The Bloomsbury Group, Bloomsbury Set, or just "Bloomsbury", as its adherents would generally refer to it, was an English group of artists and scholars of "Bohemian" disposition that existed from around 1905 until around World War II.
The group began as an informal social assembly of recent Cambridge University graduates (four members had graduated in 1899, among them Thoby Stephen, the brother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) mingling at social events of the Cambridge Apostles secret society. After graduation, the founding members of the group pursued different interests (John Maynard Keynes took a job with the Treasury Department administering British interests in a part of India). Vanessa laid the foundation of Bloomsbury in 1904 by moving the Stephen family (the four children of Julia and Leslie Stephen — Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian) to Gordon Square, in the Bloomsbury area of London. Thoby Stephen's untimely death in 1906 strengthened the resolve of Vanessa and Virginia to remain independent and interact with the rest of the group. The spirit of the group resembles that of Parisian Salon culture which so influenced intellectuals in France and across Europe from the 18th Century onward.
The group gained notoriety in 1910 when many of its members were involved in the Dreadnought Hoax that embarrassed the British Navy and was deemed unpatriotic. The group's outspoken pacifist beliefs caused further criticism during the war.
Also in 1910, Roger Fry organized an exhibition of Post-Impressionist art in London that became a defining milestone for the movement. The exhibition gave British public a first glimpse on the innovations that were happening in art on the Continent and was very badly received by the critics.
After World War I the group became a looser association as the circle of friends grew and became less united in opinions and beliefs. The two efforts that involved many members of the group were the Omega Workshops in 1913 (Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and Maynard Keynes) and the Hogarth Press in 1917 (Virginia and Leonard Woolf). Writer Gerald Brenan was briefly involved with the group at this time.
By the end of World War II, a number of the group's residences in the Bloomsbury area had been bombed, and Virginia Woolf had committed suicide. The high days of the group were over, although in places like Charleston the Bloomsbury way of life still continued for several decades.
The opinions and beliefs of the Bloomsbury Group remained controversial and widely criticized throughout World War II, but have since then gradually entered the mainstream. Contemporary criticism of the group's literary and artistic contributions focuses on many aspects of the members' lives and work.
The group's contributions were primarily in the worlds of literature and art, although prominent economist Maynard Keynes also socialized with them frequently. The writers of the group included Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard Woolf. Strachey introduced a new approach to biography with his writing. Clive Bell's and E.M.Forster's writings helped persuade the British to proactively dismantle their empire, foreshadowing the eventual collapse of colonialism in Europe. Keynes' writings have become a mainstay of economic theory. Virginia Woolf is a widely read writer whose books were later embraced by the Feminist Movement; her husband's novels and political writings also contributed to anti-imperial sentiment. The artists of the group included Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf's sister), and Duncan Grant. Roger Fry was an important art critic who introduced Post-Impressionism to Britain. Vanessa Bell, perhaps one of the most central figures of the Bloomsbury group, was a prominent painter, and her longtime love Duncan Grant was extremely influential as a British painter.
The group is remembered mostly for the individual artistic output of its members rather than any collaborative achievement. Since the last decades of the 20th century, the complex inter-personal relationships within the group have attracted scholarly and popular attention. Meanwhile the lives and work of its most prominent members, especially the sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, have influenced a whole generation of new writers, including rock musicians and poets, most notably Patti Smith and Jude Rawlins.
Although mainly known as a literary group (with Virginia Woolf as its most widely known exponent), its adherents were active in several fields of art, art criticism and scholarship:
- Literature (but also: art criticism, biographical essays, social studies, etc.) was the main realm of Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett, Clive Bell.
- Plastic arts were (amongst others) represented by the painters Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Dora Carrington, and by Roger Fry (also known as an art critic and theorist). By the end of World War I, Charleston, where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant lived most of their time, had, in a way, developed as the plastic artists' focus point within the Bloomsbury movement.
- The economist John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf's husband Leonard Woolf mainly published non-fiction in their fields of expertise, while Desmond MacCarthy was known as a critic.
- A musician was part of the group: Saxon Sydney-Turner.
The performing arts were certainly underrepresented in the group, as if not compatible with the group's main pursuits: e.g., John Maynard Keynes's wife Lydia Lopokova, who had once been a principal dancer in the Ballets Russes, was considered a complete outsider by most of the group's adherents; also, by the time Angelica Garnett, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant's daughter, decided for a stage career the link with Bloomsbury was somehow out of the picture.
There was a large overlap between Bloomsbury and the people contributing to and supporting the (more formally organised) Omega Workshops, initiated by Roger Fry a few years after he entered the Bloomsbury Group in 1910: e.g. Nina Hamnett belonged to both. Bloomsbury also had strong connections with Rupert Brooke and his Neo-Pagans - the wood engraver Gwen Darwin and her French painter husband, Jacques Raverat were part of both; Gwen's sister was married to Keynes' brother Geoffrey, whose enthusiasm for William Blake led to Gwen designing a ballet based on his etchings of Job which was composed by her Wedgwood cousin, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Bloomsbury remained a tight-knit and highly exclusive group, also referred to as the Bloomsberries. The members strongly rejected the Victorian and Edwardian eras' strictures on religious, artistic, social, and sexual issues, although, as amongst others Angelica Garnett argues in her autobiographical book Deceived With Kindness (ISBN 0-7126-6266-9), they never completely escaped from these. The Bloomsbury Set could certainly be considered as a clique, including acquaintances, such as Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose estate in Garsington became another Bloomsbury centre, where the Bloomsberries mingled with other artists and intellectuals of their day.
Another trait characteristic of Bloomsbury was (uncommon in the England of their days) the love of southern Europe, mostly concentrated on Italy and France, but also Greece.
Open sexuality within the group
The group certainly acted as a kind of safe haven for many of its gay, lesbian and/or bisexual members: also, almost as a rule, Bloomsburries had relations with more than one partner, and sometimes with partners of both sexes. In the case of those who were married, generally both the wife and husband were either bisexual or homosexual. Nigel Nicolson describes just such a case in the account of his parents Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Portrait of a Marriage (1973) records his mother's affairs with both Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf.
There were many instances where the marriages were mutually beneficial, and open marriages were common. Within the group, no one judged, discretion was always observed, and this was found to be comforting to many who joined the group.
- The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbury by David Gadd ISBN 0-7012-0393-5
- Virginia Woolf and the Raverats correspondence edited by William Pryor ISBN 1-904555-02-0
- The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant by Richard Shone ISBN 0-691-04993-9
Cultural Bloomsbury today
- Bloomsbury Group in the Tate Gallery Archives
- Charleston homepage
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