Right at home with a revolution Bloomsbury Group: From his childhood surrounded by famous and colorful personalities, an aged man evokes a cultural moment.

Sun Journal

March 17, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

FIRLE, England - Quentin Bell, 85 and frail, remains a child of the Bloomsbury Group.

His aunt, the author Virginia Woolf, once ridiculed him for being ignorant. The economist John Maynard Keynes regaled him with sightseeing tours of London.

And his parents, Vanessa, the painter, and Clive, the art critic, introduced him to a bohemian lifestyle that encouraged free expression in art and in love.

"From an early age I knew that we were odd," Mr. Bell says in his new memoir, "Bloomsbury Recovered," summoning up his childhood at 46 Gordon Square near the British Museum in the Bloomsbury section of London.

While other households on the square painted their front doors ++ with sensible shades of black, gray or blue, Mr. Bell's family selected a bright red, a sign that convention was to be upended.

To be in this family was to have a front-row seat at the reshaping of Britain's literary and social life. Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf were sisters. Around them was a cast of intellectual stars, including Keynes, the biographer Lytton Strachey, the novelist E. M. Forster, the art critic Roger Fry and the painter Duncan Grant.

"It was an extraordinary childhood," says Mr. Bell, sitting in a well-worn chair in his living room, surrounded by mementos.

A table and coffee mugs are decorated with Bloomsbury's familiar bright and joyful colors. Hanging near a fireplace is the portrait of him that his mother painted when he was 10 years old, showing a studious red-haired child, pen in hand. A few fields away from Mr. Bell's home is his family's country retreat, Charleston Farmhouse, an elegant old place surrounded by southern England's rolling hills.

It was at Charleston where the Bloomsbury Group often gathered during the summers, and where they wrote, painted, experimented with their living arrangements and perhaps above all else talked.

It was an exclusive circle of friends as well as an emblem of a time and place. For the men, it had its roots at Cambridge University and with the society there called the Apostles, and in the adoration the young men had for the Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore, as he preached the virtues of friendship and beauty.

There was one other unifying factor, Mr. Bell says: money.

"Wealth gave them a sense of liberty and yet, at the same time, they were not tempted to do the rather dull things that rich people usually do here standing for Parliament, riding to the hounds," says Mr. Bell, a retired art history professor. They could afford their creativity and their experiments.

In aesthetics and sometimes in politics, Bloomsbury reveled in taking on the establishment.

Lytton Strachey did his reputation no good by publicly opposing Britain's role in World War I, while some of his Bloomsbury partners pretended to be farmers, the better to be exempted from the draft.

And then there was the all-important subject of art.

"The moments when Bloomsbury stood up and was counted and showed itself unwilling to accept public opinion were in the years from 1910 to 1918," Mr. Bell says. "Bloomsbury said that Cezanne is a great painter. That statement had to be fought for, and it must be exciting to fight for it. That battle had to be fought and won."

Throughout its history, the Bloomsbury Group flouted sexual conventions and constructed a web of entangling relationships.

Duncan Grant, the painter, carried on an affair with novelist David Garnett. Grant then took up with Mr. Bell's mother, Vanessa, and fathered a daughter, Angelica. Angelica would grow up to marry Garnett.

Mr. Bell's father, Clive, also remained a frequent household visitor over the years, usually showing up with a mistress in tow.

"I had one mother and four fathers," Mr. Bell says with a twinkle in his eyes.

"The behavior of my parents in manner of art and living was deeply unconventional," he adds. "You had to go to school, and, of course, the first thing your schoolmates wanted to find out is whether your parents were proper sort of people. Mine were not."

But if Bloomsbury had been concerned only with sex and relationships, it would have passed into oblivion, or been remembered only for self-indulgence. Bloomsbury survived on its artistic merits, and it was Mr. Bell who revived Bloomsbury's reputation in the 1970s with a landmark study of Virginia Woolf.

The biography detailed Woolf's productive, frenetic life, which ended with her suicide in 1941. It also dealt with her molestation by her half-brother, George Duckworth. "I was extremely sorry that I had to touch the subject," he says. "But I did have to state the facts as I knew them."

Mr. Bell's biography, coupled with Michael Holroyd's epic biography of Lytton Strachey, unleashed a Bloomsbury boom. In 1978, The New York Review of Books published an article entitled, "Virginia Woolf Fever," with the prediction that more would be known about the Bloomsbury Group "than of any other set of people in English literary history." The prediction was on target.

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