The Bloomsbury Group: creating a new modern world
Publication Date: Friday May 23, 1997

The Bloomsbury Group: creating a new modern world

Works of famed British artists on display at Stanford University Art Gallery through June 15

At any rate, talk we all did, it's true, till all hours of the night. Not always, of course, about the meaning of good--sometimes about books or painting or anything that occurred to one--or told the company of one's daily doings and adventures. There was nothing at all unusual about it perhaps, except that for some reason we seemed to be a company of the young, all free, all beginning life in new surroundings, without elders to whom we had to account in any way for our doings or behaviour, and this was not then common in a mixed company of our class: for classes still existed.

--Vanessa Bell, "Notes on Bloomsbury" Vanessa Bell wrote those words in 1951, nearly 50 years after she and her sister, then Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, moved with their brothers Thoby and Adrian into a house on Gordon Square in the Bohemian Bloomsbury section of London.

Thursday evening gatherings at which the Stephen brothers introduced their sisters to their Cambridge University friends soon blossomed into a myriad of friendships, philosophical discussions and the dissolution of the very strict, traditional rules governing social interaction in English society. Virginia eventually married Leonard Woolf, Vanessa married Clive Bell, and they kept company with Molly and Desmond McCarthy, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, E.M. Forster, Saxon Sydney-Turner and Roger Fry.

From the colorfully woven fabric of the group's intense conversation and interactions, individual masterpieces stand out: the novels of Virginia Woolf and Forster, the paintings of Vanessa Bell and Grant, Keynes' treatise on economics, Strachey's criticism of Victorian society and Fry's introduction of French post-Impressionism to England.

Some of the fruits of the uniquely intellectual alliance are on display at Stanford University's Art Gallery in an exhibition titled "Bloomsbury Art in Bay Area Collections." The uniquely textured paintings of Vanessa Bell with their round, simple figures intricately shaded and shadowed, Duncan Grant's bluish ink and wash paintings of two different perspectives of a reclining nude and first editions of Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" and "Mrs. Dalloway," published by the Woolf's own Hogarth Press are just some of the 45 treasures on display.

Also to be found are a 1923 edition of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"--also published by Hogarth--that was allegedly given its first reading before the "Bloomsberries" and a book by the aristocratic gardening expert Vita Sackville-West about her home, Sissinghurst. Like Eliot, Sackville-West was not officially thought of as a member of the set--indeed, it was considered by most to be highly exclusive. But she is reputed to have been Virginia Woolf's lover. Orlando, the lead character in Woolf's gender-bending novel of the same name, was modeled on Sackville-West.

But Woolf was not the only member of the set to experiment with alternative lifestyles. Part of the Bloomsbury ethic was the desire to challenge social norms and rebel against what they saw as Victorian hypocrisy. Vanessa Bell had a 50-year relationship with Duncan Grant, a self-proclaimed homosexual, even though she was married to Clive Bell. Lytton Strachey, also homosexual, lived with the fey Dora Carrington, a painter, for years.

Duping tradition was also the favorite pastime of the artist and art critics in the group. In 1910, Roger Fry, a well-known art historian and expert on European works, brought the show "Manet and the Post-Impressionists" to England. Thought scandalous by some--others laughed outright--the exhibit introduced to the English the underlying concept of modern art: that form, rather than subject, could be an important medium for discussion. Cezanne's painting in particular was admired by Bloomsbury artists, and his influence can be recognized in the Stanford exhibit.

It was a theme that Woolf drew upon in her writing, perfecting the fragmented style of modernism--an experiment in writing that confounded the organization and time line of a novel rather than simply telling a chronological story.

But the Bloomsbury Group on its own cannot be given total credit for the advent of the modern. Some thought them garishly snobbish, pretentious and unpatriotic (many among their ranks claimed conscientious objection to World War I and fled from London to the countryside). No love was lost between the groups and novelist D.H. Lawrence, who once referred to them as "little swarming selves."

Desmond McCarthy, a newspaper critic and probably the least well-known member of the set, described the animosity this way: "Writers and painters who are indignant, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, at their works not meeting with universal praise, and looking about for an explanation of the inexplicable, have been known to mutter darkly 'Bloomsbury' and find relief."

Which seems only to be testimony to the group's wide-ranging influence.

Bloomsbury Art in Bay Area Collections is part of the Britain Meets the Bay Festival and is co-sponsored by the British Council. The exhibit was organized by Stanford Professor Peter Stansky and students of his research seminar: "Presenting Britain: Bloomsbury, Sewers, War Posters."

--Elisabeth Traugott

What: Bloomsbury artists and writers

When: May 20 to June 15; Tue.-Fri. 10 a.m-5 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. 1-5 p.m.

Where: Stanford University Museum of Art, Serra Street, near Hoover Tower

Cost: Free

Information: 723-4177 

Back up to the Table of Contents Page