What was happening in England 100 years ago, 1912?

The third Home Rule Bill is passed by the House of Commons, sneaking in by 10 votes; but the House of Lords defeats the legislation soundly. Two years later the colony will be granted self-determination because the Commons overrules the Lords and uses the Parliament Act. Even then the enactment of the new law is suspended because of the outbreak of war in Europe. Like boarding the Titanic just before it hits an iceberg, this is now known as the ‘luck of the Irish.’

Member of the House of Commons, Philip Morrell, 42, and his wife, Lady Ottoline Morrell, 39,

Ottoline in 1919

are looking in the Oxford area for a suitable country house. Ottoline has been advised by her doctor to spend more time in the country.

Sisters Virginia Stephen, 30, and Vanessa Bell, 33, are already sharing a lease on a country home, Asham, in Sussex.

Asham House

They hold a housewarming in February, with Vanessa’s husband Clive, 30, painter Duncan Grant, 27, artist and critic Roger Fry, 46, and, recently returned from his civil service post in Ceylon, Leonard Woolf, 31. As Virginia writes to a friend about the event:

“It was the coldest day for 40 years; all the pipes were frozen; the birds were starving against the window panes; some had got in and sat by the fire; the bottom fell out of the grates.”

But it’s a productive year for Vanessa; she finishes two of her best paintings, Nursery Tea

Nursery tea by Vanessa Bell

and Conversation.

Conversation by Vanessa Bell

She has been experimenting with painting featureless faces, particularly in a new portrait of her sister.

Virginia in a Chair by Vanessa Bell

Virginia has been known to cavort with poet Rupert Brooke, 24, bathing naked in the moonlight in Cambridgeshire. But Leonard has proposed—and she has repeatedly turned him down. Even Vanessa can see the value of the match, writing to her sister: “Leonard is the only person I have ever seen whom I can imagine as the right husband for you.”

One of Leonard’s Cambridge classmates, economist John Maynard Keynes, 29, has been off on a gambling holiday in Monte Carlo. Since his return to London, his Cambridge friend Bertrand Russell, 40, who has been seeing a lot of Ottoline lately, has introduced Maynard to an interesting Austrian Ph.D. student, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 23.

Another member of the Cambridge group, Lytton Strachey, 32, has been moving away from the Bloomsberries recently, dining at the Savile Club and writing for the Edinburgh Review. His Landmarks in French Literature is a great success, but, as he writes to one of his sisters:

“[Our brother] James….says [Landmarks is] rubbish; Ottoline that it is a work of supreme genius, Virginiathat it’s merely brilliant, Woolf that it is bluff carried a little too far for decency, and Clive that it’s almost as bad as ‘Ste. Beuve’ (I haven’t heard him say so, but I’m sure he must have).”

Oscar Wilde's tomb, Pere Lechaise

Lytton has taken up the cause of petitioning the French government to remove the ghastly cover they have placed over the fabulous tomb sculptor Jacob Epstein, 32, created for Oscar Wilde, dead now almost 12 years.

This spring, suffragettes take their cause to the streets and attack shop windows around Oxford Street.

The lease on the Fitzroy Square house that Virginia has been sharing with her brother expires. They decide to go communal and share a house in nearby Brunswick Square with Duncan and Maynard, and ask Leonard to join them. When the Bells and Roger take off to Italy, Virginia and Leonard have more time to spend alone. By the end of May, she finally accepts his proposal. As her biographer and nephew Quentin Bell would write years later: “It was the wisest decision of her life.”

The summer is spent in wedding preparations, with Virginia being introduced to Leonard’s family. They aren’t impressed by her, and she writes to a friend, ‘I am going to marry a penniless Jew.’

Lady Gregory is in London with the Abbey, and Diaghilev has returned to Covent Garden with his Ballets Russes. Duncan has recently met Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, 22, at Ottoline’s Bloomsbury salon.

After the ceremony on August 10, Virginia and Leonard celebrate at a wedding breakfast hosted by the Bells. The newlyweds spend two days in Asham, but soon embark on their longest ever holiday, travelling through France and Italy until early October. After the Woolfs return, Vanessa writes to her husband, Clive:

‘They seemed very happy, but are evidently both a little exercised in their minds on the subject of the Goat’s [Virginia’s] coldness…Apparently she still gets no pleasure at all from the act, which I think is curious. They were very anxious to know when I first had an orgasm. I couldn’t remember. Do you?”

Roger has been thinking of opening workshops for his artist friends to create and sell the abstract textiles and pottery they have been working on. But this autumn his main project is the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibit at the Grafton Galleries.

Leonard is working as secretary to the show; Duncan has created a poster showing a horrified ‘fashionable’ lady;

Grant’s catalogue cover

and Clive has written the preface for the catalogue about the British artists, including his wife and Duncan, whom he praises as the ‘most talented.’

The critics agree about Duncan, but aren’t impressed by the 16 pieces by Pablo Picasso, just turned 31, and more than 40 pieces by Henri Matisse, 42. Although there were no women in the first exhibit the year before, Vanessa is now one among seven.

Two interested American visitors arrive, Arthur B. Davies, 49, and Walt Kuhn, 35, fresh from Paris in their quest for paintings for their own show in New York City next spring. They are not impressed with the British artists, but so love the Matisses that they write to their representative in Paris to persuade the American collectors there, Gertrude, 38, and Leo Stein, 40, to lend their own and intercede with the artist himself to send more. Roger agrees to close his exhibit early in the new year and send much of the work on to New York for the show at Manhattan’s 69th Regiment Armory in February.

Back home in America, Davies and Kuhn are planning the publicity for their show and anticipating the furore it will cause. They write to their representative in Paris:

“You have no idea how eager everybody is about this thing…Everybody is electrified when we quote the names, etc…[Irish-American art collector JohnQuinn, 42] our lawyer and biggest booster, is strong for plenty of publicity. He says the New Yorkers are worse than rubes, and must be told…Our show must be talked about all over the US before the doors open…”

John Quinn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s