Category Archives: The Bloomsberries

Vanessa Bell (1879 to 1961) artist and interior decorator



Portrait of Vanessa Bell by Roger Fry 1916: Wikipedia, Public Domain.

Vanessa was Virginia’s sister and like Virginia, she was educated at home. She studied languages, maths and history and had drawing lessons. Vanessa went on to study painting at the Royal Academy, London and at the Slade School of Art.

During my research for this post, I have read that Vanessa began at ‘The Slade’ in 1901. The Slade is the art school of The University College London and is world renowned. However, though she apparently started there I can’t see her name amongst the Slade’s notable alumni, nor indeed on any alumni list. I can see Duncan Grant’s name there (and incidentally, Antony Gormley’s*) but not Vanessa’s.

I wonder if Vanessa actually finished her degree?

Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell in 1907 and although they remained close and never divorced, she drifted in to a relationship with Duncan Grant. They had the same artistic taste and were on the same wavelength in their creativity. Duncan had homosexual relationships but remained close to Vanessa and they had a daughter, Angelica, together.

Vanessa excelled in portraits but she preferred to paint still lifes and interiors until in 1914 she focused more on abstraction. Vanessa was influenced by viewing works by Picasso and Manet which turned her attentions towards abstract painting. Her paintings showed a departure from reality, compositions were simplified and colours were vibrant. Vanessa chose real life subject matter but she distorted colour and form by simplifying the subject and using broad bands of colour.  In one painting of Virginia she paints none of her facial features; a characteristic of abstract painting.

Abstract painting exists on a scale of departure from reality. Forgive my ignorance as I am not an expert in the visual arts but I see abstraction as being on a scale from 1-10 with 1 being a recognisable realistic interpretation of a subject (e.g. a portrait that you can recognise as a person) to 10 being unrecognisable as any real life subject.

In my degree days we briefly studied Rothko and his paintings using blocks of colour and rectangular shapes. These are paintings that I would score as a ’10’ on my abstraction scale and indeed, Vanessa did paint in this manner. However, the painting I mentioned above that shows no facial features I would score as perhaps a ‘4’ as Virginia is clearly recognisable as a person even if not as herself.

Vanessa’s creativity did not stop at paintings. Her style was to decorate walls, doors, furniture, ceramics, fabric, and in fact any surface you could think of.  When I visited Charleston Farmhouse earlier this year, I noticed that even the side of the bath didn’t escape!

  • Gormley is another of my faves but maybe that needs to be another blog!

David (Bunny) Garnett (1892 to 1981) writer

I don’t know why but I expected David Garnett to be, well, not that interesting. How wrong I was. From literary parents, botany, bookshops and big houses to women turning into animals, complicated relationships and  Aspects of Love.

Q. Why ‘Bunny’?

A. Garnett, as a child, had a coat made of rabbit skin which earned him the lifelong nickname of ‘Bunny”

Garnett was a student of botany at The Royal College of Science. He was not a Cambridge person but he was a member of Adrian Stephen’s poker group where he met Duncan Grant. David and Duncan became a couple. They both lived with Vanessa Bell who was also having a relationship with Duncan. Vanessa at this time was married to the art critic, Clive Bell but she had a daughter (Angelica) with Duncan. Twenty years later, David married Angelica. Confused? So am I.

David was from a very bookish family. His father, Edward Garnett, was a reader for the publisher Jonathan Cape and his mother was a distinguished translator of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev which enabled the Russian classics to be introduced to many British readers.

After the First World War, David opened a bookshop in Bloomsbury. It was here that he got to know several members of the Bloomsbury group who met there to discuss art and literature. On 30 March 1921 Garnett married Rachel Marshall and they had two sons.

In 1922 he had great success with a fantasy novel titled:

Lady into Fox.


Photo: Courtesy of Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain)

This short novel is about a new wife, Sylvia, who, when out walking in the woods with her husband, physically turns into a fox.  He smuggles her home under his coat and dismisses the servants.

If you had asked me to guess what David Garnett had written a book about I would not have guessed this in a million years.

Anyway, Sylvia who started out just a bit foxy in her ways but was still able to eat human food, sit at the dining table and sleep in their shared bed and such like, eventually takes on increasingly wild characteristics and her husband is beside himself, becoming depressed and anxious. You don’t say. Unable to cope any longer he releases her into the wid. He is pleased when she returns to show him her five new cubs. He gives them all names and plays with them every day. In the end, Sylvia is killed by dogs during a hunt. 

This guy certainly has a much more vivid imagination than me and it is certainly one to add to my reading list. Not a genre I would normally choose but I am intrigued with this.

The novel was a huge success and earned him a couple of major literary awards. The money he made from this book enabled him to buy Hilton Hall, an early seventeenth century house near Huntingdon.

Still married to Rachel Marshall, in 1938 Garnett began having an affair with Angelica and after his wife died of breast cancer in 1940 he married Angelica and went on to have four children with her.

Garnett continued to write novels and in 1955 he wrote the best selling Aspects of Love on which Andrew Lloyd Webber based his musical.

Garnett split up with Angelica and moved to France. He died of a brain haemorrhage in 1981. There was no funeral and his body was given to a French hospital for teaching purposes.

Clive Bell (1881 to 1964) art critic


Clive Bell died in the year that I was born. Clive was another Cambridge graduate (he gained a second class degree in History) and was from a wealthy background. His father was a civil engineer who made his fortune in the family coal mines.

Clive became Vanessa’s husband and they had two sons, Julian and Quentin. However, the marriage didn’t last too long and the Bells drifted into a lasting friendship instead. He remained part of the family really and later on in 1939, he actually lived at Charleston when Vanessa lived there with Duncan Grant.  Not your conventional set up.

Clive  spent much of his time reading and writing. He was a believer in ‘Art for arts sake’ and was primarily concerned with aesthetic rather than instrumental considerations.  Aestheticism and Instrumentalism were two major cultural and intellectual movements in modernist art and literature. Followers of Aestheticism believed in art for its own sake;  those inclined towards Instrumentalism believed that art should have  a purpose; social, moral, political. In reality though, no artist was completely indifferent to either school of thought.

You may be interested to read my essay on Eliot and Brecht, an aesthete and an instrumentalist. My essay on modernism shows how Eliot’s  poetry rejected traditional conventions of the late Victorian era and made the mundane aesthetically pleasing. It also shows how Brecht’s Instrumentalism is used to encourage social change. Not for the faint hearted.

Roger Fry (1866 to 1934) artist


(c) National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Roger Fry Self Portrait

Photo: Roger Fry (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Roger was another Cambridge bod, reading natural sciences. After gaining a first class (what else?) at Cambridge he went on to study painting in Paris and in Italy. My ‘berries’ don’t do things in halves. Fry went on to act as European advisor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and went on to organise the exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’. It all sounds very grand. Fry stuck his neck out and made it known that he thought artists such as Van Gough and Cezanne were the ones to watch, despite other art critics of the day not agreeing with him. Fry went on to teach Art History at the Slade School of Fine art and also founded the Omega Design Workshops which produced furniture, fabrics and carpets.

He was married in 1896 but his personal life was not without problems. His wife became seriously mentally ill and Roger had the almost impossible task in 1910 of agreeing, with her doctors, that she should spend the rest of her life in an asylum. That year, Fry met the Bloomsbury Group and the rest, is history. He did have a brief affair with Vanessa but then he found long term happiness with Helen Maitland Anrep. He died suddenly after a fall in 1934.

I really wanted Roger to be related in some way to Stephen Fry but my resident genealogist can find no link. Shame. He is closely related to the chocolate maker though.


Photo: Fry’s Creams by Kate Hopkins

Leonard Woolf (1880 to 1969) thinker



Photo: My own taken at Monk’s House, September 2015

Leonard Sidney Woolf was an author and political theorist. He was a British man of letters and publisher who influenced both literature and politics.

Q.  A (wo)man of letters?

A.  A (wo)man who is devoted to literary or scholarly pursuits.

In 1899 at the age of 19 Leonard won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met most of the other Bloomsberries. In 1904 he moved to what is now Sri Lanka to become a cadet in the Civil Service. To become a cadet the prerequisite was a first class honours degree in order to even be able to sit the exams. A very exclusive group.

To be honest though, much of the above doesn’t mean a great deal to me. Political Theorist? Cadet in the Civil Service? Who are these sorts of people?

Well, the following people were political theorists that I remember from my degree days. Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine, Friedrich Engels. Even Plato, Cicero and Marx. Big names. So, in my quest for understanding, I can put Leonard in to some sort of ‘place’ in my mind. Also, when I think of high ranking officials in the Civil Service I think of people like Chris Patten in Hong Kong. Leonard was not your average type of guy.

Well, Leonard resigned from his role in 1912 partly because he fell out with Imperialism and partly to marry Virginia. He then published The Village in the Jungle, a novel based on his Sri Lanka experiences but from the viewpoint of the indigenous people, not the colonisers. Another one to add to my reading list perhaps. I am reminded of Things Fall Apart, Achebe (another of my favourites).

Woolf went on to join the Labour Party and the Fabian Society and contributed to the New Statesman. In 1916 he wrote International Government, proposing an international agency to enforce world peace.

Leonard spent much of his life caring for Virginia and after her death he fell in love with a married artist, Trekkie Parsons.

I think I would have liked Leonard. It seems he was a man of integrity who worked hard for the right reasons. Apparently he never published a book purely for profit and he turned down a high position in the Civil Service in the hope that Virginia would marry him.

E M Forster (1879 to 1970) writer

First things first:

Q. What does E M stand for?

A. Edward Morgan



E M Forster was another one of the Bloomsbury ‘writers’, alongside Lytton Strachey and Virginia. ‘Writer’ doesn’t do him justice though. He was one of the leading English writers of the 20th century; a novelist, essayist, a social and literary critic and he lectured on literature at Cambridge University.

Although he was never a full ‘Bloom’ he related to the group because he was on the same page regarding non-conformity, the importance of personal relations and the dislike of old fashioned Victorian views.

Both Forster’s parents died in his childhood and he was left with an inheritance of  £8,000 (about £750k today). This money allowed him to be a writer.

The Schlegel sisters of Howards End (note, no apostrophe) are based to some degree on Vanessa and Virginia Stephens. This novel deals with the antagonism between two families, one interested in literature and art and the other in business.  Looks like I need to add this to my reading list.

Forster declined a knighthood in 1949.

His five famous novels: I bet you have heard of at least four of them.

Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905)

The Longest Journey (1907)

A Room with a View (1908)

Howards End (1910)

A Passage to India (1924)

Lytton Strachey (1880 to 1932) writer

Let’s start with the pronunciation:

I always pronounced it as ‘Strarky’ but, after hearing it said so many times on my visit to Charleston, I now stand corrected. It is ‘Strayshi’.



By Dora Carrington (1893-1932) ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lytton Strachey was born a couple of years before Virginia and died nine years before her.

Strachey’s most famous work is probably Eminent Victorians, a collection of four biographies of significant Victorians. One you will have heard of but probably not the other three. Strachey was admired for dragging the biography out of the Victorian era of saintly writings with an accessible, witty style. He presented the biography as art and made it entertaining. He wrote imaginative non-fiction.

I haven’t read the collection but apparently Strachey uses a lot of speculation mixed in with fact and humorously exposes Victorian values and attitudes. I may have to put it on my book ‘waiting list’ to read later.

One of Strachey’s eminent Victorians is Florence Nightingale (the one you will have heard of, and the only female in the collection). Below is an extract from the text.

It was very odd; what could be the matter with dear Flo? Mr. Nightingale suggested that a husband might be advisable; but the curious thing was that she seemed to take no interest in husbands. And with her attractions, and her accomplishments, too! There was nothing in the world to prevent her making a really brilliant match. But no! She would think of nothing but how to satisfy that singular craving of hers to be doing something. As if there was not plenty to do in any case, in the ordinary way, at home. There was the china to look after, and there was her father to be read to after dinner.  

It is so readable and don’t you just love, ‘there was the china to look after’?

Who were the Bloomsberries?

The Bloomsbury Group



Virginia died in 1941, two years before this painting, but she is represented by the left hand portrait on the wall behind the group. The other portraits are of Lytton Strachey who died in 1932 and Roger Fry who died in 1934.

A group of friends with shared interests and attitudes who were active in literature, art, economics, politics and social theory. When Leslie Stephen died, the Stephen siblings moved to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury to escape the gloom of Hyde Park. They rejected the constraints of the Victorian life they had previously led and welcomed Thoby’s Cambridge friends to their home. A close group of highly educated upper middle class friends was formed.

These people had shared interests and common beliefs and unconventional lives and became an influential group of writers, artists and intellectuals.

My main interest is in Virginia Woolf but I am also keen to learn about:

The other WRITERS: Lytton Strachey, E M Forster and David Garnett

The THINKERS: Leonard Woolf and Saxon Sydney-Turner

The ARTISTS: Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry

The ART CRITIC: Clive Bell and,

The ECONOMIST: John Maynard Keynes