The Bloomsbury group made a significant contribution to modern British culture at the commencement of the 20th century. They rejected pervasive Victorian values of the time and held a common aesthetic that was inspiring and uplifting. They held common interests but often differing views, making it difficult to assign a singular doctrine to them. They remained close friends for over 30 years and included painters, writers, art critics and an economist. But who were they?
It began with a group of like-minded young men who met at Cambridge around 1899: Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Leonard Woolf, Thoby Stephan and Clive Bell. Thoby Stephan had two talented and beautiful sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, who, after their father’s death obtained relative freedom. The inheritance they received allowed them to purchase a house in Bloomsbury with their brother Adrian Stephan and it was here that the sisters would host gatherings for their brother’s friends. It was in 1910 that this group was first referred to as the ‘Bloomsberries’, although they themselves never sought to be known by any particular name.
Vanessa and Virginia were central to the group. Although similar, Virginia was more sensitive and expressive while Vanessa was more reserved and practical. They determined from a very young age that Vanessa was to be an artist and Virginia an author, and they were both largely self-taught in their chosen disciplines. Shortly after the death of their brother Thoby in 1907, Vanessa married his friend Clive Bell.
Other painters soon joined Vanessa, including Roger Fry and Duncan Grant (Strachey’s cousin). Fry was old and well travelled. He’d been impressed with the French contemporary artists he’d seen on his travels (including Matisse, Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh and Seurat) and was the first to name the movement ‘Post-Impressionism’. His legacy was the introduction of post-impressionist art to Britain by organizing an exhibition called ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionist’ in London during 1910, with a follow up exhibition in 1912. The exhibitions shocked the British public and had a significant influence on Vanessa and Grant.
The Bloomsbury group’s rejection of convention was not only in relation to the arts but also extended to social and moral conventions, enabling a sexual freedom that was not bound by Victorian middle class conservatism. Vanessa began a three-year affair with Fry, who encouraged her to experiment with her art by using a number of different techniques. Her painting became simplified and by 1914 the Bloomsbury painters had developed their own distinctive style of Post-Impressionism art.
By World War I, Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell was effectively over, although they never actually divorced and remained friends. Vanessa went on to begin a relationship with Grant that would last the rest of her life. Grant was charming but evasive, and had many homosexual relationships both before and during his relationship with Vanessa. His lovers included Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Vanessa’s brother Adrian Stephan and David Garnett who would one day marry Grant and Vanessa’s daughter Angelica.
In 1912 Vanessa’s younger sister, Virginia, married Leonard Woolf. Together they started the Hogarth Press, hand-printing books by Virginia Woolf and other members of the group. Virginia received critical acclaim for her writing style in novels including Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Hogarth press published works by other other up and coming authors, such as T.S Eliott. During the interwar period, the Hogarth Press started using commercial printers and grew from a hobby to a business. Through this press the Bloomsbury group continued to influence modern British culture. The business was eventually sold and still exists today under Random House Incorporated.
Not surprisingly, Bloomsbury group were conscientious objectors to the war, with some of the men avoided conscription by working on farms. This led Vanessa and Grant to purchase a run down rural property called Charleston in 1916. Being an old boarding house it easily accommodated many studios and visitors. Fry lived nearby and over the following decades Charleston became the summer meeting place for the Bloomsbury group. Clive Bell, David Garnett and Maynard Keynes all lived at Charleston for considerable periods; Virginia, Leonard Woolf and Lytton Strachey visited often. The house was decorated with Post-Impressionist inspired paintings on walls, doors and furniture.
During the 1930s the group started to disintegrate. Virginia’s mental health was declining and Strachey died 1931, followed by Fry in 1934. Three years later Julian Bell, the son of Vanessa and Clive, was killed in the Spanish Civil War. With the coming of World War 2 Vanessa’s London studio was bombed and Virginia committed suicide. Vanessa painted at Charleston up until her death in 1961. Grant died in 1978, aged 93.
The Charleston house still exists today as a museum and not only includes work by the Bloomsbury group but also works by Renoir, Picasso and Sickert. In 1999 the British Tate held a major retrospective of paintings by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry. The Bloomsbury group not only played a significant role in the history of British painting and literature but also continues to inspire artists around the world to this day.
Naylor, Gillian, “Bloomsbury: the artists, authors and designers themselves” (1990) The Octopus Group/Amazon Publishing.
MacCarthy, Fiona, “A radical regained” (23 October 1999), The Guardian, UK.
Dunn, Jane, “Virgina Woolf and Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy” (1990) Hachette Digital UK.