstition, but I think that they were more persistent and more thoroughgoing than most, if not all, of their contemporaries in their rejection of the claims to establish ethical canons for men and women. To this theoretical extremism they added a kind of cheerful shamelessness which could shock even those who, in principle, agreed with them.’

The Group had at its core the children of Julia Prinsep Jackson, by her second husband, historian and biographer Sir Leslie Stephen. A model for her aunt, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and the Pre-Raphaelite painters Sir Edward Burne-Jones and George Frederick Watts, Jackson was widowed in 1870. Her marriage to Stephen in 1878 produced Vanessa, Julian (Thoby), Adeline (Virginia) and Adrian. After their mother’s death, Vanessa managed the Stephen household and after the death of their father, she moved the siblings to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, a more ‘bohemian’ area of London.

The oft-reproduced portrait of the sylph-like Virginia (1902) by studio photographer George Charles Beresford is reminiscent of those of her mother by Cameron. In 1906, Beresford also photographed Thoby, who was associated with the elite discussion group the ‘Apostles’ while at Cambridge University. During his studies, Thoby befriended the writer and critic Giles (Lytton) Strachey, who had formed the ‘Midnight Society’, along with other undergraduate students from Trinity College, including Arthur (Clive) Bell and Leonard Woolf. All were influenced by the 1903 work Principia Ethica by Cambridge Fellow G.E. Moore, and Thoby invited his friends to the Stephen home to debate its precepts. From 1905, the ‘Thursday Club’ would meet in the evenings, allowing his sisters to join in.

1 Edward Carpenter, 1894 Roger Fry. National Portrait Gallery, London. Gift of the artist, 1930. © National Portrait Gallery, London. 2 E.M. Forster , 1920 Dora Carrington. National Portrait Gallery, London. Gift of Frances Catherine Partridge (née Marshall), 1969. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Through the Apostle connection, the novelist E.M. Forster came into the family’s orbit. In Howard’s End (1910), Margaret and Helen Schlegel are probably based on the Stephen sisters, and their younger brother Theobald (Tibby) Schlegel on Thoby, whose premature death from typhoid left his siblings and friends distraught. Forster was also a close friend of the poet and philosopher Edward Carpenter, whose striking full-length portrait by Roger Fry (1894) conveys a pensive air. An early activist for gay rights, Carpenter’s life with the working-class George Merrill was the basis for Forster’s posthumously published novel Maurice (1971). The character of the tall and affected undergraduate ‘Risley’ is based on Strachey.

1 Lytton Strachey, 1916 Dora Carrington. National Portrait Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Frances Catherine Partridge m(née Marshall), 2004. © National Portrait Gallery, London. 2 Dora Carrington, 1917 Lady Ottoline Morrell. National Portrait Gallery, London. Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Dame Helen Gardner Bequest, 2003. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Forster’s portrait from 1920 is by Dora (de Houghton) Carrington, a graduate of the Slade School of Art and an artist of considerable skill; her work received little critical attention during her lifetime. Carrington was ambivalent about her sexuality, but her riveting study of Strachey (1916) underscores how besotted she was with the homosexual writer. In 1922, she consented to marry Major Reginald Partridge, largely to preserve her relationship with Strachey, to whom she had become utterly devoted. The ménage à trois moved to Ham Spray House in Wiltshire in 1924, but Partridge, who worked for Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, left Carrington two years later. Two months after Strachey’s death from cancer in 1932, the utterly devastated Carrington killed herself.

In 1896, Vanessa attended Arthur Cope’s art school, and progressed to the Royal Academy in 1901, after which she transferred to the Slade School. Admired as a colourist, Vanessa went on to become a prominent painter and one of the first British artists to experiment with reductionism and abstraction. She brilliantly captured the ‘austere integrity’ of her brother-in-law, Woolf, in 1940.

Clive Bell had twice proposed to Vanessa and been rejected. Two days after Thoby’s death, he seized his opportunity and was accepted; the couple married in February 1907.

From a wealthy industrialist family, Bell won a scholarship in 1902 to study in Paris where his interest in art began. As a critic, he developed the theory of ‘significant form’, that art should provoke a strong emotional response. Describing Cézanne as ‘the Christopher Columbus of a new continent of form’, Bell was also a proponent of abstract art. After the birth of their two sons Julian and Quentin, by 1914 the Bell’s marriage had become ‘a masterpiece of tact’, each accommodating the dalliances of the other.

Virginia married Leonard Woolf in 1912, although her mental fragility soon rendered the relationship more akin to patient and carer than husband and wife. The third of ten children, Woolf came from a Jewish family who were not affluent. He won a scholarship to Trinity College, and was acutely aware that his wife’s family and his peers came from far more privileged backgrounds. Woolf had been a colonial administrator in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from 1904 to 1911, and these experiences formed the basis of his groundbreaking first novel The Village in the Jungle (1913). Virginia’s début novel The Voyage Out was published in 1915.

The Woolfs established the Hogarth Press in 1917, named after and located in their London home. This allowed them to publish experimental texts and provided a platform for upcoming modernist writers without editorial critique or interference. They published works by the likes of Dame Edith Sitwell, Logan Pearsall Smith, Katherine Mansfield and T.S. Eliot. The imprint’s most successful author was the novelist Vita Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson. Virginia’s affair with Sackville-West began in 1925 and lasted a decade, inspiring Woolf to write Orlando: A Biography (1928), the story of a nobleman who changes sex but doesn't age over the course of 300 years. Hogarth also published pamphlets about social and political issues, particularly women’s suffrage; in 1946 it was incorporated into Chatto & Windus.

Lytton Strachey’s charismatic cousin Duncan Grant was sent to live with the Strachey family when he was nine. Grant’s aunt, the suffragist Lady Strachey, encouraged his interest in painting. She enrolled him at the Westminster School of Art and introduced him to the French artist Simon Bussy, who became his tutor. Grant’s tendencies were predominantly homosexual, having affairs with his cousin Lytton, the economist John Maynard Keynes, writer David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, and with Adrian Stephen who would go on to become one of Britain’s first psychoanalysts. An omnipresent figure in the Bloomsbury Group, Grant met Vanessa via her brother, and their companionate relationship lasted over 50 years.

During his relationship with Garnett, Grant had a brief sexual encounter with Vanessa resulting in a child, Angelica, born in 1918. Grant’s portrait of Vanessa during this time, in a red dress and holding a rose, attests to their partnership. Bell obligingly accepted the child as his, and the young woman was only informed of her true parentage as a teenager. The torrid interplay of Bloomsbury relationships reached its zenith when Angelica married her natural father’s former lover Garnett in 1942. Sir Matthew Bracy Smith painted this ‘child of Bloomsbury’ around 1957, also wearing a vivid red dress. Garnett laid bare her feelings about her upbringing and its emotional impact in the sharply critical memoir Deceived With Kindness (1984).

In 1911, Vanessa had a liaison with the painter Roger Fry, a co-founder of The Burlington Magazine, of which he was editor from 1909 to 1919. A leading advocate of Post-Impressionism, a term he coined, Fry curated the landmark exhibitions Manet and the Post-Impressionists (1910) and The Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition (1912) at the Grafton Galleries. With a distrust of all things French that bordered on xenophobia, the British were shocked by the vibrant works of Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin, and the exhibitions occasioned a furore.

Fry founded the Omega Workshops in 1913 at 33 Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury with the intention of creating art ‘applied to the needs of everyday life’. It was a collective aesthetic project that produced artisan ceramics, textiles, furniture and book illustration with the intention of promoting equal cooperation among the participants. Co-directed by Vanessa and Grant, it provided employment opportunities for emerging artists, and lasted six years. William Roberts, RA was recommended to Fry and worked at the Omega until 1914. His satirical watercolour No! No! Roger, Cézanne Did Not Use It (1934) mocks the aesthetic preoccupations of his former employers.

In this work, Bell is pictured instructing his wife and Grant on Cézanne’s use of paint, whose self portrait is displayed on the wall behind, while Fry works on a floral composition. A fall at his London home led to Fry’s unexpected death in 1934. His sister Margery, an advocate for prison reform and one of the first women in Britain to become a magistrate, asked Virginia to write Fry’s biography. It was a task she struggled with, and the book’s publication in 1940, almost ten months after the Second World War began, met with mixed reviews.

The flamboyant personage of Lady Ottoline Cavendish-Bentinck had a significant influence on the social interactions of Bloomsbury members. The half-sister of William, sixth Duke of Portland, she married the lawyer and Liberal politician Philip Morrell in 1902. Imposingly tall with a penchant for theatrical dress and extravagant hats, she was, in the view of the writer Sir Osbert Sitwell, akin to ‘an animated public monument’. Lady Ottoline’s portrait by her former paramour Augustus John, RA reflects her strong features and regal bearing, but she felt, ‘the mouth is too open and indefinite, as if I was washing my teeth and all the foam was on my mouth’. Nonetheless, she subsequently bought the painting and hung it over the mantelpiece of her London house.

Lady Ottoline deployed her philanthropic spirit and cultural agency in the service of many artists, and the Morrells assisted those of their friends who declared themselves conscientious objectors to the First World War, including Strachey, Grant and Garnett. An avid amateur photographer, Lady Ottoline took hundreds of images of her guests at her various homes, but principally at Garsington Manor near Oxford, which she and Morrell acquired in 1915. It is thanks to her that we have so many candid images of her social milieu, and an insight into the private world of the Bloomsbury figures that accepted her largesse. Her output includes remarkable nude images of Carrington (1917) in the guise of a ‘living sculpture’.

The ballerina Lydia Lopokova joined Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1910, and was partnered with Vaslav Nijinsky. They toured to London in 1918, and Lady Ottoline introduced the star to her social circle including Grant, who painted her in the early 1940s. His former lover Keynes, created Baron Keynes of Tilton in 1942, became infatuated with Lopokova. The couple married in 1925 with Grant as best man, but Lopokova was snubbed by other Bloomsbury members who treated her as an interloper within their clique. Strachey remarked that Keynes, ‘with his curious typewriter intellect, he’s also so oddly and unexpectedly emotional’, but dismissed his wife as ‘canary-brained’. Virginia made use of Lopokova for the character of ‘Lucrezia Warren’ in Mrs Dalloway (1925), an Italian who is too limited to be a suitable wife for ‘Septimus Smith’.

Gwen Raverat, daughter of the astronomer Sir George Darwin (a son
of the naturalist Charles Darwin), shared a studio with Grant. While the two men were still romantically involved, she produced an expressive watercolour work of Keynes reading (c. 1908). His critics resorted to using Keynes’ sexual preferences and childlessness to discredit his theories. By the mid-1930s the Bloomsbury reputation was dimming, and its detractors became emboldened. The Group was increasingly perceived as a product of the leisured intelligentsia: elitist, pretentious and insular. The interconnectedness of its members led to Bloomsbury being regarded as ‘an influential social group which had succeeded in exercising a disproportionate amount of power in their wide areas of interest’.

In 1964, the exhibition Duncan Grant and His World, a celebration of the longest lived of the original Bloomsbury figures, reignited interest in this group of writers, thinkers and innovators. Virginia’s novels exerted a powerful influence on a new generation of feminists, as did her ideas about artistic and personal liberation. Referred to by the poet Sir Stephen Spender as ‘the most constructive and creative influence on English taste between the two wars’, the Group’s resistance to moral conventions and outmoded attitudes, their reputation for evading categorisations and indifference to sexual taboos, and their willingness to embrace the complexities of human experience, continue to resonate with subsequent generations. 


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