‘Such Friends’:  Vanessa Bell’s Six Rooms of Her Own

Back in 2002, I went to see the fabulous Picasso Portraits exhibit at the Tate Modern. While eating the brownie with ice cream and fudge sauce in the café, I filled out the museum’s feedback card, which asked,

‘What other events would you like to see at the Tate?’

Always seizing the opportunity for shameless self-promotion, I wrote something to the effect:

‘Why don’t you have me give a talk about my early 20th century writers and artists?’

and

‘Why don’t you have an exhibit of Vanessa Bell’s fabulous paintings which are mostly locked away in a Tate Liverpool basement?!’

Still waiting for answer to the first, but the Dulwich Picture Gallery has answered the second. The third question is now, why did it take so long?!

My research into writers’ salons exposed me to creative people I had not been familiar with before, and one of my favorites is Virginia Woolf’s painter-sister, Vanessa Bell. Partly because of the excellent biography by Frances Spalding—Vanessa Bell:  Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist—who discovered her while researching the art critic and Vanessa’s one-time lover, Roger Fry.

So finding my way from Birmingham to Dulwich to see this exhibit has been high on my to-do list this year. As part of our new-found freedom of semi-retirement, My Husband Tony and I set aside last Tuesday for a London jaunt. Road trip!

First, we had to figure out how to get to Dulwich. Not as difficult as we thought. Train to Euston, Victoria Line to Victoria station, train to West Dulwich, lovely well-marked walk from the station thanks to the glorious weather.

How posh! The Dulwich Gallery is one of the few museums which was actually built as an art gallery, to house a private collection back in the early 19th century. It’s not terribly big, but most rooms are fantastically well lit with the skylights built in.

My timed ticket to the exhibit was for 2:15, but we got there early to have lunch in the crowded but excellent café. The woman in the box office said that the ticket timings were ‘very strict.’ Tony planned to have a look at the museum and then head off to explore nearby Dulwich.

The building itself is well worth a look, but we also spent some time in the related free exhibit, Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith. Singer/artist/photographer Patti Smith, 71—who, I confess, I remember most from Gilda Radner’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live—is a big Virginia Woolf fan, and has recorded a video at Vanessa’s Sussex home, Charleston Farmhouse. [Also a must see. Trust me. Go.]

This exhibit juxtaposed Smith’s photos over quite a few years with Bell’s photo albums of her life—a very interesting idea. Smith’s were artistically small, mostly black and white Polaroids, and a bit dark. Unfortunately, the room itself was a bit dark, and we found ourselves squinting quite a bit.

I sent Tony off—What did you think of Dulwich, honey?

‘Beautiful. I want to live there’—

with a reminder to meet up at the Tate Modern so we could take in the exhibit of Sir Elton John’s photography collection, which includes quite a few by Man Ray, from my Paris group. A doubly deductible trip.

This gave me plenty of time to explore the six rooms at Dulwich devoted to Vanessa’s work. All on her own.

Vanessa bell dulwich poster

Poster for Vanessa Bell exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first room, ‘Among Friends’ [missed a trick there, didn’t they?!], showcases her portraits of those in and around the Bloomsbury Group, including her own self-portrait which is the poster for the exhibit. The room has the same attraction as London’s wonderful National Portrait Gallery—all eyes are looking at you.

Here is Vanessa’s take on her friend and lover of her husband Clive Bell, Mary Hutchinson:

bells por of mary hutchinson

Mrs. St. John Hutchinson (1915)

In the ‘Design and Experimentation’ room are some of Vanessa’s early attempts at abstraction, influenced by the Post-Impressionists Fry was championing around the same time. I got the feeling Vanessa wasn’t as comfortable with abstract painting as she was with recreating the feeling of the real world and people around her—her sister, her children, her lovers, her flowers.

This room also includes fantastic examples from the Omega Workshops which Fry and Vanessa directed from 1913 to 1919. As the exhibit’s wall explanation states, the Workshops represented the pre-World War II hopes that were ‘dashed’ on the battlefields of Europe.

Screen by bell and grant

Tents and Figures (1913), painted folding screen

The ‘Still Life’ room has one of my favorites, Iceland Poppies.

iceland poppies

Iceland Poppies (c. 1908-09)

Doesn’t it look like the pattern for a Norwegian ski sweater? [To those in charge of the gift shop—you can have that idea for free. You’re welcome.]

‘At Home’ demonstrates Vanessa at her best, photographing and painting her family in their natural environments.

Angelica reading

Interior with Artist’s Daughter (1935)

Although some of the playful photos of her two sons would probably get her arrested today.

The fifth room, ‘Landscape,’ shows an interesting juxtaposition of her first painting of the pond at Charleston, done in the fall of 1916, when she had first moved there,

pond at charleston 1916

The Pond at Charleston, East Sussex (1916)

and a more chaotic version of the same scene three years later when the communal life had developed its own complications.

view-of-the-pond-at-charleston-1919

Charleston Pond (1919)

The finale, the sixth room, ‘Pictures of Women,’ includes one of my other favorites, A Conversation, which I’ve always thought would make a nice cover for ‘Such Friends.’ Girls night!

A conversation

A Conversation (1913-1916)

And doesn’t this 1913 portrait look like Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars?!

The model 1913

The Model (1913)

In addition to the paintings, one of the other highlights of this room is a letter Vanessa wrote to her daughter-in-law, Anne Olivier Bell, on the birth of her baby girl,

‘How clever of you to produce a daughter…’

After walking back and forth through the six rooms a few times, I headed back to Dulwich train station, back to Victoria, on to Blackfriars, to walk over the bridge to Tate Modern.

Along streets and through Tube stations that Vanessa, her sister and their ‘Such Friends’ would have used over 100 years ago. And probably, some days, the weather was just as good as well.

The exhibit, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until June 4, 2017, and I would have no problem making the journey again if you would like to have your own personal tour guide. And my offer to give a talk is still open…

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

At the Cambridge, England, railway station, January, 1910…

…art critic Roger Fry, 43, is waiting for the train to London. The past few months have not gone well.

He’s had to leave a job that he initially loved—Curator of Paintings for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Fry felt as though he had been turned into a personal buyer for the Met’s influential trustee, banker J P Morgan, 72, and they are not getting along. Fry had applied for a prestigious teaching position at Oxford, but didn’t get it.

Roger Fry, c. 1910

Roger Fry, c. 1910

In addition, the mental state of his wife of 13 years, Helen Coombe Fry, 45, has gotten consistently worse. Fry’s frequent travel for the Met job hasn’t helped, but now he is going to have to have her committed to an institution. His sister will help him take care of the children, but Fry knows it’s not going to be easy.

Across the platform, he sees a couple who look familiar. Of course! Painter Vanessa Bell, 30, and her husband, art critic Clive Bell, 28. Fry had met them at a party a few years ago in London. Maybe he should go over and chat. It would be good to have some new friends in London.

Cambridge railway station today

Cambridge railway station today

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

If you were able to watch the BBC Two drama Life in Squares about the Bloomsbury group, let us know what you think.                                                                                                                       
To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

In Number 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, summer of 1913…

…art critic Clive Bell, 32, is considering an opportunity.

His friend and fellow art critic, Roger Fry, 46, has been asked by publisher Chatto and Windus to write a book on post-impressionism, a term that Roger coined and used for two major art exhibits he has mounted in the past few years.

Fry is the obvious choice, but currently he is too busy setting up his ‘Omega Workshops’ to sell ceramics and fabrics with painters Duncan Grant, 28, and Vanessa Bell, 34, Clive’s wife. So he has recommended Clive for the job.

Clive and Roger have had their theoretical differences about art. They’d recently sustained an argument about the definition of the term ‘aesthetic’ in the Nation magazine.

But Roger is distracted by his Omega project. And by Vanessa, Clive thinks. So the book would be all his. Clive decides to call it Art.

Clive Bell, c. 1913

Clive Bell, c. 1913

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

If you were able to watch the BBC Two drama Life in Squares about the Bloomsbury group, let us know what you think.                                                                                                                       

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

In 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, in fall of 1914…

…artist Vanessa Bell, 35, is in tears. She’s admitting to her sister, Virginia Woolf, 32, that her love for gay painter Duncan Grant, 29, is hopeless. Totally hopeless.

Vanessa, Duncan, and the art critic Roger Fry, 47, have been running the Omega Workshops together for a while now. But last year, while she was carrying on an affair with Roger, she inexplicably found herself attracted to Duncan.

Roger Fry by Vanessa Bell, 1912

Roger Fry by Vanessa Bell, 1912

Vanessa feels she has learned so much about art—and herself—from her time with Roger. He is so upset he won’t even visit Gordon Square if he knows Duncan is present. Which he often is. Even her husband, art critic Clive Bell, 33, has complained that Duncan is around too much.

Vanessa has always admired Duncan as the only other full-time painter in the group. She knows about his relationships with the gay men in their circle of Bloomsbury friends. But now…she feels she wants to have his child.

Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant, 1914-15

Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant, 1914-15

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

Watch the final episode of the BBC Two drama Life in Squares about the Bloomsbury group, on Monday, 10th August, at 9 pm, and let us know what you think.                                              

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

In 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, in March of 1907…

…everyone is moving.

Clive Bell, 25, is moving in with his new wife, Vanessa Stephen Bell, 27. Clive has been living with his family since graduating from Cambridge University. Vanessa has been living in the tacky neighbourhood of Bloomsbury since she moved her brothers and sister, Virginia, 25, out of Hyde Park Gate when their widowed father died, more than three years ago. Smartest thing she ever did.

46 Gordon Square

46 Gordon Square

Their brother Thoby unexpectedly died last fall, age 26. Two days later, Vanessa finally accepted Clive’s proposal.

Now that Vanessa is a married Edwardian lady with a husband, it’s time for her siblings to move out.

Virginia and Adrian, 24, have found a suitable place, 29 Fitzroy Square. Virginia has heard that the family of the playwright George Bernard Shaw, 50, had lived there when they first emigrated from Dublin. That’s a good omen.

Moving a few blocks away won’t separate Virginia and Vanessa. The Bell marriage is a bigger threat. Virginia worries that the intimacy that she has shared with her sister will suffer.

But at least now she will have her own place, with Adrian. She can spend more time writing.

And their friends will still come on Thursday evenings, which Virginia always looks forward to. As she described these evenings later:

Talking, talking, talking…as if everything could be talked…’

Tour guide talking, talking, talking in front of 29 Fitzroy Square.

Tour guide talking, talking, talking in front of 29 Fitzroy Square.

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

Watch the BBC Two drama Life in Squares about the Bloomsbury group, Mondays, 3rd and 10th August, at 9 pm, and let us know what you think.   

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

In London, 22nd November, 1906…

…she finally says yes.

Clive Bell, 25, Cambridge graduate, from a good family, has been proposing to Vanessa Stephen, 27, for months now. No, no, no, has been the answer.

Clive has been doing his best to ingratiate himself into the circle of her friends and family, including her sister Virginia, 24, and brothers Adrian, 23, and Thoby, 26.

But just two days ago, big, healthy, strapping, incredible Thoby, died. Ever since the Stephen siblings came back sick from a disastrous European tour, the doctors have been treating Thoby for malaria. But he was suffering from typhoid. The Stephens and all his Cambridge friends are devastated.

Clive isn’t sure whether Thoby’s death has influenced Vanessa’s change of heart. All he knows is, she said yes.

Brother and sister Vanessa and Thoby Stephen

Brother and sister Vanessa and Thoby Stephen

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

Thursday, March 2nd, 1905, at #46 Gordon Square in the Bloomsbury section of London…

Virginia Stephen, 23, is anticipating the arrival that evening of the Cambridge University friends of her brother, Thoby, 25.

A few weeks before, Thoby had announced that he would be ‘at home’ on Thursday evenings, and visitors would be welcome. Slowly, his Cambridge University buddies have started to show up, recreating the late night talks of their college days.

Lytton Strachey and Saxon Sydney-Turner, both also 25, and Clive Bell, 23–some had been members with Thoby in the ‘secret’ society, the Apostles, but not Clive. Virginia is jealous that these men have had the advantage of a university education, denied to her.

But these men, smoking their pipes, are different from the ones she had been forced to socialize with previously. These men do not appear to be interested in marriage. And she feels no physical attraction to them. As she remembered years later,

It was precisely this lack of physical splendor, this shabbiness! that was in my eyes proof of their superiority. More than that, it was, in some obscure way, reassuring; for it meant that things could go on like this, in abstract argument, without dressing for dinner, and never revert to the ways, which I had come to think so distasteful.

#46 Gordon Square today, on our Bloomsbury walk last September.

#46 Gordon Square today, on our Bloomsbury walk last September.

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

Almost 100 years ago…

This month, instead of looking back 100 years, I want to visit 1916.

Recently I attended a writing workshop, conducted by the terrific Fiona Joseph, connected to the Library of Birmingham’s exhibition, Voices of War:  Birmingham People 1914-1919 [http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/event/Events/voicesofwar]. The display will be up until the end of the year, and I highly recommend paying a visit.

Our assignment was to write a piece based on something we saw in the exhibit. I chose a quote from a conscientious objector’s letter, and connected it to the members of the Bloomsbury group.

[PS:  The first shot in the trailer for the film Carrington shows Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey in the scene described below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9MXDP2B4DU]

1916

By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly

March 1916:  London

Essayist and pacifist Lytton Strachey, soon to turn 36, is called before the Hampstead Tribunal to apply for status as a conscientious objector. He brings a cushion for his tush, explaining to the military men sitting in judgment on him,

‘I am a martyr to the piles…’

When they ask him, ‘If you were to find a German soldier raping your sister, what would you do?,’ Lytton answers,

‘I would try to interpose my own body between them.’

He then gives an impassioned explanation of his stand against the current war, reminding them,

I am the society you’re fighting for.’

October 1916:  East Sussex

Painter Vanessa Bell, 37, is desperate. She is trying to find any way to keep her lover—Lytton’s cousin and former lover—painter Duncan Grant, just turned 31, out of the war.

The only way for a single man to avoid conscription is to work in service to his country. As a last resort, Vanessa finds a local farm, Charleston, which she can rent and live in with her sons. Duncan and their other painter/writer/intellectual/homosexual friends can then ‘work’ the farm.

 

Oh, and her husband, art critic Clive Bell, 34. He can help, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 1916:  Birmingham

‘Never mind if you feel a prig or if you look a fool before the rest of the world. Those living in 2016 will be the best judges of whether you did right or wrong at this time.’

–Gerald Lloyd, 30, conscientious objector

And we will…

Birmingham Remembering 1914-18

Birmingham Remembering 1914-18

100 years ago this month, September 1914…

…In England

War has come to Bloomsbury.

The image of Lord Horatio Kitchener, 64, recruiting young men, appears for the first time, on the black and white cover of London Opinion magazine.

1st appearance of Lord Kitchener's recruiting image

1st appearance of Lord Kitchener’s recruiting image

Bloomsbury friend, critic Desmond MacCarthy, 37, has signed up for the Red Cross Ambulance Service; art critic Clive Bell, turning 33, is trying to figure out how to join a non-combat unit such as the Army Service Corps; and painter Duncan Grant, 29, has entered the National Reserve.

Despite the hostilities in the rest of Europe, the Bloomsberries don’t stop moving. Duncan takes a studio in Fitzroy Square as well as rooms in nearby 46 Gordon Square, where Clive lives with his wife, painter Vanessa Bell, 35. Their friend John Maynard Keynes, 31, writing articles for The Economist magazine, moves to Great Ormond Street; and Vanessa’s sister, writer Virginia Woolf, 32, and her husband, Leonard, 33, are house hunting in London while still spending time at the sisters’ Sussex retreat, Asham.

On Tuesday, 9th September, and Sunday, 14th September, I will be leading a ‘Such Friends’ walking tour of some of these spots in Bloomsbury. Either day we’re meeting at 12:30 at the Mrs. Dalloway bench in Gordon Square, and after a stroll around the area, taking the Tube to see the excellent exhibit, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life & Vision, at the National Portrait Gallery [http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/virginiawoolf/home.php]. Email me at kaydee@gypsyteacher.com if you would like to join us.

 …In France

Near Paris, the French and British forces rout the Germans and, despite the half million casualties, the Allies score a victory that leads most to believe the troops will be home by Christmas. From her vantage point in Huily, journalist Mildred Aldrich, 60, watches the battle, taking detailed notes in both her journal and letters to her friend and fellow-American ex-patriate, Gertrude Stein, 40, in Paris.

…in America

One who is convinced that the German defeat will mean a short war is American artist and critic Walter Pach, 31, who is hoping to follow up the success of last year’s Armory Show with future exhibits of the latest contemporary art. He decides this would be a good time to go back to Europe and collect the works that have already been promised.

Also in New York, at Columbia University, George S Kaufman, 24, is looking for a new career by taking a playwriting course. But at Princeton University, F. Scott Fitzgerald, turning 18, can write proudly in his ledger, ‘Play accepted.’ His Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi! musical for the university’s Triangle Club gets good reviews and is a big hit.

The socialist magazine The Masses carries an article by former Mexican war correspondent John Reed, 26, which states of the current conflict in Europe:

“We, who are Socialists, must hope — we may even expect — that out of this horror of bloodshed and dire destruction will come far-reaching social changes — and a long step forward towards our goal of Peace among Men.

“But we must not be duped by this editorial buncombe about Liberalism going forth to Holy War against Tyranny.

“This is not Our War.”

Yet.

Cover of The Masses, September 1914

Cover of The Masses, September 1914

100 years ago today, 4 August 1914, in England…

A production of The Wrens, a one-act play by Lady Augusta Gregory, 62, is playing in London. One of her fellow Abbey Theatre founders, George Moore, also 62, is in the city, but they haven’t spoken for years.

Painter Vanessa Bell, 35, is with her art critic husband Clive, 32, and his family at Cleve House in Wiltshire. Their friend, biographer Lytton Strachey, 34, is nearby in Marlborough, working on his essay, ‘Cardinal Manning.’ With all the talk of war, he is a bit worried about his sister who is travelling in Germany.

Vanessa’s sister, Virginia, also 32, is with her husband, Leonard Woolf, 33, farther east at her Sussex country house, Asham.

In Cambridge, visiting Americans Gertrude Stein, 40, and Alice B. Toklas, 37, have just been introduced to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, 53, and Alice has heard bells. ‘I always heard bells when I met a genius,’ said Alice later. They may not be able to go home to Paris for a while, so Alice reluctantly wires her estranged father back in San Francisco for money.

Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes, 31, is at Westminster. Two days before, at home proofreading his book A Treatise on Probability, with his friend Bertrand Russell, 42, Maynard received a letter from a friend at the Treasury that said, ‘I wanted to pick your brains and I thought you might enjoy the process.’ He knew the discussion would be related to the beginnings of war in Europe, and so hitched a ride in the sidecar of his brother-in-law’s motorcycle to get to London over the bank holiday weekend ASAP.

Lytton Strachey, surrounded by young Bloomsberries, enjoying the early August sun

Lytton Strachey, surrounded by young Bloomsberries, enjoying the early August sun

At 11 pm, after Germany has invaded Belgium, despite the British request for assurances of Belgian neutrality, Great Britain officially declares war.