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bloomsbury group
(1904-1940s)



The Bloomsbury Group
(National Portrait Gallery Insights S.)

Frances Spalding

Who Were They?

  • English Group of artists and writers
  • Most famous member was Virginia Woolf

The Bloomsbury group has as many admirers as it does detractors. Whilst the admirers can point to its legacy with the feminist literature of Virginia Woolf, to Maynard Keynes' writings being the mainstay of economic theory, or to the work of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant being important not only in the development of British art but also influential in interior design, and, of course, its members' open marriages and way ahead of its time thinking to gay relationships, detractors will point to the fact that they were basically a bunch of chinless wonders in the mother of all cliques who had everything given to them on a gilded plate and had all the time in the world to indulge themselves with whoever they so wished as they were free of the real life worries of everyday people. Oh, and he or she slept with he and she under nice lampshades at that nice place in the country (Charleston).

Whatever is true, I believe it was an important movement, or rather, its members achieved important legacies, for I know of no other group where it is the individual artistic output of its members that is remembered rather than any collaborative achievement. I mean what is Bloomsbury's collective legacy??

The facts tell you who they were rather than what they collectively believed in aesthically. They were a group of friends most of whom met at Trinity College, Cambridge at the turn of the century. From 1904 onwards they met regularly at the Gordon Square home of Thoby Stephen in Bloomsbury, London. Thoby and his sisters, Vanessa (later Bell) and Virginia (later Woolf), and brother Adrian hosted 'at homes' when they and their friends indulged in free conversations about art, literature and philosophy and, of course, slept with each other. Bloomsbury included Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, Desmond McCarthy, Leonard Woolf, E.M.Forster, Lytton Strachey (whose relationship with Dora Carrington brought her into the fringes of the group), Post-Impressionist-inspired artists Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and, most famously, the first woman of letters, Virginia Woolf.

Some of the group were involved in pulling off the Dreadnought Hoax in 1910, whereby the Royal Navy were tricked into showing their flagship, the warship H.M.S. Dreadnought to a supposed delegation of Abyssinian royals. Maybe it was funny in 1910 but a 100 years later it does sound like something a bunch of upper-class twits with too much time on their hands would do. Yes, the group were pacifists and I suppose such a hoax is a way for pacifists to be pacifists but it's a good job not everyone were pacifists or could afford to be or we (Britain) would have lost the First World War and Hitler would have goosestepped right into the Gordon Square home during the Second! More interestingly, also in 1910, Fry organised an exhibition of Post-Impressionist art in London. But two of their best legacies were the Omega Workshops (formed in 1913 by Fry, Bell and Grant) and Hogarth Press (formed in 1917 by Leonard and Virginia).

Bloomsbury was a tight clique, almost of suffocating proportions. It's a bit like the Primrose Hill clique of today with Sadie Frost and Jude Law etc but with brains or the Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson clique of the 80s and 90s. Outsiders weren't allowed in and in that way it was extremely conservative. It rejected the Victorian and Edwardian eras' strictures on religious, artistic, social, and sexual issues yet, conversely, by default of its exclusivity, replaced them with a meaningless ideology.

Unfortunately for the pacifists in the group, a number of the group's residences in the Bloomsbury area were bombedduring the Second World War. Virginia Woolf committed suicide in 1941 and the group as a coherent force was effectively over.


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