The Bloomsbury Group

Georgina Dorothy

The Bloomsbury Group were a group of friends like no other before them (or at least not historically recorded previously…)

A group of artists, creatives, who left their privileged, ‘classically British’ upbringing and high-class society to live together at Charleston in East Sussex. Their modernist home became a studio, gathering many of the early 20th century’s most radical authors, thinkers, painters, and artists, many of whom were queer women and men who lived and worked to redefine society and ‘normality’ that was rapidly changing in the inter-war years. Their personal relationships were private, public, scrutinised, gossiped about, and cheered from all angles and today they are among the many important figures in LGBT history. I am a historian passionate about shedding light on little-known stories, female history, domestic life (the good, the mundane and the areas rarely considered important), art, design, culture, love, gossip and a little sex and scandal all mixed together. The Bloomsbury Group bring together many of these areas, while look at them from a wide gaze, I hope to share a brief overview of why these people “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”, as American Poet Dorothy Parker, from the Rothschild family, describe the group as. Dorothy also wrote the original script for ‘A Star is Born’ (1937), which has been re-made 4 times! Today the group of men and women is admired as change-makers. The Bloomsbury Group was a bunch of friends, though really, they are a collective of some of the most gifted and talented people of the early 20th century in Britain. Among their creative, literary, and academic ideas and values, they collected in their mutual liberalism and ideals for love, sex, relationships, and friendships. They supported young, up-and-coming artists and left a legacy of 30 years. This article, I’m aware, reads like a gossip column of who was with who, who liked who, who kissed who etc. though I hope to show that a century ago people loved who they wanted regardless of the law, and as with now, anyone and everyone should be able to love who they love, be friends with who they want, have fun with their group. As long as you’re safe, happy and consenting mutually, you do not need anyone else’s approval or opinions about what you do either side of a closed door. Numbers and names come and go, or grow, and that is alright. As with privacy today, I’ve kept to names that are known and tried not to allude to any acts or actions that are not needed to know or factually known. Whatever age you are and whoever you love, it is your own choice to share intimate information about you, especially when it comes to matters of the heart, mind and soul. Among the Bloomsbury Group were two iconic sisters – Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. You may know Virginia Woolf for her literary achievements including her infamous novel Orlando published in 1928. Orlando is seen as a slight biography of Woolf’s life and the family of friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. *Spoiler* Orlando is essentially a history book about the aristocracy in England, yet as a novel, it is satirical, with Orlando (the main character) living for centuries, changing genders externally from male to female. They meet a variety of famous characters including King Charles II and Alexander Pope and the novel ends in an interestingly abrupt way, into Virigina’s lifetime. *If you haven’t read it yet, it has been published nearly 100 years, so get reading!! In 1917, Vita escaped to Europe for two years with a lover Violet Trefusis, causing gossip and scandal in high society. In 1922, Vita and Virginia met, and it’s said Vita was attracted to Virginia’s genius, leading to the very passionate and actively sexual relationship.
The Bloomsbury Group
Virginia Woolf

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Male Homosexuality was a criminal offence in the U.K. In 1921

Male Homosexuality was a criminal offence in the U.K. In 1921 there was an unsuccessful vote to criminalise sexual acts between women also. Politicians feared if this was announced illegal, it could encourage women to explore each other sexually. “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia… It is incredible how essential to me you have become” wrote Vita in 1926 to Virginia within many of their hundreds of romantic letters to one another. Both were married to men, Harold Nicholson and Leonard Woolf, yet both husbands also came to have same-sex affairs. Leonard saw how positively Vita impacted Virginia life and her work, so gave no objection to their continued relationship. Virginia and Vita’s relationship can be felt across Bloomsbury in London, Charleston, and Knole Park in Kent. Knole is a National Trust property with six centuries of history. Joining royal possession with Henry VIII. In 1603 Thomas Sackville made Knole home for his family, where extensions, interior alterations and designs displayed the family’s status, wealthy and later creativity for 400 years. Fast forward to the early 20th century and Vita and her cousin Eddy Sackville-West (who inherited the estate) lived and entertained in this calendar house which has an unknown number of rooms… What secrets can be found within them? I fear I’ll explain Eddy Sackville-West’s life and loves too briefly by name. He bought his joint property ‘Long Crichel House’ in Wimborne with his partner Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the author and music critic; and art dealer Eardley Knollys (Bloomsbury Group member, with life partner Frank Coombs). Knollys and Sackville-West formed a male salon with gay activity Patrick Trevor-Roper, Raymond Mortimer and National Trust writer and historian James Lees-Milne. E.M. Foster, author of A Room with a View and Howards End was among Knolly’s lovers and Bloomsbury Group fellow member. Howards End’s Schelegel sisters is inspired by Vannessa Bell and Virgina Woolf, both née Stephen. While we’re focused on the male side of the Bloomsbury Group, it’s interesting to know Foster, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes met at King’s College, Cambridge where he joined the Apostles Society who met to discuss philosophical and moral questions... Did this lead them to their more modern way of living and loving? Well Strachey joined Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf (3 guesses who they marry), Saxon Sydney-Turner and A.J Robertson to form the Cambridge Midnight Society which was the source of the Bloomsbury Group… Thoby Stephen then became a friend, bringing in his sisters Vanessa and Virginia into the group.
Ancestry UK

Vanessa was a leader of the British Post-Impressionism movement

Back to Charleston now, home of Vanessa Bell and her lover Duncan Grant. Vanessa was a leader of the British Post-Impressionism movement. Born into Victorian “intellectual aristocracy” she became an artist and interior designer – literally painting their whole house including the doorknobs, ceilings, and fireplaces – her unique artistic flair can be seen throughout Charleston House. The bohemian way of life inspired Bell and Grant to colour and paint every inch. Bell flirted with abstractionism, painting some of Britain’s first non-representational paintings. She later painted domestic life, landscapes and still lifes also, though much of her work was destroyed during the Blitz in Bloomsbury. With husband Clive Bell, Vanessa had two sons, Julian (died during the Spanish Civil War) and Quentin (father of living, notable textile designer Cressida Bell). They had an open marriage which was new and unheard of at the time. She had an affair with Roger Fry and painter Duncan Grant. Vanessa, Clive, Duncan and his partner David Garnett lived together, painting from Fry’s Omega Workshops. Vanessa and Duncan had a daughter named Angelica Vanessa Garnett (1918-2012). She wrote a memoir Deceived with Kindness about her experiences in the heart of the Bloomsbury Group growing up with many parental figures and a wealth of love, happiness, and heartache. Now why does Angelica have her biological fathers’ boyfriend's surname…? In 1942, aged 24, Angelica married David Garnett. They had four daughters – Amaryllis, Henrietta, Nerissa and Frances. Garnett had written to Lytton Strachey upon Angelica’s birth (while in a relationship with her father) “Its beauty is the remarkable thing… I think of marrying it; when she is 20 I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?” Their love inspired David’s novel Aspects of Love, of which Andrew Lloyd Webber produced a musical about! David and Angelica separated in 1967. George Bergen (another lover of Duncan), Russian-Jewish painter, began a short-lived relationship with Angelica. After her father's death in 1978, she moved back to Charleston to paint, work with mosaics, ceramics, and textiles. Another twist is that Henrietta Garnett married Lytton Burgo Partridge, who was the son of David Garnett’s first wife’s sister Frances Partridge! There are many more stories to learn and share about this fascinating group. Their art was radical at the time, contributing greatly to the British art progressions. In literary terms, their influence was huge. In 1917 Leonard and Virginia set up The Hogarth Press to publish contemporary fiction, writers included Virginia herself, T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and E.M. Forster. Please do read more about this creative group and follow in their footsteps one day too. I’ve loved every step I’ve taken around their homes! Places to visit to see Bloomsbury Group’s work or lives: Charleston Farmhouse, Firle, East Sussex Tilton House, Firle (John Maynard Keynes & wife Lydia Lopokova’s home) Knole Park, Kent (Vita and Tom Sackville-West’s Home) – National Trust Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent- (Vita Sackville-West’s home) – National Trust Monk’s House, East Sussex (Leonard & Virginia Woolf’s Home) – National Trust Bloomsbury, London The Church of St Michael and All Angels, Berwick, East Sussex (painted by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Quentin and Angelica) The Round House, Lewes, East Sussex (Leonard & Virginia’s Home)
The Bloomsbury Group

Georgina Dorothy

Georgina is a historian and Archaeologist currently completing a Masters in Heritage Management with Historic Royal Palaces and Queen Mary University of London. She has worked in Product Development and Visitor Experience for Museums globally, currently based at Brooklands Museum. Her undergraduate Archaeology Dissertation focussed on the International Significance of Brooklands.
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