This is my review of The Bloomsbury Group by Frances Spalding.
Written by the “leading authority” Frances Spalding, this fascinating and very readable book which manages to cover in only a hundred pages an astonishing amount of information without seeming overloaded, begins with a brief explanation of the famous Bloomsbury Group before embarking on thumbnail biographies of many of its key members, each accompanying a full-page illustration of a painting from the National Portrait Gallery in London.
I have been forced to modify my view of the Bloomsbury Group (so-named after the district into which Vanessa Bell, as she was to become moved, together with her siblings including Virginia who was to marry the publisher Leonard Woolf. Having regarded them as a group of self-absorbed intellectuals, somewhat self-indulgent in the justification of their casual switching of partners, I now realise that their earnest discussion and experimentation was an important and inevitable response to the stultifying grip of Victorian moral conventions and unquestioning acceptance of religious teaching which linked ethics with behaviour. “Fresh questions had to be asked as to how and why they should be connected. What was the nature of good? How should you live? What philosophy could be found to support and justify the good life?” The Bloomsbury Group believed in honest personal relationships, and the value of enduring friendship, which could transcend a love affair which had lost its meaning. Virginia Woolf praised her Bloomsbury friends for “having worked out a view of life which still holds…after twenty years; and no amount of quarrelling or success, or failure has altered this”.
It is revealing how many of the photographs and paintings show the characters reading: the oddly charismatic, sedentary “man of letters” Lytton Strachey, was “often shown in a state of complete relaxation, a condition conducive to a life of intense mental activity”. This inspired the hopeless love of the probably somewhat neurotic artist Dora Carrington, whose portraits impressed me with their quality and realism: namely that of the handsome expert on Spain, Gerard Brenan, who in turn carried a torch in vain for her, and of E.M. Forster who shared Bloomsbury values while remaining on the margins of the group. The clarity and lifelike quality of Roger Fry’s self-portrait together with those of Bertrand Russell (whose mathematical mind and contempt for homosexuality may have distanced him from the Bloomsbury network, which he could not avoid because his wife Alys’s nieces married into it) and of Clive Bell, the longsuffering husband of Vanessa are at odds with Fry’s pioneering work “crusading passionately on behalf of Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse,” to raise awareness in Britain of the Impressionist movement.
The author’s many insights into the lives and time of the Bloomsbury Group, are lightened by many anecdotes, such as the magnetic “cornflower-blue”-eyed David Garnett watching the weighing of Angelica, newborn daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant with whom he lived in a menage à trois, and “conceiving the idea of marrying her” which he duly did more than twenty years later.