The Bloomsbury Group was an informal, early 20th century salon of influential artists and intellectuals who lived in or regularly visited Bloomsbury and its surrounds. At different times, several of them occupied homes on Tavistock Square, and on the eastern side of leafy Gordon Square, below (see map at bottom of page).
Leonard Woolf wrote in his 1964 Beginning Again – an Autobiography of the Years 1911 to 1918:
“…What came to be called ‘Bloomsbury’ by the outside world never existed in the form given to it by the outside world. For ‘Bloomsbury’ was and is currently used as a term – usually of abuse – applied to a large imaginary group of persons with largely imaginary objects and characteristics. ..there have often been groups of people, writers and artists, who were not only friends, but were consciously united by a common doctrine and object, or purpose artistic or social. The utilitarians, the Lake poets, the French impressionists, the English pre-Raphaelites were groups of this kind. Our group was quite different. Its basis was friendship, which in some causes developed into love and marriage. The colour of our minds and thought has been given to us by the climate of Cambridge and [G. E.] Moore’s philosophy, much as the climate of England gives one colour to the face of an Englishman…But we have no common theory, system, or principles which we wanted to convert the world to: we were not proselytizers, missionaries, crusaders, or even propagandists…”
The group’s core members were:
Virginia grew up in a colourful, intellectual household, but while her brothers went to university, she and her sisters were educated at home. Her mother, Julia Jackson, was a model for the pre-Raphaelites, and her father, Leslie Stephen (1832 – 1904), was a noted author, historian and editor of the National Dictionary of Biography, whose first marriage was to the daughter of Vanity Fair author, William Makepeace Thackeray (1811 – 1863).
The early death of her mother and half-sister led to the first of her nervous breakdowns, and she would go on to suffer regular bouts of depression. Despite this, Virginia produced manyinfluential books including Orlando, Mrs Dalloway, and A Room of One’s Own.
Her sister Vanessa Bell illustrated many of her book jackets and painted many portraits of her (including the one above). Praised by some critics for her use of “stream of consciousness” and innovation with language, others point to Woolf’s elitism and lack of empathy towards the common reader as general flaws in her work. Virginia famously committed suicide by drowning, filling her coat pockets with stones, and walking into the River Ouse.
A member of the Cambridge Apostles while at university, Leonard worked as a civil servant in Ceylon before settling back in England, marrying Virginia and turning his hand to writing and publishing. His first book was The Village in the Jungle. He too suffered from depression, yet managed to care for Virginia throughout her difficult times, and together they founded Hogarth Press, which published several Bloomsbury Group authors as well as works on psychoanalysis and foreign literature translations. His portrait, above, is by Vanessa Bell. Virginia & Leonard Woolf’s ashes were buried at their East Sussex retreat, Monks House.
Vanessa was Virginia’s elder sister, and after being similarly home educated, she went on to study at art school and the Royal Academy. Following the deaths of both parents, she and Virginia moved with their brothers to Bloomsbury, where they encountered many of the others who would form the Bloomsbury Group. She married Clive Bell in 1907, although their marriage was mostly an open one, with many affairs on both sides. Vanessa had children with both her husband and with the artist Duncan Grant – the latter painted her while she was pregnant with his daughter (right).
Here, Vanessa and Duncan produced work for Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops.
Other members of the Bloomsbury Group were frequent guests, and some – like John Maynard Keynes – had their own rooms permanently fitted out and decorated.
Vanessa Bell is buried beside Duncan Grant in St Peter churchyard, close to Charleston Farmhouse.
Clive Bell studied in Cambridge and Paris, where his interest in art was kindled. He was a champion of formalism in aesthetics, and believed that an artwork’s value is in its ability to bring about an aesthetic emotional response in the viewer. In his 1914 book, Art, Clive wrote:
“The starting point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a peculiar emotion. The objects that provoke this emotion we call works of art… In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions…Art is above morals, or, rather, all art is moral because…works of art are immediate means to good…To associate art with politics is always a mistake…to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions…To appreciate fully a work of art we require nothing but sensibility…I can say whether this picture is better than that without the help of history.”
- Artist Duncan Grant (1885 – 1978).
Duncan Grant (self portrait above right) studied art in London, Italy and Paris, and was introduced to the Bloomsbury Group through his relation and one-time lover, Lytton Strachey. He would go on to have affairs with John Maynard Keynes and Vanessa Bell. With Vanessa, he became a co-director of Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops. Clive Bell wrote, in his Review of Duncan Grant Exhibition 1920:
“…[Duncan Grant] often starts from some mixed motif which, as he labours to reduce it to form and colour, he cuts, chips, and knocks about till you would suppose that he must have quite whittled the alloy away. But the fact is, the very material out of which he builds is coloured in poetry. The thing he has to build is a monument of pure visual art: that is what he plans, designs, elaborates, and finally executes.”
Roger Fry wrote of Grant in Living Painters, 1932:
“Gifted as he is with a peculiarly delightful rhythmic sense and an exquisite taste in colour, he is particularly fitted to apply his talents to decoration. When he was working at Omega workshops his fellow-artists all recognized the peculiar charm, the unexpected originality, and the rare distinction of his ideas, and I should be inclined to say that some of the designs which he then made for carpets, for marquetry, and for needlework represent the high-water mark of applied design in England.”
During his time at Charleston Farmhouse, Duncan and Vanessa created murals for the local church, St Michael & All Angels in Berwick.
- Economist John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946).
Eton and Cambridge-educated John Maynard Keynes – another Cambridge Apostle - was a civil servant, a patron of the arts, and the father of modern macroeconomics. “Keynesian” economic theory was adopted by many Western nations after WWII.
In 1919 he represented the Treasury at the Versailles Peace Conference, and was opposed to the harsh reparations placed on Germany, fearing the consequences on Germany and the wider world. In the same year he published The Economic Consequences of the Peace. His 1936 General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money challenged the prevailing belief that an unfettered market would naturally reach full employment equilibrium. Towards the end of WWII, Keynes was a key figure in the creation of the Bretton Woods system, and what would become the IMF and the World Bank.
He wrote in My Early Beliefs, 1949:
“…[G.E.] Moore’s Principia Ethica came out at the end of my first year [at Cambridge]…its effect on us, and the talk which preceded and followed it, dominated and perhaps still dominate everything else…Moore himself was a puritan and precisian. Strachey…a Voltarian. [Leonard] Woolf a rabbi. Myself a non-conformist…Clive a gay and amiable dog…We did not see much of [E.M.] Forster at that time, who was already the elusive colt of a dark horse. It was only for us, those who were active in 1903 that Moore completely ousted McTaggart, Dickinson, [Bertrand] Russell…The influence was not only overwhelming…it was exhilarating, the beginning of a renaissance, the opening of a new heaven on a new earth, we were the forerunners of a new dispensation, we were not afraid of anything…We were among the last of the Utopians…who believe in continuing moral progress by virtue of which the human race already consists of reliable, rational, decent people, influenced by truth and objective standards, who can be safely released from the outward restraints of convention and traditional standards and inflexible rules of conduct, and left, from now onwards, to their own sensible devices, pure motives and reliable intuitions of the good…”
Keynes lived for a time in Gordon Square, and was romantically involved with at least two members of the Bloomsbury Group, Duncan Grant and Lytton Stachey, although in 1925 he married Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova (1892 – 1981). Their portrait, above, is by William Roberts (1895 – 1980). Keynes collected artworks by Picasso, Cezanne, Degas and other painters, and was involved in the purchase and protection of the papers of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727).
- Writer Lytton Strachey (1880 – 1932).
Lytton Strachey, educated at Cambridge, was another member of the Cambridge Apostles. He rose to prominence with his 1918 biographical work, Eminent Victorians, in which he skewered the previously revered Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon. In the preface, he wrote:
“The history of the Victorian Age will never be written; we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian – ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art…It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict that singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.”
Strachey entered the Bloomsbury Group through his friendships with Clive Bell and Thoby Stephens (1880 – 1906), and had affairs with several of its male members, while maintaining a long live-in relationship with the artist Dora Carrington (1893 – 1932), above. Her portrait of Lytton is above. Dora herself married Ralph Partridge (1894 – 1960), creating a ménage à trois.
Lytton Strachey’s ashes were given to Dora, and only two months after Lytton’s death, Dora committed suicide.
- Artist and critic Roger Fry (1866 – 1934).
Roger Fry (self portrait above) studied at Cambridge, and like many other Bloomsbury Group members, was a Cambridge Apostle. He studied art in Italy and Paris, and was introduced to the Bloomsbury Group by Clive and Vanessa Bell, with whom he had an affair. Roger taught art history in London, and was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He was also pivotal in the promotion of the modern French artists, including Cezanne, Matisse and Gaugin.
In 1913 Roger founded the Omega Workshops. He described the venture in a letter of 1912:
“I am intending to start a workshop for decorative and applied art. I find that there are many young artists whose paintings show strong decorative feeling, who will be glad to use their talents on applied art both as a means of livelihood and as an advantage to their work as painters and sculptors…I wish to develop a definitely English tradition…There is no reason whatever why people should not return to the more normal custom of employing contemporary artists to design their furniture and hangings, if only the artist can produce vital and original work…I propose to begin with those crafts in which painters can most easily and readily engage – the design of wall decorations in tempera and mosaic; of printed cotonnades; of silks painted in Gobelin dyes for curtains and dresses; painted screens; painted furniture. I hope to develop gradually the application of our designs to weaving, pottery and furniture construction…”
Roger Fry was buried in a vault in Kings College Chapel, Cambridge. His casket was decorated by Vanessa Bell. Virginia Woolf wrote his biography in 1940.
Photos by Sven Klinge
(please credit photographer & website when using these photos)
(Historical images from Wikipedia)
- The Bloomsbury Group by Frances Spalding
- Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900 – 1939 by Virginia Nicholson
- Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Gardens by Quentin Bell & Virginia Nicholson
- The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant by Richard Shone
- Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
- Keynes: The Twentieth Century’s Most Influential Economist by Peter Clarke
(Portraits courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)