Bloomsbury Recalled

Bloomsbury Recalled

by Quentin Bell


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Bell's extraordinary memoir of the influential Bloomsbury group, a circle of intellectual giants that gathered in London in the early part of this century.

-A cheerful, amiable, charitable account of Bloomsbury's men and women, by a son of one such couple -Janet Malcolm -New York Times Book Review -As many of these Bloomsbury figures have already generated extensive literature, the reader might justifiably wonder if there is anything more to be said. . . . It is not only that Bell, reasoning carefully, has new things to say, he is determined also to banish tendentiousness and pedantry with his sense of fun! -Francis Spaulding -

Times Literary Supplement

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231105644
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 04/04/1996
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 0.63(w) x 6.14(h) x 9.21(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

The younger son of Vanesa and Clive Bell, Quentin Bell was born in 1910. He is a painter, sculptor, potter, author and art critic and has been professor of fine art at Oxford; and professor of history and theory of art at Sussex. His books include On Human Finery, and the two-volume Virginia Woolf: A Biography, which won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and is the stadard biography of Woolf, who was his mother's sister.

Read an Excerpt


Pig in the Middle

THIS BOOK BEGAN as an autobiography. There was a time, not so long ago, when I thought that it would be agreeable to write my own life. After three failures I have changed by mind; therefore the main body of this work is devoted, not to me, but to my elders and betters, a term I have used to describe my parents, their friends and acquaintances. Nevertheless I have found it necessary to say something about myself. My portraits are based largely upon my own observation; the character of my evidence depends upon my qualifications as a witness and the reader is entitled to examine me before hearing my testimony. Like those figures upon the margin of a canvas pointing inwards towards the main subject of the picture, I need not stand in an important position, but I must be present, for the visible spectator provides a human scale and may also establish the period of the whole.

The definition of the period is indeed very important. Nearly all of those persons whom I describe were born before 1890; I was born in 1910. I could not examine my subjects intimately before they were middle-aged and before that time (say, 1920) they had known a world at peace and thereafter had witnessed horrors - war, famine and revolution - an age of violence and insecurity that is still with us today. I grew up amongst people who, because they were older than I, were less able to enjoy the novelties of life and were more sensible to the distresses of the age than we, their children.

Of those people whose portraits I have attempted, the majority were artists or patrons of the arts, that is to say of the visual or literary arts, and were described, perhaps rather loosely described, as Bloomsbury. I saw Bloomsbury at close quarters in what I consider to be its final period, a period which ended when the Second World War began. This also was the end of my rather long nonage.

The period that I shall now try to discuss is therefore not very long, and later I shall not stay within its limits, but it seems worth describing for there are few people who had the same kind of experience and are alive today.

I was born at 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. The doors of No. 45, No. 47, and indeed of all the other houses in the square, were black, or if not black, dark grey or a funereal blue. The door of No. 46 was a startling bright vermilion. The colour had been chosen by my mother, Vanessa; she also decorated the interior of the house, making use of equally startling colours. My father, Clive Bell, was in those days a left-wing radical. From an early age I knew that we were odd.

I and my brother Julian, two and a half years my senior, went together to be educated in a school on the other side of the square; it catered for very small boys and for girls of all sizes and offered prayers of a non-denominational kind every morning. Julian made friends with a little boy, the son of a Nonconformist clergyman who lived nearby in Taviton Street. Our nurses took us together to Regent's Park; there my brother and his friend held discussions which usually went above my head but in one of them I learnt that some day I must die.

When we visited our friend's home I was amazed and impressed: everything was so smart and clean and highly polished. I admired the lincrusta wallpaper, the photographs framed and mounted in velvet, the polished brassware and above all the elephant's tusk, wonderfully carved to resemble a steadily diminishing procession of little elephants. It was all new and splendid.

Then one day we learnt that our friend was forbidden to speak to us. We were rejected, not on account of our parents' taste in interior decoration, but because Julian had ventured to cast doubts upon the historical accuracy of the book of Genesis.

It was we who were nonconformist. We - that is the Bell children - might fall to believe in the story of Noah's Ark and no great harm would come of it; there were only a few people who felt deeply on the subject. But everyone - so it seemed - was agreed that the Germans were inhuman beasts, everyone that is, except our parents. We had a nurse and a nursemaid, Mabel Selwood, whom I loved and who had succeeded a certain Elsie whom I dreaded and detested. Mabel had a lover, a non-commissioned officer in the Coldstream Guards. Mabel was enthusiastically patriotic and infected me with her enthusiasm. Sometimes at night I would see the angry, terrible face of the Kaiser glaring at me out of the darkness. After tea, in the drawing-room, I played at being a gramophone scratching a chalk in circles upon the drawing room floor and bawling out the most atrocious abuse of the enemy. My uncle, Leonard Woolf, who was both musical and a socialist, found these exhibitions noisy, vulgar and disgusting. He and Virginia learned not to call at No. 46 at times when they might expect a recital from me.

I had as one may say `known about the war' from the beginning, but I do not think that I understood that the war could affect me or my family. At first it was something at once distant yet terrifying but which also engaged my enthusiasm. There was, in those early days, no rationing and among my parents' friends no one who seemed in danger. But in 1915 something did happen which struck my imagination forcibly.

In Fitzroy Street a short walk from where we lived there was an excellent baker called Zeller who made the best bread and buns in our neighbourhood. In 1915, when the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine, a band of `patriots' marched upon Mr Zeller's shop and smashed its windows. It transpired that Mr Zeller was not responsible for sinking the Lusitania and was in fact Swiss. I hope that he was properly compensated; certainly his windows were replaced and decorated with the arms of that German family which now called itself Windsor.

I heard of this incident at a time when I was becoming aware that my family and many of the friends of my family did not share those patriotic feelings which prevailed in the nursery and in our school. Was it not possible, if the Germans should be so disobliging as to sink another ship, that the crowd would batter down our bright red door in Gordon Square?

In 1916 the Government, having failed to defeat the enemy with an army of volunteers, and that army having sustained a great many casualties, it was decided to impose compulsory military service. My father and many of his friends were faced by the need to serve in what seemed to them a foolish and unnecessary quarrel, or to go to prison. There were however means of escape: men engaged in work of national importance were, if they could satisfy a tribunal, exempted. To this end my father took refuge at Garsington, the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, and there rode about the estate looking agricultural on a horse. Duncan Grant who, for as long as I could remember, had been practically a part of our household, went to Wissett Lodge in Suffolk. With him went David Garnett who had been serving with the Friends' ambulance in France. Their plan was to gain exemption from military service by fruit growing. Vanessa, her servants and her children joined them.

Wissett Lodge was a delightful place: there was a big garden and two large ponds, one of which was stocked with a great shoal of goldfish, fish so unsophisticated that a child might catch them in his hands. The garden was a perfect place in which to play and we got into a great deal of mischief. The grown-ups seemed infected by our wild behaviour, so much so that they joined in the war games to which we were addicted. One in particular was to end the delights of Wissett for me. Julian and I having decided to be Athenian soldiers, and having armed ourselves with staves as tall as ourselves went charging across the lawn to vanquish some imaginary Spartans. I fell and struck the razor-sharp edge of a broken flower pot. As I turned towards the house I called out, `I've cut off my leg, I've cut off my leg, it's only hanging on by the skin'. I was an over-imaginative child, but the wound was undoubtedly severe. I still bear the scar.

The rest of my time at Wissett was spent in bed and I returned to London in a horizontal position. For some reason I found London charming, seen from a back window in Gordon Square. I remember listening with delight to the sound of the muffin man's bell and watching the beams of the searchlights shining up into the night sky.

Although my brother and I did not know it, a tribunal had refused to exempt from active service Duncan and his friend, David Garnett, whom we called Bunny. It was a worrying time for our mother. I remember how one evening at Gordon Square she described Charleston, the new home to which we were going. With a slow deliberate pencil she traced the shape of the house, its walled garden, the pond in front and another pond behind, the paddock, the lawns and the orchard.

In October 1916 two conscientious objectors, either of whom could have been prosecuted under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, a woman with two unruly children and no visible husband, one servant and a dog, were deposited at the gate of Charleston by Mr Sutton's ancient taxi-cab.

For my part I was disappointed. I had been told that Charleston was in the south (it is in Sussex). I had recently been taken to the cinema for the first time and had seen a film of Captain Scott's expedition to the Antarctic. This, like Charleston, lay to the south of 46 Gordon Square and I had hoped for penguins and ice floes. If we had waited a few weeks I might have been satisfied. I remember during the cold winter of 1916/17 walking across the field with a bucket to the only spring in our neighbourhood which had not frozen up.

Even in summer it was a cold house; the only source of hot water was the kitchen range; cold water had to be pumped up by hand. At night one took a candle to bed and tried to walk bravely past dark corners. By day we lived mainly in the dining room; here we learnt to read and write and speak a few words of French, here I wept over the difficulties of the seven times table. Here during the March offensive of 1918 distant gunfire from across the Channel shook our windows as it was to shake them again in the summer of 1940. Here we ate our increasing y frugal meals.

The newest thing in that neighbourhood was the railway, and despite the railway the pace of life was very slow. A few miles from us at Charleston there was a great chalkpit where, until comparatively recently, the chalk had been loaded upon an ox-cart. The ox carried its load without supervision: it set off alone with a blow to its rump, making its way down Bo-Peep Lane towards the green lane that is now the A27 from Brighton to Eastbourne. This it crossed. Knowing its way it proceeded onwards, turning neither to right nor left, until it reached the railway station at Berwick. It took a long time to make the journey for the ox, although immensely strong, is slow. Those farmers who found it worthwhile to plough downland still made use of oxen in the early decades of this century; the horse was too weak to pull a plough through such steep stony ground. It was not until the tractor arrived that the ox was finally despatched.

The old farm workers were pleased to see the tractor: `it put the noses of them fuckin' horses out of joint'. For them, the horse was a modern intruder.

We children soon found a paradise in the garden and beyond where military and naval games could be played. The downs were grazed by sheep which cropped the grass to one vast natural lawn, free then of the wire fences of more recent times. Here one might find dewponds and in them great crested newts with orange bellies and even, which was surprising, little fish. The old road which ran along the foot of the downs from Firle to Alfriston was still used by the grocer's van (it is now a cart track), while the `new' road which found its tortuous way around the fields and on to Lewes, was safe for children on donkeys. In later years I would cycle alone the eight miles into Lewes to purchase gunpowder, ostensibly for use in a muzzle-loader.

It almost seems that Vanessa had her children educated upon homeopathic principles. The school in Gordon Square which taught us to be religious and patriotic, and the nurses who took a very similar view of what was suitable for children, were succeeded by a governess who tempted my brother to repeat his doubts concerning the book of Genesis. She took us first to the Selmeston Church and then to the Charleston pew at Firle. Her views about the war were equally conventional. She had a good deal of trouble with Julian; me, she spoilt. She called herself Mrs Brereton and had a daughter, whom we children liked, also an amiable, rather feeble young man, but there was no visible Mr Brereton. In this she conformed to the mores - if that be the word - of Charleston.

Nevertheless she took a poor view of us and thought us culturally pretentious; she deplored our taste in interior decoration and wrote a satirical novel about us. If this is still in existence and some scholar were to find it he would have, at least, a literary curiosity - one of the very first satires on Bloomsbury and, who knows, perhaps a masterpiece. As I have said Mrs Brereton spoilt me and I was devoted to her. She taught me a certain amount of history, a subject on which she was entertaining though not reliable.

Mrs Brereton had a friend in the War Office who convinced us that we were winning even when it seemed that we were not. In the end we did win. Peace, but not plenty, arrived and was followed by a baby sister and a time of what seemed even greater hardship than we had known during the war. We boys became an unbearable nuisance at Charleston. We were sent off to the Woolfs at Asham, a few miles away, which was a treat, then we were at Hogarth House, Richmond, until Leonard took us back tO 46 Gordon Square which at that time contained a mixed population consisting of Clive, Maynard Keynes, Harry Norton the mathematician, J.T. Sheppard, who was later to be Provost of King's, and various `on-withs' such as Mary Hutchinson. Clive did his best to amuse us; we saw the ballet, we made ourselves ill at Buszards' tea rooms, we were taken to the cinema. But in the end we proved too much of a nuisance and were sent back to Charleston.

When I was about eight or nine I had an aesthetic experience which seems worth recording. In the nursery at 46 Gordon Square there had been a gramophone - a large square box with a horn above and a dog on its side. There were also some records of patriotic songs - the only one that I recall dating from the Boer War. This machine came from Gordon Square to Charleston but I do not remember it being used there although there was no other. When I found it, it had been taken to pieces and these were covered with dust. With the machine there was a record and on the record was a label which I could not understand. I was alone but it was not very difficult to reassemble the pieces by myself. I knew there should be a needle and there was none, but by this time I was determined to make the thing work. I took a penknife and walked out into the field in front of the house, there I found a blackthorn and cut off a twig; this supplied me with several needles. I wound-up the machine. At Charleston there was no musician and no musical instrument. What I heard was thus quite unexpected, ghostly faint but very clear and pure. I now realize that it was a partita by Bach, but at the time I had no name for it. It moved me to tears.

The incident has a certain historical interest. Nowadays we are so lavishly supplied with music that it is unlikely to come as a novelty even to a child of eight. The sad thing is that this lovely surprise did not come to a young musician.

The events of the next few years might with care be placed in chronological order but hardly deserve such exact consideration; for a time I was educated by Miss Rose Paul and for a time I was again at school in Gordon Square.

We spent one autumn in St Tropez, at that time a very quiet place where children anticipated the licence of a later age by bathing naked in the sea. But I was unhappy there. I think that Julian and I were both jealous of our sister Angelica, although it was surely natural that the youngest should, in some ways, be preferred and Vanessa had always wanted a girl. I can speak with some certainty about my own feelings - the feelings of the pig in the middle.

Thus, when I was about ten years old, I wanted to commit murder. I decided to kill Angelica's doll, a rather smart French affair with eyes that opened and shut and an imbecile simper. One afternoon, when there were no witnesses, I flung it down violently upon a stone floor, cracking its skull; it was made of some tough composite material, and its foolish smile remained intact so that it seemed to have defeated me. I remember the deep feeling of guilt with which I concealed evidence of my crime, which in fact was never found out. In later years I did still resent being, as I saw it, the least favoured child and this feeling did not entirely vanish until I became aware that Duncan, not Clive, was Angelica's father.

It was on our return from France that Julian and I discussed the future rather seriously. He was to leave Owen's School in London and go to Leighton Park. I was to go to a preparatory school in Hampstead. Julian had been unhappy at Owen's School, but thought his new school would be more congenial. He was to be miserable, as I too was to be miserable, at Leighton Park, but now for several years I was to be fortunate in my education. Peterborough Lodge was a good school, standards were high thanks to the large influx of boys from jewish families living in Hampstead and I fell in love, intellectually and perfectly innocently, with a very bright little boy, the son of a Dr Roaf. I have always expected to find that unusual name in some list of distinguished scientists or academics. He soared above me to a higher class and seemed destined for great achievements.

We used to meet in the playground during the mid-morning break and discuss things that were not on the school curriculum: the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, the possibilities of science, the scientific stories of H.G. Wells, the likelihood of a war with the United States, also the political arguments of the moment.

It was a time when I was becoming aware of politics. Julian had come back from school declaring that he was a socialist. I decided that I was a liberal. It was 1924 and Ramsay MacDonald had formed the first Labour government. A memory of that time sheds some light on my mixture of cleverness and simplicity. For some reason, when we were tete-a-tete, one of the masters read me john of Gaunt's patriotic speech from Richard II (`This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle' etc.) and asked for my comments. I saw the speech as a piece of party politics. I did not say that john of Gaunt was a humbug or a jingo but I did say that he was `laying it on a bit thick' or words to that effect: he was denouncing the opposition and courting the favour of the electorate.

I realized at once that I had said the wrong thing. My teacher was moved, not only by Shakespeare's poetry but also by his own patriotic feelings. Did I not share them? I supposed that I did, it was an aspect of the matter that had not occurred to me. He was very annoyed and, as I see now, thought that I was teasing him. If only he had given me a hint of the answer for which he was looking I am sure I should have obliged for he could, and indeed did, make my life unpleasant.

Altogether it was a time when I was learning a good deal for in addition to my studies I was in a way being instructed by Maynard Keynes.

Clive had suggested that I should be sent to live in France rather than go to a public school. The suggestion was made after lunch one day and included all sorts of glamorous and enticing embellishments. I was present and did not know that plans made after lunch should not be taken too seriously. When I discovered my mistake I was in despair. It was Vanessa who mended matters.

An amiable Monsieur Renoir, a nephew of the great Impressionist, had a colleague, Monsieur Pinault, at the Lycee Louis Le Grand in Paris who could house me and teach me and thither I was sent at the age of fourteen in the spring of 1924.

The first few days were horrible; I discovered that I could not understand a word of the language, but Monsieur Pinault was a good teacher and I soon found that I could make myself understood and then that I could understand. Madame Pinault was a kindly woman and a wonderful cook - I became enormously fat.

Monsieur Pinault was one of those Frenchmen whose whole life had been changed by the Affaire Dreyfus. It had made him a passionate enemy of militarism, implacably hostile to the church, a supporter, though not I think a member, of the Communist Party and a trade unionist. He was a cultivated man with a proper respect for the writers of the Grand Siecle, but his real enthusiasm was for Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists, for Victor Hugo, and for Zola; amongst the painters he admired Delacroix and Courbet.

My own opinions had already been affected by Julian's socialism and I found myself able to agree with a good deal of what Pinault had to say. There was a generosity, a decency and an intellectual curiosity about Pinault which made him hard to resist. I did not then know that his taste for good food, good wine and intelligent conversation was surpassed only by his appetite for young women.

After 14 July we left Paris, took the train for Argenton and went thence to Gargilesse, a village in the foothills of the Massif Central, made famous by George Sand. Here the Pinaults had a daughter, a son-in-law and a farm, and there Pinault became a new man, stripping off his ugly, respectable city clothes and prefabricated tie to wear the simplest dress or, occasionally, none at all as when he strode through the turbulent water of the Creuse, muscular, hairy and hellenic, casting his net for fish. I remember him again building stooks of his son-in-law's wheat while I worked behind with the gleaners.

A few months ago I had a letter from M. Renoir reminding me that he had introduced me to Pinault and asking me whether it had been a success. I replied, truthfully, that it had been by far the most valuable part of my education and had enriched my life enormously.

When I arrived at Leighton Park, Reading, in the autumn of 1924 I was terribly fat, bad at games, hopeless at mathematics, very weak in all subjects save scripture (it has always been my forte and was a favourite with Pinault). I was in truth bad at everything, even French, for although I could talk, I could not and still cannot, write French. I learnt very little, I was for a time perfectly miserable, later on I was merely bored. My school life was nasty, brutish and, thank heavens, short. I never even attempted. school certificate and after three years, when I was 17, I left.

Shortly afterwards I went to Munich where I suppose I did learn something; the Alte Pinakothek is not only a rich collection but one in which nearly all the great European schools are represented, and a seat in the gallery at the opera only cost 50 pfennig.

The following year I again went to Paris and it was then that I began to paint seriously - my career as an art student is touched on below. In the summer I went to La Bergere, a house which my family in some fashion shared with a retired Colonel Teed who was a vintner and made excellent wine. This was in Cassis, which the Colonel described as the Latin Quarter of Sodom and Gommorah.

In two successive summers I found myself sharing the house with Clive and as it were playing the part of Leporello to Clive's Don Juan; at times it was difficult and painful, at other times very amusing. At the end of that first summer I took a boat from Marseilles and went to Naples. I spent a frugal and solitary winter in Rome, frugal because I had spent far too much of my allowance on taking and furnishing a studio in the Via Margutta, solitary because in the first place I knew no one and saw no one until the last few months of my tenancy, also because I found that I rather enjoyed solitude.

I returned in the summer of 1929 via Arezzo and Florence to Cassis, where I found Clive trying to maintain a complicated relationship with a young woman.

As before, the complexities of life were interesting but in a new way, for now I myself was involved as the friend, and later the partisan, not only of Clive's inamorata but of Clive's rival, Yvonne Kapp. The alarums and excursions of that triangular affair concern me here only because Yvonne and I became friends and with certain lacunae have remained friends until the present day.

When I fell in love with Yvonne it must have seemed, to adapt a phrase of Jane Austen's, that I did so `to disoblige my family'. In fact I had no ulterior motive, I just found her voice, her appearance and her mind immensely attractive, as indeed did Clive, but that did nothing to alleviate the situation which indeed was depressing. Yvonne at that time, and perhaps still, disliked almost all the works that Bloomsbury has ever written or painted. Bloomsbury (by which I really mean Clive) was mildly dismissive of Yvonne's writings, but when she became a member of the Communist Party there was no lack of ammunition to throw in her direction. I imagine that both sides enjoyed the exchange of fire, but for the pig in the middle it was no fun at all.

In 1933 Yvonne and I took a holiday in southern Spain. We returned, as we had set out, by sea, and during the voyage I developed a bad cold. When I got back to Charleston it persisted. I began to run a constant high temperature and a cough, my pleura was affected and at one point the doctors emptied it, drawing off about a quart of fluid which looked very like champagne. Dr Chalmers, a celebrated specialist, diagnosed tuberculosis and, acting on his advice, I spent the winter of 1933-4 on the top of a Swiss mountain.

I was not alarmed. I was convinced that I was not really consumptive; also, apart from the cough and high temperature, I did not feel at all ill. I enjoyed some fierce arguments with a clergyman, managed to do a little painting, and embarked upon historical research on the principality of Monaco for which I was totally unqualified. This activity, which had been suggested by Yvonne, was a wonderful medicine. My lack of qualifications forced me to educate myself and, although I never knew enough to get in sight of publication, it kept me cheerful. By the spring my cough was silenced, my temperature was normal and, having grown quite slender at school, I became rather fat.

The following winter I spent in the south of France; still at work on my ludicrous research I had the impertinence to visit the great Monsieur Gabriel Hanoteaux, an eminent historian, a man who once came within an ace of making a war between England and France, who had seen the great charity bazaar fire in 1899 and who now had - what shall we call it? - the generous folly to give me letters of introduction to the monsignori who could admit me to the archives of the Vatican. When I consider my ignorance I am astounded by my courage.

I was given a lift to Rome in Vita Nicolson's chauffeur-driven car, it having been lent to Vanessa. Angelica, who came with us, has described that Italian sojourn in her autobiographical work Deceived with Kindness. Reading her account I am saddened to discover how many vexations she suffered at a time when I had supposed that she was enjoying herself. She does not reproach me but I feel that I was very insensitive. An excursion which we made southwards via Naples and thence to Paestum and which I found immensely enjoyable was, as she remembers it, a succession of miseries - dirty hotels, filthy lavatories, bugs, heat, food and indigestion for which the charm of Caserta and the splendours of the Poseidon Temple failed to console her; it makes melancholy reading.

While we were in Italy many of the masterpieces of Italian painting were being exhibited in France. It was this which decided me to return home a little earlier than my family and to travel via Paris. When I got back to Gordon Square I found Julian and Clive planning a journey to China. Julian had that afternoon been offered a chair in the University of Hankow. Ever since coming down from Cambridge he had been looking for job.

Table of Contents

1. Pig in the Middle1
2. Clive Bell22
3. Vanessa Bell43
4. Duncan Grant59
5. David Garnett71
6. Maynard Keynes85
7. Roger Fry106
8. Leonard Woolf116
9. The MacCarthys129
10. Meetings with Morgan140
11. The Stracheys147
12. Ottoline Morrell161
13. Ethel Smyth169
14. Claude Rogers and Lawrence Gowing176
15. Robert Medley and Mary Butts193
16. Anthony Blunt203
Appendix I A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas212
Appendix II Maynard Keynes and His Early Beliefs221

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