26 July 2009

off to Charleston, by way of Bloomsbury


a picture perfect of Bloomsbury's influences
Birtwell print on Ossie Clark dress

modeled by Nicky Samuel
(image from here)

"the drawing room has no carpet or wall paper, curtains some blue and some white, & a Louis XV bed." Lytton Strachey as he first remembered early Bloomsbury decoration

"We have been putting up violet-orange curtains as fast as we could. They are rather sketchy in consequence but full of emotion."
Vanessa Bell on the decoration of Virginia Woolf's summer retreat- Little Talland

"I am very busy inside the house, putting up curtains,etc...I have just been getting a bright reddish orange stuff for curtains for the sitting room, to be lined and bordered in mauve."
Vanessa Bell on her decoration of Charleston

by Duncan Grant (1911)
(this breathtaking color palette recurs throughout the Bloomsbury artists' work)

Writing about the Bloomsbury artists is daunting to say the least. Overwhelming information is available, yet I find that their movement and yes, it was a movement, is little discussed in the design world at large- What is this messy yet remarkable group's influence on design today?

(this description from the Nasher Museum's exhibition notes on A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artisit in American Collection.
"Nearly a century ago, the Bloomsbury group first took hold of the cultural imagination, their name becoming synonymous with wit, intelligence, political activism, and avant-garde art and literature. "Bloomsbury," named for a then slightly disreputable section of London surrounding the University, was centered on writers such as Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Clive Bell; economist John Maynard Keynes; artists Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and Dora Carrington; and other notable personalities who circulated in their orbit including E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, and Wyndham Lewis."

My viewing of the Nasher's Bloomsbury exhibition sparked a renewed fascination with the artists & their art. This avant garde gathering first inhabited a townhouse in London's Bloomsbury. The Bloomsbury group then established themselves at Charleston- a rambling house away from the stares of prying eyes,social mores and dictums. What occurred at Charleston was a cult of sorts- centering around two sisters Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, daughters of the beautiful Julia Prinsep Stephen (born Jackson) and great nieces of famed photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Their father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent editor, critic and biographer, mother Julia was equally well connected. Vanessa and Virginia, through their mother, were descendants of an attendant to Marie Antoinette and Julia's family had left their mark as models for Pre-Raphaelite artists and early photographers as well. Raised in this seemingly idyllic atmosphere-things are not always as them seem-in later years the girls set out on their own as soon as their father died-something unheard of in the staid Victorian world they grew up in.

Bloomsbury was there destination.

Enter Roger Fry “the most open-minded man I ever met. . . . This made him willing to hear what anyone had to say even about questions on which he was a recognized authority, even though ‘anyone’ might be a schoolboy or a housemaid.” (Clive Bell)

Fry had studied at Cambridge, followed by the Academie Julian in Paris and had traveled throughout Italy. Artist and art critic (dubbed the father figure of Bloomsbury) his first major book was a study of Giovanni Bellini,
Roger Fry changed artist Vanessa Stephen's world for her- introducing her to the Post-Impressionists and influencing her work forever.
Julia at age 10

(image from)

Edward Burne-Jones, Merlin
Julia as model
(image from artarchive.com)

Virginia Stephen Woolf**

Vanessa Stephen Bell**

The Conversation
Vanessa Bell

To look further into this heady circle & delve into their relevance today, I asked Lisa Borgnes-Giramonti to join me for a Q & A.
Lisa's blog A Bloomsbury Life gives readers a yummy glimpse of her own modern day Charleston home christened the Kenmore Arms.

PGT: Did "living" and lifestyle override ART with the group? "LIFE was ART" seems to apply with them. I am amazed at the volume of work- What does this say about art and the environment of the artist?

The Seasons

in friend Maynard Keynes (Bloomsbury member) King's College rooms
by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti intricate needlework

Vanessa Bell-Interior with a Table

LBG:Such a great question! What makes Charleston House so special to so many people, I think, is that the art there was not confined to frames. The environment itself became their experimental canvas. They painted on walls, they painted on furniture, they needlepointed cushions, they decorated lampshades, books, tables, screens, trays and crockery and more. They were obsessive about their surroundings and felt compelled to be adorn and beautify everything. In a way, they behaved more like decorators at times than like artists. They believed that the enjoyment of beautiful objects was one of life’s chief pleasures. The result is both a celebration of the individual and a watershed moment for interior design, because so much of their art was created for private and not public consumption.
Duncan Grant Textile Design

Virginia Nicholson Granddaughter of Vanessa Bell at Charleston
from the Daily Mail 2008

Roger Fry-design for a carpet
Cressida Bell's Design for a rug from Christopher Farr
and below her fabrics

The Dancers

Duncan Grant

PGT:Comment on the relevance of Bloomsbury today, and do you think they are known to most of today’s young style seekers?
the Circle of friends Bloomsbury**

a young circle of friends
Mule (known collectively)

LBG:Despite occasional articles about the Bloomsbury Group over the years (even in such mainstream magazines as Vogue, Elle and the late Domino), I think they have receded a bit from public perception, certainly among today’s younger style seekers. But I don’t see this as especially alarming. Every generation wants to discover their own inspirations, and the more Bloomsbury lurks in the shadows now, the better the chance that a new set will seek it out and make it their own. Think of how style seekers in the 1960’s brought back Indian Mughal art and Nehru suits, and how in the 1970’s it was all about Morocco (think Renzo Mongiardino’s Eastern-influenced room for Lee Radziwill). The Bloomsbury Group is such a rich source for so many facets of art and design that I don’t believe it will ever fade away…it’s just lying semi-dormant, waiting for a new generation to hail it as their own.

PGT: What life lessons can we take from the Bloomsbury group?
from Bohemian Style by Elizabeth Wilhide
LBG:They believed in the magic of dazzling conversation, romantic freedom and life-long friendships.
They were all interior decorators in one way or another, seeking to express themselves creatively through their surroundings.

Clive Bell's Library decorated by Vanessa Bell & Duncan Grant

They considered a comfortable home one of life’s supreme pleasures.
They had a joyful appreciation for beautiful objects and the power of good design.

from the Berwick Church

They believed in the liberating potential of color.
a beautiful door detail from Lisa's home

They were a community of like-minded idealists who, throughout their lives, remained committed to the idea that art could bring people together. And despite their transgressions, their tragedies and their occasional bitchery, it did.
PGT:According to nephew Quentin Bell- Virginia Woolf’s brand of feminism was a disappointment to later feminists, she seemed to shy away from the fist and show more mocking, smiling, insinuating. Is this still a good way to get that message across?

a sophisticated VW
I am reminded of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party with Virginia Woolf having a place at the table.(1974–79).The outward expression of the feminist artist's homage to all that came before her.
Chicago's The Dinner Party

mixed media of ceramic porcelain textile. the Brooklyn Museum
a Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation

LBG:I believe that Virginia Woolf was a feminist within her time. During her childhood, reticence, not rebellion, was the order of the day. The formalities of the Victorian era were strict, repressive and not easily overcome. By the time she became a adult, however, she was writing with candor and honesty about a woman’s search for artistic and financial freedom in a rapidly-changing world. She may not have shouted and “shown her fist”, but she whispered, and I find this quieter approach to be equally compelling and much more seductive.

Virginia looking casually domestic, photographed by Vanessa

PGT:Does it seem to you that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were in competition with one another artistically, or rather were they soul mates in art?

their self portraits

their portraits of each other

LBG:I think they were definitely influenced by each other, which is not surprising considering they lived together and were so intertwined in each others lives. And though occasionally their subject matter was shared, their responses were still quite individual. Some still-lifes, like Duncan’s “The Mantelpiece” (1914), and Vanessa’s version entitled “Still Life On Corner of a Mantelpiece” (1914) are similar at first glance; however, closer examination reveals a restless quality to Grant’s painting, whereas Bell seems to offer a more graceful and measured take on the subject.
In terms of their relationship as artists, I think Grant greatly enjoyed the stable domestic life that Vanessa provided for him. Themes like harmony, balance and elevated visions of everyday life are common Bloomsbury motifs that both felt impelled to explore through paint. I think they found great pleasure in working side-by-side.
PGT:It definitely seems these two did find soul mates,-life partners- and their art thrived in their domestic arrangements-especially in light of the horror stories of many male artists that subordinated the art of their female wives and lovers.

Vanessa Bell, Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece

& Duncan Grant's The Mantelpiece

PGT:Was blood thicker than water with the Bloomsbury group? It seems the sisters relied on each other more heavily than any other two- or was this just sisterhood among men? Comment, what about women today?

the sisters

Virginia painted by Vanessa 1912

LBG:Virginia and Vanessa, despite their occasional differences, had an unbreakable bond of love and support. Hermione Lee expounds at length about their dysfunctional childhood which undoubtedly acted as an indissolvable glue in their relationship. But as for the rest of the Bloomsbury Group, blood - and marriage bonds - were definitely not thicker than water, especially when it came to relationships. In their quest for artistic freedom, everything was fair game. Just take a look at Vanessa Bell’s open affair with Duncan Grant amid a group household that included her husband, Clive Bell. Or David “Bunny” Garnett’s May-December marriage to Angelica Grant, his former lover’s (Duncan Grant) daughter. The web was tangled indeed.
Vanessa with her two Bell sons

Duncan with his daughter by Vanessa, Angelica

Vanessa Bell, The Artist's Daughter

PGT:Henry James commented that Vanessa Bell’s designs for the Hogarth Press book jackets were “optical echoes of the books that a literary history should listen to.” Books are a passion for you-does the art on a jacket influence your purchase?

LBG:Book jackets do influence me, I have to admit. If I am wavering over something and there’s a well designed cover staring me in the face, I often find myself plunking it down at the register or clicking on it on Amazon. This especially holds true with my favorite book designer, Megan Wilson. She has a blog dedicated solely to her book covers. I am left speechless over her emotionally powerful and yet restrained designs and invariably buy any book that is fortunate to bear one of her covers.

LGB: a Room of my own .

My Own Room-the Library

As young women embarking on the extraordinary lives their Bloomsbury was"...the most beautiful, the most exciting, the most romantic place in the world."(Virginia Woolf) It opened a world of their own," all that seemed to matter was at last we were free, had rooms of our own and space in which to be alone." (Vanessa Bell)

Omega Workshop Print

Ossie Clark, Celia Birtwell print
Vogue 1960

Spring- Edward Burne-Jones
Spring-Vanessa Bell

Ossie Clark-Celia Birtwell print
Vogue 1960

"Many of the late twentieth-century and contemporary trends are in themselves tributes to the influence of the Charleston artists, to the Diaghilev ballet designers, to the aesthetes, to Omega, and to the members of the Arts and Crafts movement. The modern fashionable interior pays homage to a creative urge amongst a relatively small sub-section of society in the early decades of the twentieth century. So much of what those artists did has been assimilated and re-assimilated, that one should not be surprised that their tastes are yet again being re-cycled for the World of Interiors readership, even if their origins are not always acknowledge." (from Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians)

Celia Birtwell for the Topshop

Tricia Guild, Osborne & Little website

Ossie Clark, Fall 2009
from Style.com

the OMEGA exhibition

The Courtauld Gallery in London opened its exhibition Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19 in June and runs through most of September. The Courtauld Gallery commissioned Absolute Zero Degrees to create and produce wallpaper inspired by the work of The Omega Workshop- Bloomsbury's commercial workshop producing Bloomsbury artists' fabrics, pottery, furniture, etc.

So much of what those(bloomsbury) artists did has been assimilated and re-assimilated, that one should not be surprised that their tastes are yet again being re-cycled for the
World of Interiors readership, even if their origins are not always acknowledge." (from Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians)

* image from this site
** image from wikipedia


  1. Little Augury-


    This is one of the greatest design/fashion posts ever.

    How superb that you included the great Lisa.

    Happy days, www.thestylesaloniste.com

  2. DDS- not so, only such a wonderful topic-so much to choose from- I admire your ability to get to the essence in the story- it takes me awhile to decide where to go-but thank you and I have thought Lisa's words a delight since her first post. G

  3. Wonderful! The Ossie dress with the yellow edging is the identical to the wallpaper and the yellow of the Guild fabrics.

  4. Dear-Such a great deal of research on this one. The photograph portraits of the sisters and mother are beautifully haunting, the age, the history, something makes it so. Pretty patterns remind me of your own sketchings. BCT

  5. On the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, I find the remains of my own generation's day to be so less colorful (who would have thought) than the body—bodies—of Bloomsbury's work. I have always been intrigued by the force of inspiration: what is the catalyst and what is the crucible?

    But the haunting for me—and the art and literature and social theories this group generated are huge—what I take from this post with great sadness is the loss of the "magic of dazzling conversation."

    The idea to be well read, to think, to assimilate, to
    converse with wit and lively thought provoking charm has gone the way of twitter.

    Great post, LA. Two last thoughts: Any idea of how much 500 pounds a year would be in today's economy to buy Virgiania Woolf's room of her own? And don't you think Lisa is a ringer for Viginia Nicholson?

  6. Fascinating to see the NYTimes Book Review- july 12, Yes I am behind.New Book Vanessa and Virginia-Susan Sellers- a what if book about the 2, Not sure if I would agree with it all based on this review but...interesting.

    Home, I do twitter my posts-No one twitters back to me. My niece-(Mule) is of the ilk of long conversations thankfully- no twittering from this group. texting reigns.
    Lisa does favor VN- I see favor in every thing and every One. La

  7. I was going to say exactly what Diane Dorrans Saeks said. This is one of the greatest Design and Fashion posts ever! Really Brilliant!

  8. Elizabeth, coming from you- I say thanks. I admire your work and Eye. I really think the Quote from Virginia Nicholson pulls it all together- the Bloomsbury influence has been reinvented over and over again- also thinking about Marc Jacobs- Many British designers- and I am loving their work immensely- definitely go there, and maybe even the interior influences more.I wonder how VB must have felt when she saw the post impressionists just pictures in print no less-her world must have exploded.Gaye

  9. Thanks so much. I'm exhausted: too much for me to take in at once. The back story is all new to me.

    I think "Home Before Dark" may seek what I seek: '...the loss of the "magic of dazzling conversation." ' I'm afraid I'll never be player in a dazzling conversation. I don't have a dazzle bone in my body. But I'd enjoy being within earshot of one.

    A conversation on design and art would be so welcome. NPR has conversation but no visuals. TV is expensive and mostly non-interactive.

    Sometimes we get a bit of conversation in blogs but with glacial interaction at best. I would love to hear the commenters discuss this blog post.

  10. As a painter on an extreme budget, who has fallen for seedy elderly houses, the Bloomsbury group is a major inspiration for me. But I first heard of them through a Garden Design article left at my auto mechanic's for reading. I "borrowed" the magazine, then ordered the book. But you and LBG have added a lot to the information I knew and I wish I could make it to London to see the show. For me, the endless inventiveness and humor in their images and patterns is what I find so inspiring. Nothing seems fussed over, but there is a constant witty dialogue about modernism, color, textile history from one room variation to another, so that the total is greater than the sum of its parts. I assume the spoken/written conversations were on an equal or greater level, although I've only read some of their work. Was Dorothea Carrington generally not considered part of the group and why? I know she wasn't part of Charleston. Any further reading suggestions, since this is a forte of yours?

  11. Terry, thanks for commenting. I agree about conversation- from your own blog the makeover of your house has kept you busy. It is lovely-what a treasure to find an architect with that vision.
    It is hard to converse thru blogs- I do find the comments helpful, especially when the writer posts back. I found getting started for this post hard- once I decided how to approach it, mostly by focusing on the 2 sisters- helped, however this group was so very intertwined- that was still hard. LBG was wonderful to work through the questions for me. She did a great deal of research and has a wealth of knowledge on the subject. The post is very long-I know, if you are interested in more info- again, a great deal on the web. Charleston has a site of its own, and I have tried to link sources and blogs within the text. Gaye

  12. hello Balsam Fir. I think this group inspires many-the book that I quote from at the end is key to so much of what Bloomsbury signifies to me. Their influence is an amalgamation of so much of what we see today. The Book- Bohemian Style has other similar stories that have influence the style and is great for visuals. Good web sites abound. Most of the key members have sites devoted to their art and lives. I loved the book by Quentin Bell Bloomsbury Recalled, it really connects the people and has those first hand experiences that stay with us.Read this one! The book Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden by him and Virginia Nicholson are great. There is an involved book about the interiors that I purchased at the exhibition-I don't know where that show is headed next- but worth seeing if anywhere close by- got to see a lot of the Omega Group pieces produced which was huge, the art, sketches, furnishings as well. Thank you so much for reading. Gaye

  13. I agree with all comments, especially the brilliant notes. Well done!

  14. Thank you for linking - this is such a wonderful post, a brilliant group of pictures and some great text. I really enjoyed it. And now I really want The Artist's Daughter by Vanessa Bell... once I rob a bank.

  15. "two sisters Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, daughters of the beautiful Julia Prinsep Stephen (born Jackson) and great nieces of famed photographer Julia Cameron Mitchell."

    You don't mean Julia Margaret Cameron, do you? If so, I wish I knew that when I was writing about Cameron. What a fabulous family of women!

    Art and Architecture, mainly

  16. I created a link to "Julia Cameron, Lord Tennyson and the Isle of Wight". Thanks

  17. Hels, you are so right.thanks for mentioning this, seems no matter how many times I may proof read I will inevitably miss something. glad you linked this post with yours, I will check it out. pgt



Related Posts with Thumbnails