Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Bloomsbury Group.

The Bloomsbury Group—or Bloomsbury Set—was an influential group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists, the best known members of which included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. This loose collective of friends and relatives lived, worked or studied together near Bloomsbury, London, during the first half of the 20th century. According to Ian Ousby, "although its members denied being a group in any formal sense, they were united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts". Their works and outlook deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality.

The lives and works of the group members show an overlapping, interconnected similarity of ideas and attitudes that helped to keep the friends and relatives together, reflecting in large part the influence of G. E. Moore: "the essence of what Bloomsbury drew from Moore is contained in his statement that 'one's prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge'".

Bloomsbury reacted against the social rituals, "the bourgeois habits ... the conventions of Victorian life" - its valorisation of the public sphere - in favour of a more informal, private-oriented focus upon personal relationships and individual pleasure: E. M. Forster lauded for example "the decay of smartness and fashion as factors, and the growth of the idea of enjoyment". His famous (or infamous) assertion that "if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country" belongs here.

The Group "believed in pleasure ...They tried to get the maximum of pleasure out of their personal relations. If this meant triangles or more complicated geometric figures, well then, one accepted that too". Yet at the same time, theirs was a sophisticated, civilized, and highly articulated shared ideal of pleasure: as Virginia Woolf put it, their "triumph is in having worked out a view of life which was not by any means corrupt or sinister or merely intellectual; rather ascetic and austere indeed; which still holds, and keeps them dining together, and staying together, after 20 years".

Politically, Bloomsbury held mainly left-liberal stances (opposed to militarism, for example); but its "clubs and meetings were not activist, like the political organizations to which many of Bloomsbury's members also belonged", and they would be criticised for that by their 1930s successors, who by contrast were "heavily touched by the politics which Bloomsbury had rejected".

Their convictions about the nature of consciousness and its relation to external nature, about the fundamental separateness of individuals that involves both isolation and love, about the human and non-human nature of time and death, and about the ideal goods of truth, love and beauty – all these were largely shared. These "Bloomsbury assumptions" are also reflected in members' criticisms of materialistic realism in painting and fiction, influenced above all by Clive Bell's "concept of 'Significant Form', which separated and elevated the concept of form above content in works of art": it has been suggested that, with their "focus on form ...Bell's ideas have come to stand in for, perhaps too much so, the aesthetic principles of the Bloomsbury Group".

Bloomsbury's final secret

Lytton Strachey's newly published letters reveal a sado-masochist who believed his attitude to sex was 100 years ahead of its time. Paul Levy introduces these exclusive extracts
Before I started editing the letters of Lytton Strachey five years ago, I thought I was familiar with just about all there was to know about the densely bearded author of Eminent Victorians - his magnificently expressed scorn for conventional wisdom, his pioneering views on sex, religion and Freud, his Cambridge alliances and Bloomsbury liaisons. I was wrong.
Strachey was a prolific and generous letter-writer: his correspondence represents the last unmined quarry of the Bloomsbury Group and the repository of its last secrets. And, though his life has been the subject of a classic biography by Michael Holroyd, until now his correspondence has not been easily available. Portions have appeared in the biographies of Strachey and his friends, such as Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes, but I have been able to make my selection using nearly all the extant letters (a few correspondences are missing, feared lost), and have seen that they are still full of surprises.
The more obvious revelations concern his sex life, but there is much else to be gleaned from them about the cultural atmosphere, and even the politics, of Britain before the Second World War. Strachey was a bundle of sharply - spikily - contrasting traits, a member of the intellectual aristocracy who relished his contacts with the aristocracy of blood, a democrat who was sometimes leery of the people, one of the original champagne socialists. He was a cynic who believed in love and a skeptic who thought religion and war were the greatest evils known to man.
He was openly homosexual, but his love affair with the woman painter, Dora Carrington, and her suicide following his death in 1932, constitute one of the most poignant love stories of our time (as told in Christopher Hampton's award-winning film Carrington). However, there was an unknown side to Strachey. As these letters reveal, he had a sado-masochistic relationship with the young man who became his last lover, Roger Senhouse, later the head of Secker & Warburg. I doubt whether anyone except the two men involved was aware of the nature of their liaison: indeed, even Michael Holroyd, who interviewed Roger Senhouse several times before the latter's death in 1970, confirms he did not know about the mock "crucifixion" they staged - an act that even in these sexually relaxed days still has the capacity to shock.
One has to wonder what the other members of the Bloomsbury group would have made of it. Although Carrington found him sexually attractive, the unprepossessing, etiolated Strachey was no Apollo, and there were always some who wondered if his sex life wasn't mostly fantasy. This correspondence shows otherwise.
To Maynard Keynes, April 8, 1906
Strachey regarded Keynes, a Cambridge contemporary and fellow homosexual, as a close friend, although they often vied for the favours of the same men.
It's madness of us to dream of making dowagers understand that feelings are good, when we say in the same breath that the best ones are sodomitical. If we were crafty and careful, I dare say we'd pull it off. But why should we take the trouble? On the whole I believe that our time will come about a hundred years hence, when preparations will have been made, and compromises come to, so that at the publication of our letters, everyone will be, finally, converted.
To Leonard Woolf, December 5, 1906
Leonard Woolf, Strachey's best friend and confidant, was working in Ceylon, while Strachey was earning his living as a freelance reviewer for 'The Spectator'. Woolf and Strachey exchanged letters almost daily.
As for my own particular future, I admit I feel a little wobbly. I wish I could talk to you about it. There are some complications, but on the whole it seems to me clear that I ought to stop journalism and begin some sort of real chef-d'oeuvre. But the necessary effort! God! Can I? I shudder on the brink. It would mean not only comparative poverty, which I think I might stand, but the dreadful weight of the responsibility attaching to meandering idleness. How am I to know that I can write a comedy? And, even if I can, have I the energy? I see myself in an eternal trance.
To Leonard Woolf, June 20, 1907
Since the summer of 1905, Strachey had been in love with his cousin, the painter Duncan Grant.
Have you ever been to the Trocadero? It's filled with little messenger boys, who do their best to play the catamite, but it hardly comes off. The nearest one of them got was to put his arm round Keynes' neck as he was helping him on with his coat! Remarkable? The truth is that sodomy is becoming generally recognised in England - but of such a degraded sort! Little boys of 13 are what the British Public love. There are choruses of them at most Comic Operas, and they flood all but the most distinguished of the Restaurants.
In Florence people have better taste. Duncan (who's there) writes to say that large crowds collect every day to see the young aristocrats bathe in the Arno - and they are 18 or so. As each one steps out of the water a murmur of approbation or the reverse rises from the crowd. They criticise details - that young man's legs are too fat - oh! the beautiful torso! etc. I long to go and live there, or at any rate stay there a week.
To Leonard Woolf, July 19, 1907
Since my last letter I have been at Versailles. For a week, with Duncan. I'm no longer in love - I can't imagine why I ever was; and as I say so I wonder whether I'm lying. I was nose-to-nose with him for a solid week; he was charming, amusing, even beautiful - but - he was cold and his coldness left me calm. My desires are usually active, and you've never dreamt of a place more obviously constructed for the convenience of copulations; he would be chaste, and, as we wandered side by side, in the full romance of dying twilight down gloomy avenues among statues of Ganymede and Silenus - I could feel nothing but the ridiculousness of the situation.
To Leonard Woolf, February 19, 1909
Strachey had been pressing Woolf to propose to Virginia Stephen for some time. His own spontaneous proposal was, terrifyingly, accepted; but Virginia rescinded her acceptance the next day.
The day before yesterday I proposed to Virginia. As I did it, I saw that it would be death if she accepted me, and I managed, of course, to get out of it before the end of the conversation. The worst of it was that as the conversations went on, it became more and more obvious that the whole thing was impossible. The lack of understanding was so terrific! And how can a virgin be expected to understand? You see she is her name. If I were either greater or less I could have done it and I could either have dominated and soared and at last made her completely mine, or I could have been contented to go without everything that makes life important. Voilà! It was, as you may imagine, an amazing conversation. Her sense was absolute, and at times her supremacy was so great that I quavered.
I think there's no doubt whatever that you ought to marry her. You would be great enough, and you'd have too the immense advantage of physical desire. I was in terror lest she should kiss me. If you came and proposed she'd accept. She really really would.
To Virginia Woolf, November 8, 1912
Strachey was incubating the idea of writing a series of portraits of Victorian writers and worthies - the germ of 'Eminent Victorians'.
Is it prejudice, do you think, that makes us hate the Victorians, or is it the truth of the case? They seem to me to be a set of mouthing bungling hypocrites; but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-great-grandchildren as we have discovered the charm of Donne, who seemed intolerable to the 18th century. Only I don't believe it... I should like to live for another 200 years (to be moderate).
The literature of the future will, I clearly see, be amazing. At last it'll tell the truth, and be indecent, and amusing, and romantic, and even (after about 100 years) be written well. Quelle joie! -To live in those days, when books will pour out from the press reeking with all the filth of Petronius, all the frenzy of Dostoievsky, all the romance of the Arabian Nights, and all the exquisiteness of Voltaire! But it won't be only the books that will be charming then. The people! The young men! ... even the young women... but the vistas are too exacerbating.
To Henry Lamb, February 20, 1914
Strachey was infatuated with the heterosexual Lamb.
After I left you I went into the Tube, and saw a very nice red-cheeked black-haired youth of the lower classes - nothing remarkable in that - but he was wearing a heavenly shirt, which transported me. It was dark blue with a yellow edge at the top, and it was done up with laces (straw coloured) which tied at the neck. I thought it so exactly in your goût that
I longed to get one for you. At last on the platform I made it an épreuve to go up to him and ask him where he got it. Pretty courageous wasn't it? You see he wasn't alone, but accompanied by rather higher class youths in billycock hats, whom I had to brush aside in order to reach him.
It turned out (as I might have guessed) that it was simply a football jersey - he belonged to the Express Dairy team. I was so surprised by this that I couldn't think what other enquiries I could make, and then he vanished. I reflected that perhaps at that point the man of action would have shown his qualities - that it's easy enough to begin, but the great thing is to be able to go on and pousser les affaires jusqu'au bout.
To Roger Senhouse, February 11, 1927
Although Strachey had had a heterosexual relationship with the painter Dora Carrington, with whom he set up house in 1917, he soon became predominantly homosexual - with an occasional flicker of interest directed at women, including Katherine Mansfield. His last boyfriend was Roger Senhouse, who subsequently became a distinguished publisher.
Dearest old creature, what a villain you are! It was certainly settled that you were to keep Monday for me, and now I gather you've arranged to do something else. Tut, tut! What is to be done with you? What fearful punishment? To stand with the right ear nailed in the pillory, I think, at Piccadilly Circus, from midday to sunset on that very Monday!
To Roger Senhouse, Wednesday, July 30, 1930
Strachey had always delighted in verbal blasphemy - and, as described here, playing at crucifixion added erotic spice. I imagine the cut was made, à la Longinus's spear, in Strachey's side, which would have made it difficult to apply the salve.
My own dearest creature. Such a very extraordinary night! The physical symptoms quite outweighed the mental and spiritual ones - partly because they persisted in my consciousness through a rather unsettled but none the less very satisfactory sleep. First there was the clearly defined pain of the cut (a ticklish business applying the lanoline - but your orders had to be carried out) and then the much vaguer afterpangs of crucifixion - curious stiffnesses moving about over my arms and torso, very odd - and at the same time so warm and comfortable - the circulation, I must presume, fairly humming - and vitality bulking large... where it usually does - all through the night, so it seemed. But now these excitements have calmed down - the cut has quite healed up and only hurts when touched, and some faint numbnesses occasionally flit through my hands - voilà tout, just bringing to the memory some supreme highlights of sensation...
There are other things I want to talk to you about. First of all, my dearest creature, it was such a relief and comfort - more than I can say - to be able to talk to you so easily. What blessedness! The wretched thing was that the certitude of your affection, which had been quite solid in me for years, began (about three or four months ago) to weaken and waver - with sad results. The anchor had lost hold, and I was drifting.

 Charleston: the Bloomsbury Group's favourite house
An ambitious but sensitive redevelopment project is set to begin at Charleston, the Bloomsbury Group’s country retreat in East Sussex

Virginia Woolf wandered its corridors, discussing philosophy with her sister Vanessa Bell. John Maynard Keynes wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace in an upstairs bedroom. Duncan Grant – who lived here until his death in 1978 – painted directly on the walls. All of them were having affairs with each other.
Though the Bloomsbury group was named for that smoky corner of central London, it is the country retreat, the 16th-century stone farmhouse at Charleston in East Sussex, that has become its shrine.
Charleston: the Bloomsbury Group's retreat in pictures
Though it might be calmer than in that carnal heyday, Charleston is busier than ever. Tens of thousands of visitors turn up annually to troop around, admiring the frescoes and hoping to absorb that creative spark that flourished here. So many, in fact, that the house is starting to suffer. Rather like the Lascaux caves, Charleston is being slowly destroyed by its popularity.
To cope with all the traffic, plans are afoot for a £6.3 million redevelopment project, which will turn neighbouring buildings and barns into extensions of the house, taking the pressure off the rambling cottage and adding a raft of new features. The ambitious project was recently kick-started by a £2.4  million Heritage Lottery grant.
The two men entrusted with the difficult task of balancing historical relevance with contemporary needs are the Canadian architect Jamie Fobert and the conservation architect Julian Harrap. Fittingly, even in person the two men represent a dashing combination of old and new.
Fobert’s other clients include Givenchy and Donatella Versace, while Harrap’s include the venerable Sir John Soane museum in London. Essentially, Fobert will look after the new build vision, while Harrap will ensure things are not just visual replicas but engage meaningfully with the original point of the farmhouse. The wooden farm gates, for example, must be able to withstand the sudden arrival of a stray cow.
The vintage barns will be restored using historically sourced wood, and their crooked metal girders will be replaced with a timber frame. The biggest barn will be used for artistic programmes, and one arm will become a restaurant.
The old granary barn, which was knocked down some years ago in favour of an unsightly tractor shed, will be rebuilt.
Behind the barns there will be a large new gallery in a “hidden” courtyard. It will hold exhibitions, many of which will be drawn from the 8,000 drawings, paintings and artefacts which were given to the Charleston Trust by Duncan Grant’s daughter Angelica three years ago.
The spaces within the new gallery can easily be modified or taken down, and have been designed to mirror the main house as closely as possible so that exhibits retain some sense of their “farmhouse” context.
Well aware that these Lottery moments only come once in a lifetime, the planners have left nothing to chance. Even the walkers looking down on Charleston from the South Downs have been taken into consideration. So as not to shock them, the roof of the new gallery will be created from Corten, which is superficially pre-rusted steel with the same terracotta colour as the aged tiles on Charleston’s roof. The new car park will be ingeniously hidden in a maize field.
Even though the Bloomsbury Group in its day was the height of modernism, Fobert and Harrap are trying to turn the clock back, albeit in a contemporary way.
“We used this as a guide,” says Fobert, pointing to a 1930 picture by Duncan Grant of the courtyard, gates and barns. They are following the image faithfully, making only very small changes to the layout.
Perhaps swayed by this attention to detail, the council was quick to give planning permission “They gave us no revisions or restrictions,” Fobert says. “They understood that our core rationale was to support the house.” Raised in the small university town of Kingston, Ontario, Fobert had only heard of Virginia Woolf of the Bloomsbury group when he was growing up.
Although he admits he finds Charleston “a bit decorated” for his own taste, he understands its importance to British sensibilities.
“The amazing thing about it is that it isn’t just a literary or an artistic house,” he says. “It was for everything.”
Charleston’s director, Colin McKenzie, thinks that it is this inclusive nature of the group which has given them their lasting appeal. “They provide a sort of unlimited programme,” he says. “When one of the Bloomsbury set is out of fashion, five others are in.”
On top of the Lottery funding, McKenzie needs to find £4 million privately. He’s already raised £1 million, but needs the remainder before the plans can be realised. Despite the austere times and arts cuts, he seems confident the house has a fan base out there.
Perhaps he’s right. Charleston promotes a gloriously ramshackle aesthetic which can still be found on a domestic scale right across Britain. It is not an off-putting contemporary museum, crammed full of art that nobody understands, and neither is it a Grand Designs-type living “pod” full of seamless German kitchens.
Though the redesign is ambitious, it is quietly so. Perhaps noting the discontentment some brand-new Lottery-funded galleries have caused in their locality, Fobert and Harrap appear to have played down their architectural egos in favour of keeping the atmosphere of Charleston intact.
“We were determined not to change the experience of the landscape and the house,” says Fobert. “If the Heritage Lottery grant’s goal is to preserve heritage, then our work is as clear as can be. Maintaining the status quo is important in England. People are nervous about change.”
Whether you admire Woolf and the rest or condemn them as middlebrow, sex-mad snobs, there’s no disputing that the Bloomsbury movement was a crucial moment in the development of British art, and this rickety old house was at its heart.
For more information on Charleston: 01323 811265;

 Doing the Charleston: The country hideaway where the Bloomsbury Set loved in triangles

'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,' wrote L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel The Go-Between. It is hard to disagree with the sentiment when you spend just a few hours in one of Britain's glorious historic buildings.
You don't need only to visit the historic heavyweights offered by organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage, though.There are countless privately-owned houses up and down the country vying to transport you back to another age, flinging their doors wide open to reveal priceless treasures and gripping tales of the people who lived there.
In our new occasional series, TravelMail looks at some of these houses, exploring their stories and finding out from the experts what not to miss.
First, we focus on Charleston in Lewes, East Sussex, the country home and meeting place of the writers, artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group.
With help from the team behind the trust that runs the property, TravelMail puts one foot in the past...
Why is Charleston special?
The house is the only surviving example of complete interiors by the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant anywhere in the world. Decorated top to toe by its inhabitants, who were inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists, it is almost a living artwork with ceramics, textiles, colourful furniture and paintings.
It seems there was no end to the group's talents. Developed over the couple's 60 years here, the house incorporated their impressive collections, as well as their own work, and some contributions from the many key figures in British 20th century history who were their guests.
Who lived here?
A good place to begin is the quote attributed to Dorothy Parker, who is said to have quipped that 'Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles.'
Painter Vanessa Bell - the sister of writer Virginia Woolff - moved to Sussex in 1916 with artist and decorator Duncan Grant in a set-up that was unusual for the time. The pair were involved romantically - they had a child together - and Vanessa's husband and art critic Clive Bell also lived for a time at the house.
Grant's lovers David Garnett and economist John Maynard Keynes joined them for periods too. Other visitors included Virginia and Leonard Woolf, writer E.M. Forster, biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey and artist Roger Fry.
'The group were interested in working out a new way of living here, a different approach to friendships, relationships and family life,' says Megan Wright, of the Charleston Trust.
'And so the many changing physical relationships within the group weren’t ever in the closet for them – not so much a source of scandal – and not as important as the enduring friendships they shared.'
What they said about Charleston...
'It’s most lovely, very solid and simple, with…perfectly flat windows and wonderful tiled roofs. The pond is most beautiful, with a willow at one side and a stone or flint wall edging it all round the garden part, and a little lawn sloping down to it, with formal bushes on it.' Vanessa Bell
What is there to do?
Apart from exploring the house, there is a cafe, shop, gallery, gardens and picnic area, not to mention bracing walks in the spectacular South Downs. Paintings on show include works by Renoir, Picasso, Sickert and Delacroix.
How original is it?
The house is restored to how it would have looked in the 1950s, when several of the key characters in its history were living here permanently. Most of the rooms changed their use over the decades the family spent here – the dining room was always the dining room, for example. The wallpaper dates from the late 1930s though – produced in the run up to WW2. The family painted directly onto the walls together and remember this process helping them alleviate the tension. In other areas, you can see decorations that date from 1916, the year the family first came to Charleston.
Three things you can't miss
Megan says: 'Duncan Grant’s studio and paintings by the artist and Frederick Etchells, last hung together a hundred years ago and currently on loan from the Fitzwilliam and Tate until October 28.
'And finally the beautiful garden before winter claims it back.'
Travel Facts
The house and gardens are open to visitors from Wednesdays to Sundays up until October 28. Adult tickets cost £9.50. For more information and to find out about events, visit

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