An overview, In and out of Bloomsbury: Biographical Essays on Twentieth-Century Writers and Artists

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Monday, 19 Jul 2021


Note: Numbers in bold are those of the eleven essays.

“Bloomsbury” in the title denotes the influential circle of writers, artists, critics, and economists known as the Bloomsbury Group or Set – a circle associated with the Bloomsbury area of London and active in the first half of the twentieth century.

The so-called Bloomsberries have not been short of attention in recent decades. The writer Virginia Woolf especially has been given it on an almost industrial scale. Nevertheless the treatment (although sometimes exhausting!) is not exhaustive, as my six essays on them show. Both in them and in the five out-of-Bloomsbury essays, my priority is to make known new material rather than recycle old – to present previously unpublished texts, pictures, photographs, and facts, and, where the material is not new, to make an independent examination of relevant manuscripts and images.

The Bloomsbury essays are mainly about four of the group’s pivotal members – the artists Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell, the art critic Clive Bell (Vanessa’s husband), and Virginia Woolf (Vanessa’s younger sister).

Figure 1 Vanessa Bell at Studland, September 1911. Photograph by Roger Fry. Berg Collection, New York Public Library

1 presents two previously unknown portraits by Roger Fry. One is a drawing of his wife, Helen Coombe, on their wedding-day in 1896, the other a portrait of Vanessa Bell painted during the love affair they began in the spring of 1911, at the time when his style of painting had just come under the influence of Matisse and he had introduced the British public to a new sort of art with the first of the two post-impressionist exhibitions he organised in London. Thus the two “new” pictures were executed at extremely important junctures of his personal life and artistic career.

The event described in 2 also belongs to the time of Roger and Vanessa’s affair. A well-known manifestation of Bloomsbury’s bohemianism is the readiness of its members to take off their clothes in company and be photographed in the nude. Many nude photographs of them exist, but previously unpublished are the ones I present and discuss (Figure 1). Taken out of doors by the sea at Studland, Dorset, in September 1911, they are the record of a nude-posing session held by Vanessa and Clive Bell and Roger Fry in circumstances that were remarkable, in that at the time Vanessa and Roger were head over heels in love, while Clive was ignorant of their affair.

Figure 2 Clive Bell, with his “lovely curls”, 1899 or soon after. Photograph by Messrs. Stearn, Cambridge. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Vanessa did not need to have too bad a conscience about deceiving Clive, because he, far from being a paragon of marital fidelity, was an inveterate womaniser.   His first adulterous relationship is the subject of 3, which, written in collaboration with Helen Walasek, is the first publication and detailed discussion of the frank and entertaining account he gave the (Bloomsbury) Memoir Club in 1921 of his long-running affair with Annie Raven-Hill, the wife of the Punch cartoonist Leonard Raven-Hill. The affair began when he was not quite eighteen, after she, about twice his age, commented on his “lovely curls” (Figure 2).

In 1932 Virginia Woolf visited Greece in the company of her husband, Leonard, Roger Fry, and Roger’s sister Margery Fry. The detailed study of the visit in 4 is based on examination of the primary sources, published and unpublished. These are: Virginia’s diary and letters; Roger’s letters; Leonard’s pocket-diary; and Virginia and Leonard’s photographs.  Many of the photographs are correctly identified for the first time. Moreover, examination of the manuscripts of Virginia’s diary and letters enables corrections to be made of some significant errors in the published versions. The most startling and damaging of these is the misreading of an adjective she uses to describe Roger – a misreading that completely distorts her meaning, attributing to him an attitude of mind which he did not possess and she would not have admired. Seeing that she admired Roger more than almost any other friend, this is no trivial matter. See how important it is to examine manuscripts oneself rather than rely on the reports of others!

Figure 3 Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, and Margery Fry at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens, 8 May 1932. Monk’s House Albums, Box 4, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

The subject of the misidentified “Greek” photographs, and especially one of the party standing in front of a temple in Athens (Figure 3), is taken up again briefly in the second part of 5, the reason being that, after the first publication of 4, a prominent writer about Virginia Woolf, while accepting my corrections, wrongly contended that the misidentification of the temple-scene as being on the Acropolis originated with Virginia herself, and argued that her alleged misidentification is of psychobiographical significance. Biography is a tricky enough business without adding to the problems by ignoring hard facts and resorting to fiction!

The first discussion in 5 concerns Virginia’s attempted suicide in September 1913 and her recuperation from the attack of mental illness that provoked it. The main focus is on the interest and advice of Roger Fry, whose wife’s (Helen’s) long history of mental illness invites comparison and contrast with that of Virginia: in Helen’s case mental unbalance was wholly destructive, whereas in Virginia’s it was by her own account a creative influence. When Virginia was convalescing, and a new nurse was required for her, Roger approached the medical superintendent of the hospital in which Helen was a patient. The letters that passed between the two are made known for the first time.

 After Virginia’s biography of Roger was published in 1940, she received a letter from Mary Louisa Gordon strongly critical of her portrayal of Helen Fry, and even more critical of Roger’s character and conduct. Mary and Helen had been friends before the latter married. In 1936 the Woolfs had published Mary’s historical novel, Chase of the Wild Goose, about the Ladies of Llangollen. 6 discusses the book, its relationship to Virginia’s novel Orlando, and Virginia’s comments on it and its author, whom she calls “the Hermaphrodite.” It describes the life and remarkable career of a woman whose varied achievements have been unjustly neglected. A thoroughgoing feminist, Mary trained as a medical doctor at a time when the profession had only recently become open to women. She went on to combine service as the first-ever female Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales with covert moral and financial support for the suffragettes. Her letter to Virginia is now for the first time presented accurately. It is followed by an account of Helen’s life, personality, and artistic talents, with discussion of Mary’s assessments of her and Roger.

The move out of Bloomsbury begins with Rose Macaulay, who, although only about six months older than Virginia, had published seven novels before Virginia had published her first in 1915. 7 presents her previously unpublished letters to the Irish poet and novelist Katharine Tynan. They throw light on the work and lives of both writers just before, during, and after the First World War. Katharine, whose side of the correspondence does not survive, admired Rose’s writing, especially her novels. Rose in turn praised Katharine’s work, especially her poetry, emphasising particularly the comfort it gave her and others in wartime. She herself had lost several friends, including Rupert Brooke, and was anxious about her brother, who was serving in the army. Her eighth novel, Non-Combatants and Others (1916), was a book way ahead of its time, in that the main focus is on those left at home, including returned servicemen, and on the psychological damage caused by war. Katharine’s two sons were in the army too. Rose took an interest in Katharine’s daughter, Pamela Hinkson, who was showing early promise as a writer. In 1925 Katharine sent Rose a novel by Peter Deane. When Rose replied, she did not realise that Peter Deane was a pseudonym used by Pamela, let alone that the disturbing story was closely based on the post-war experiences of Katharine’s elder son.

Figure 4 Dorothy L. Sayers in costume for the Somersham Pageant, August 1908. By kind permission of the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, IL

Dorothy L. Sayers, whose teenage years are the subject of 8 and 9, has received the detailed attention of several biographers, and there is a flourishing society wholly devoted to her and her work, but all overlooked her major contributions, described in 8, to a pageant in the Huntingdonshire village of Somersham in 1908, when she had only just turned fifteen (Figure 4).

“Pageantitis,” infectious enthusiasm for historical pageants, was a widespread but largely forgotten cultural phenomenon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Somersham pageant, staged under professional direction, was an important local event and even attracted the attention of a national newspaper. Dorothy, as well as being one of the musical accompanists, composed the verses for at least three parts of the event, perhaps four. Her contributions, revealing a prodigious talent and singled out for special praise at the time, total a minimum of fifty-six lines. Appropriately, given the genre of writing for which she is best known to the British public, the discovery of her prominent participation in the event involved a good deal of detective work!

In January 1909, Dorothy entered the Godolphin School, Salisbury, as a boarder and was there for three years. 9 is based on detailed research into her time at school __ a time that was important for her development as a writer, thinker, and person. As well as contributing much to school life, as a brilliant modern linguist and with her outstanding talents in music and drama, she benefited much from the high standard of education she received, from the civilised and stimulating atmosphere fostered by the school’s outstanding headmistress, and from the varied contacts she had with her fellow-pupils as well as with her teachers. But she also suffered setbacks, notably when she developed pneumonia after a bout of measles and nearly died.

10 is the first detailed study of the life of Richard (“Dickie”) Williams Reynolds. Born in Liverpool in 1867, he was educated at King Edward’s School (KES), Birmingham, and Balliol College, Oxford, before going to London to study law before returning to his old school as a teacher. This does not sound particularly exciting, but, as I soon discovered, his story is far from dull. The most spectacular revelation about him is of his unexpectedly exotic and irregular paternity, which has not been made known before.

In London Dickie’s membership of the Fabian Society brought him into contact with “progressive” figures like George Bernard Shaw and, most significantly, Edith Nesbit. With Nesbit he had a long and close relationship and later, married her niece, the novelist Dorothea Deakin. One of those he taught and undoubtedly influenced at KES was J. R. R. Tolkien.

After retiring from teaching in 1922, Dickie became a significant participant in the social and cultural life of the international community of Capri. He, Dorothea, and their three young daughters moved there, partly for the sake of his health, but mainly in the hope of a cure for Dorothea’s tuberculosis. She soon died, leaving him to bring up their girls. He did that successfully, but in the mid-1930s suffered further family tragedies, losing in quick time two of his daughters and his second wife. His youngest daughter, a promising poet, perished in a fall down a cliff – an accident that in recent years has been sensationally misrepresented by some in Italy as suicide or even murder. The Reynolds  family associated with an assortment of Capri’s resident and visiting writers and artists, their villa being known locally as the island’s “little Oxford.”

The collection ends (11), as it began, with an artist – Tristram Hillier, who, as a young man, met Bloomsberries Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant at Cassis on the French Riviera.

Tristram made a distinctive and distinguished contribution to twentieth-century British art. In the early 1930s he was a surrealist, a member of Paul Nash’s Unit One, but by the end of that decade he had moved most of the way from abstraction and surrealism to representational painting, although without ever abandoning all his surrealist inclinations.

Figure 5 Tristram Hillier, Cathedral Square, Viseu, Portugal, 1947, Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Photograph by Wolverhampton Arts and Culture. © The Estate of Tristram Hillier / Bridgeman Images

His visit to Portugal in 1947, the first of his many visits to that country, is the subject of my essay. It arose out of a crisis in his private life and was from a professional point of view highly successful and productive. The essay clarifies the context, dating, and itinerary of the visit, with full use made of unpublished letters. It focuses particular attention on the artist’s portrayal of scenes in the city of Viseu, presenting and discussing his paintings of Cathedral Square (Figure 5) and the Church of the Misericordia and the very fine drawing on which the Cathedral Square painting is based. The drawing has been in private ownership since 1948 and has not been published before. It and the painting executed months later in the artist’s studio make a fascinating study in comparison and contrast.


In and out of Bloomsbury
Biographical essays on twentieth-century writers and artists

By Martin Ferguson Smith

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