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The Bloomsbury Group

John Simkin

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Several members of the Bloomsbury Group denied the group actually existed. While it is true that they never established an organisation with this name. Nor did they issue a manifesto or membership cards. However, several members did refer to the group of friends as the "Bloomsbury Group". They also had a significant influence on the arts during the first 30 years of the 20th Century.


After the death of their father, Leslie Stephen in 1904, his daughters Virginia Stephen and Vanessa Stephen moved to Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury. Their brother, Thoby Stephen, introduced them to some of his friends that he had met at the University of Cambridge. The group began meeting to discuss literary and artistic issues. The friends included Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett, Desmond MacCarthy, Mary MacCarthy, Duncan Grant, Arthur Waley and Saxon Sydney-Turner.

Ottoline Morrell also lived in Bloomsbury and in December 1908, had tea with Vanessa Stephen and Virginia Stephen at their home in Fitzroy Square. Virginia was especially impressed with Ottoline and confessed to Violet Dickinson that their relationship was like "sitting under a huge lily, absorbing pollen like a seduced bee." Vanessa believed that Ottoline was bisexual and that she was physically attracted to her sister. In her memoirs, Ottoline admitted that she was entranced by Virginia: "This strange, lovely, furtive creature never seemed to me to be made of common flesh and blood. She comes and goes, she folds her cloak around her and vanishes, having shot into her victim's heart a quiverful of teasing arrows." The women became close friends and from then on Morrell was considered by some to be a member of the Bloomsbury Group.

In 1910 Clive Bell met Roger Fry in a railway carriage between Cambridge and London. Later, Virginia Stephen recalled: "It must have been in 1910 I suppose that Clive one evening rushed upstairs in a state of the highest excitement. He had just had one of the most interesting conversations of his life. It was with Roger Fry. They had been discussing the theory of art for hours. He thought Roger Fry the most interesting person he had met since Cambridge days. So Roger appeared. He appeared, I seem to think, in a large ulster coat, every pocket of which was stuffed with a book, a paint box or something intriguing; special tips which he had bought from a little man in a back street; he had canvases under his arms; his hair flew; his eyes glowed."

From then on Roger Fry became a very important member of the Bloomsbury Group. Robert Trevelyan, an art collector, began buying Fry's work. Trevelyan told Paul Nash that "Fry was without doubt the high priest of art of the day, and could and did make artistic reputations overnight." In the summer of 1910, Fry and two other members of the group, Clive Bell and Desmond MacCarthy went to Paris and after visiting "Parisian dealers and private collectors, arranging an assortment of paintings to exhibit at the Grafton Galleries" in Mayfair. This included a selection of paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Édouard Manet, Paul Gauguin, André Derain and Vincent Van Gogh. As the author of Crisis of Brilliance (2009) has pointed out: "Although some of these paintings were already twenty or even thirty years old - and four of the five major artists represented were dead - they were new to most Londoners." This exhibition had a marked impression on the work of several English artists, including Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Spencer Gore.

The critic for The Pall Mall Gazette described the paintings as the "output of a lunatic asylum". Robert Ross of The Morning Post agreed claiming the "emotions of these painters... are of no interest except to the student of pathology and the specialist in abnormality". These comments were especially hurtful to Fry as his wife had recently been committed to an institution suffering from schizophrenia. Paul Nash recalled that he saw Claude Phillips, the art critic of The Daily Telegraph, on leaving the exhibition, "threw down his catalogue upon the threshold of the Grafton Galleries and stamped on it."

According to Hermione Lee, the author of Virginia Woolf (1996): "Those who belonged to it (Bloomsbury Group) said that it was a figment, or that it was too diverse to be categorisable. The origins of the term, as applied to a number of like-minded friends living in a particular area of London and involved mainly with the arts and politics are disputed. It seems to have started being used, as a joke, in 1910."

In 1913 Roger Fry joined with two other members of the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to form the Omega Workshops in 1913. Other artists involved included Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Percy Wyndham Lewis and Frederick Etchells. Fry's biographer, Anne-Pascale Bruneau has argued that: "It was an ideal platform for experimentation in abstract design, and for cross-fertilization between fine and applied arts.... However, in spite of a number of commissions for interior design, the company survived the war years with difficulty, and closed in 1919.

According to Hermione Lee, the author of Virginia Woolf (1996): "Those who belonged to it (Bloomsbury Group) said that it was a figment, or that it was too diverse to be categorisable. The origins of the term, as applied to a number of like-minded friends living in a particular area of London and involved mainly with the arts and politics are disputed. It seems to have started being used, as a joke, in 1910."

Philip Morrell and Ottoline Morrell purchased Garsington Manor near Oxford at the beginning of the First World War and it became a refuge for conscientious objectors. They worked on the property's farm as a way of escaping prosecution. It also became a meeting place for the Bloomsbury Group.

In 1917, Lytton Strachey set up home with Dora Carrington at Mill House, Tidmarsh, in Berkshire. Julia Strachey was a regular visitor to the house. In 1918 both Strachey and Carrington began an affair with Ralph Partridge. According to his biographer, Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum, they created: "A polygonal ménage that survived the various affairs of both without destroying the deep love that lasted the rest of their lives. Strachey's relation to Carrington was partly paternal; he gave her a literary education while she painted and managed the household. Ralph Partridge... became indispensable to both Strachey, who fell in love with him, and Carrington." Carrington and Partridge, both became members of the Bloomsbury Group.

Vanessa Bell lived with Duncan Grant and David Garnett, first at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk, then at Charleston Farmhouse, near Firle, where he undertook farm work until the end of the war. In 1918 Bell gave birth to Grant's child, Angelica Garnett. His biographer, Quentin Bell has argued: "Despite various homosexual allegiances in subsequent years, Grant's relationship with Vanessa Bell endured to the end; it became primarily a domestic and creative union, the two artists painting side by side, often in the same studio, admiring but also criticizing each other's efforts."

Frances Marshall, who later married Ralph Partridge, also became a member of the Bloomsbury Group. She later recalled in her autobiography, Memories (1981): "They were not a group, but a number of very different individuals, who shared certain attitudes to life, and happened to be friends or lovers. To say they were unconventional suggests deliberate flouting of rules; it was rather that they were quite uninterested in conventions, but passionately in ideas. Generally speaking they were left-wing, atheists, pacifists in the First World War, lovers of the arts and travel, avid readers, Francophiles. Apart from the various occupations such as writing, painting, economics, which they pursued with dedication, what they enjoyed most was talk - talk of every description, from the most abstract to the most hilariously ribald and profane."












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