The Lesson - Vanessa Bell

Vanessa Bell (British, 1879-1961)
The Lesson, 1917
Oil on canvas, 24 x 19 inches
Private collection


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 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?”

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.

The Bloomsbury group was strongly influenced by the two Post-Impressionist shows at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 and 1912, the brainchildren of Roger Fry. Through Fry, they became personally acquainted with their contemporaries, 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.

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 designs created for the Omega were largely unsigned and intended to be anonymous.

American awareness of Bloomsbury began after World War I and focused not on art but on the writings of Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and John Maynard Keynes. Even Roger Fry was known in America for his writings on art rather than for his painting. In contrast to American familiarity with Bloomsbury texts, Bloomsbury art remained almost unknown in North America for most of the twentieth century.

When, in the last third of the century, American collectors came to Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Dora Carrington, their appreciation of the Bloomsbury artists was rooted in their love of the group’s writers. This is emphatically not to deny the aesthetic response and emotional attachment Americans experience in relation to the art they collect—Bloomsbury means different things to different audiences. These differences distinguish Americans from Britons, and reflect generational changes as well. Our ideas of what “Bloomsbury” means are inseparable from our responses to the art the group produced. The current exhibition is evidence of the many American pleasures in Bloomsbury, and provides an occasion to consider the history of Bloomsbury collecting on this side of the Atlantic.

ŚNancy E. Green and Christopher Reed