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A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections

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The name Bloomsbury conjures up an image of early-twentieth-century bohemia among a group of literary friends that included Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and economist Maynard Keynes at the inner core, with occasional walk-on appearances from a host of other writers including E. M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Vita Sackville-West, and Desmond and Molly MacCarthy; philosophers Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore; psychologists Alix and James Strachey; poets T. S. Eliot and Rupert Brooke; and society hostess Ottoline Morrell. But Bloomsbury was much more richly patterned and complex than even this eminent list suggests. A group of fine artists, including Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, critic and painter Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey’s talented cousin Duncan Grant, and Strachey’s longtime companion Dora Carrington, formed the nucleus of visual Bloomsbury.

This group of artists was strongly influenced by the two Post-Impressionist shows at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 and 1912, the brainchildren of Roger Fry. It was through Fry that the Bloomsbury artists became personally acquainted with their contemporaries on the continent, most importantly Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, and the French postwar avant-garde which gave them a grounding for their own modern artistic movement in Britain.

The name Bloomsbury was first applied to a set of friends by Molly MacCarthy in a letter in which she referred to the group as “the Bloomsberries.” The eventual, rather promiscuous, use of the term caused Vanessa Bell, in her “Notes on Bloomsbury,” to remark, “It is lucky perhaps that Bloomsbury has a pleasant reverberating sound, suggesting old-fashioned gardens and out-of-the-way walks and squares; otherwise how could one bear it? If every review, every talk on the radio, every biography, every memoir of the last fifty years, were to talk instead incessantly of Hoxton or Brixton, surely our nerves would be unbearably frayed.”

In 1913, Fry expanded his ventures to include the establishment of the Omega Workshops, which produced household goods ranging from carpets to textiles to ceramic dinner services to furniture, and provided consumers with the ability to create an entire modernist environment, complete with wall coverings and fixtures. The Omega was a reaction against the fussy, claustrophobic interiors of their Victorian predecessors, exhibiting bold designs in lush colors that would have horrified their parents—had they lived to see it. Artists at the Omega were only expected to work three half-days a week, for which they were paid a sustenance wage. Fry did not encourage them to work more than that as he wanted them to be free to do their own work, outside of the confines of the Workshops. The designs created for the Omega were largely unsigned and intended to be anonymous.

The importance of family and friendship are at the core of any appreciation of the group, for while seen from the outside as insular and snobbish, they relied heavily on the emotional support of the friends they made at university—friendships that continued as their families grew and life became more complex. Charleston farmhouse, on the Sussex downs, served as the physical center where the Bloomsbury group gathered to debate, paint, gossip, argue, and relax. It also served as a vibrant canvas on which the artists left their unique stamp: tapestries, rugs, curtains, tiles, furniture, and ceramics were designed, decorated, and installed by the Bloomsbury artists, creating an environment that breathed the aesthetic tenet of the inhabitants.

Years later, in his autobiography, Leonard Woolf—from the inside—saw the Bloomsbury group thus: 

There have been groups of people, writers and artists, who were not only friends, but were consciously united by a common doctrine and object, or purpose artistic or social. The utilitarians, the Lake poets, the French impressionists, the English Pre-Raphaelites were groups of this kind. Our group was quite different. Its basis was friendship, which in some cases developed into love and marriage. The colour of our minds and thought had been given to us by the climate of Cambridge and Moore’s philosophy, much as the climate of England gives one colour to the face of an Englishman while the climate of India gives quite a different colour to the face of a Tamil. But we had no common theory, system, or principles which we wanted to convert the world to; we were not proselytizers, missionaries, crusaders, or even propagandists.

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

This exhibition was organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, in conjunction with the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University. It was additionally on view at Mills College Art Museum, the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, the Smith College Museum of Art, and the Palmer Museum of Art at The Pennsylvania State University.

This exhibition has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, promoting excellence in the humanities.