Picture credit: Ralph Partridge/Frances Partridge/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Bohemian memories

The Bloomsbury Group lives on in our collective imagination

“Had a bonfire and burnt Mrs Bell’s mattress and lots of her clothes and pillows.” 

So wrote Grace Higgens in April 1961, nine days after her employer’s death, in a distinctly unsentimental housekeeper’s diary note.  

More than 60 years later, Higgens is an incongruous voice in “Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion”, a new exhibition celebrating the sartorial side of Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and her clique, “and how the 20th -cultural collective still impacts global style”. 

The show is the latest iteration of our oddly enduring thrall to the Bloomsbury Group, a social set of aristocrats, near-aristocrats, intellectuals, swingers and assorted hangers-on, often held up as the embodiment of British radical bohemia, the ultimate progressive movement.

It is not that the exhibition is fawning or without merit — it is a considered, thorough, beautiful and entertaining show. But it does reveal a sense of collective unease beneath our relentless Bloomsbury appetite.

Higgens’s diary is just one of dozens of objects, many of them never seen before, on display at the brand new Charleston Lewes gallery in East Sussex.

Curator Charlie Porter explores the wearings of Bell, a painter; her sister the writer Virginia Woolf; Bell’s husband, the critic Clive Bell; the painter Duncan Grant; monied party thrower Lady Ottoline Morrell and the rest, at their busiest period during the first half of the 20th century. He interrogates their sartorial choices against 21st-century concerns of gender, sexual freedom, liberation and rejection of the strictures of convention. 

Porter demonstrates how Morrell’s queer radicalism was expressed through deliberately unfashionable clothes; how Grant’s shambolic appearance allowed him to pass through society when homosexuality for men was illegal.  There are relics in vitrines — necklaces, bags, hats — as well as paintings, photographs, documents and contemporary installations. 

Luscious displays of contemporary, Bloomsbury-inspired pieces and catwalk collections by Dior, Fendi, Burberry, Comme des Garcons and Erdem provide evidence that the group remains a marketing marvel. 

Porter, a seasoned fashion writer, has an enjoyable new book out on the same subject.

But why do we want all this Bloomsbury? And why, nearly 20 years after the death of the last of them (the diarist Frances Partridge), are we still enthralled by a bunch who, at their worst, could be self-aggrandising, elitist, insular, and whose collective achievements were, as the novelist DJ Taylor has argued, of variable quality?  

Because enthralled we remain. Last year, 28,000 people visited Charleston farmhouse at Firle, Bell’s enviable, sixteenth-century rural retreat and studio about five miles out of Lewes, to admire the decorative furniture, murals and planting. 

Charleston farmhouse already hosts an ever-expanding, year-round Bloomsbury-themed programme. Last year it staged six exhibitions and more than 100 events over four festivals. It sold more than 60,000 tickets.  

Porter’s show, sponsored by Dior, is on display at Southover House in Lewes, now “Charleston Lewes”, an expansion of Charleston farmhouse by the Charleston Trust, paid for with private donations, a generous gallery, housed temporarily in a 1930s building directly opposite Lewes station, where Bell would send a horse and cart to collect her houseguests. A permanent “Bloomsbury Gallery” dedicated to the group’s paintings has also been mooted for the town. 

The new Charleston features two floors of exhibition space, workshops, learning programmes, a cafe and, inevitably, a large gift shop selling everything from repro-Bloomsbury ceramics and lampshades to rolls of fabric in Bell’s faux-amateur, hectic designs, not to mention books with titles such as Young Bloomsbury, Queer Bloomsbury, The Bloomsbury Cookbook and so on. Perhaps part of the answer to the question of their endurance lies in the Bloomsburys’ ability to be all things to everyone. 

But more than that, there is a sense of yearning in all this admiration, for a functioning Bohemia, and for the luxury of all the Bloomsburys’ time, their space, and all that freedom.  

In “Bohemia: History of an Idea”, another exhibition this year at the Kunsthalle in Prague, curator Professor Russell Ferguson of the University of California argued that contemporary and future bohemian lifestyles are atrophying, with potential creative classes in the West atomised, largely by relentlessly property prices. 

In the UK, the careers in literature or painting or cultural criticism that the group enjoyed are increasingly beyond the reach of all but the wealthy, just as they were in the first half of the 20th century. 

A bleakly utilitarian approach of a government … has done nothing to counter that

A bleakly utilitarian approach of a government that has chosen to push technological and business careers over artistic disciplines has done nothing to counter that. Much is made in the Lewes exhibition of how the Bloomsbury men railed against tailored suits and their patriarchal hold. A hundred years later, a life spent in suits remains what the world intends for us. 

By demonstrating the Bloomsburys’ enduring relevance, the exhibition is remarkably effective at demonstrating another truth: that many people remain trapped by the same stagnant conventions that Bell, Woolf, Grant and the rest railed against. 

They certainly achieved bohemian lives and liberation for themselves at Charleston. But if the rest of us want progress, we are going to have to lose our sentimentality. We need new progressives. 

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