Going beyond the fashionable Bloomsbury Group to paint a fuller picture of 20th century world of art, literature and love

Becky Gee, curator of fine art for York Museums Trust, at the launch of the Beyond Bloomsbury exhibition at York Art Gallery. Picture: Charlotte Graham, courtesy of York Museums Trust

BEYOND Bloomsbury: Life, Love & Legacy, the spring exhibition at York Art Gallery, explores the extraordinary lives and work of the Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and thinkers.

Active in England in the first half of the 20th century, the amorphous but amorous group met for 30 years, but with their unconventional lifestyles, bohemian airs and smart London and southern country addresses, they have since drawn opprobrium for their elitism as much as praise for the artistic acuity, audacity and intellect of writer and feminist pioneer Virginia Woolf, her sister, painter Vanessa Bell, and their contemporaries.

Acerbic New York satirist, poet, writer and critic Dorothy Parker famously drew on geometric imagery to say the prolific, passionate and hugely gifted group “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”.

Now, Beyond Bloomsbury finds a different angle, telling the story of not only the artists, but also the group’s writers, dancers, activists and philanthropists, as York Art Gallery and exhibition partners Sheffield Museums and the National Portrait Gallery showcase 60 major loans of oil paintings, sculpture, drawings and by Bell, Dora Carrington, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, Gwen Raverat and Ray Strachey.

Alongside them are four new portraits by Sahara Longe, commissioned by York Museums Trust and Sheffield Museums to respond to the Bloomsbury Group and the exhibition themes.

Becky Gee, curator of fine art at York Museums Trust, says: “We proposed a show at York Art Gallery to the National Portrait Gallery in 2019, and when they said they were looking for a gallery to tour it to too, that’s when Sheffield Museums became involved, and we worked closely together on the research.

“The exhibition should have opened here, but then Covid intervened, so Sheffield hosted it first at the Millennium Gallery.”

York Art Gallery staff take in the expanse of Lydia Caprani’s expansive mural wall at the Beyond Bloomsbury exhibition. Picture: Charlotte Graham, courtesy of York Museums Trust

Now, for the York run, Bloomsbury-inspired murals and fireplaces by graphic artist Lydia Caprani have been added, while Caprani has worked collaboratively with York LGBT Forum and Kyra Women’s Group to create decorative pieces to complement the Bloomsbury works.

“The reason I proposed this show is that, firstly, I knew the National Portrait Gallery had a strong holding of Bloomsbury Group artworks, offering the chance to equally profile the work of men and women: highlighting women’s art, women’s histories,” says Becky.

“Because of the nature of the portraits, we could tell the stories of writers, dancers and activists, as well the artists.”

Equally important to Becky was a desire “for a long time to examine how LGBT histories and women’s histories are present in our own York Art Gallery collection, whether through the artists identifying as LGBT or through the subject matter.

“I knew that the Bloomsbury Group were involved in a lot of gay relationships, so we worked with York LGBT Forum, and there’s now a permanent display on that theme.

“To make that work happen, it’s good to attach it to a bigger project and I knew that would be a way to work with the LGBT Forum.”

Explaining the reasoning behind the Sahara Longe commissions, Becky says: “I thought, it’s not good enough just to put the LGBT histories and women’s histories on show, but we should also look at how the Bloomsbury Group was not progressive in certain areas.

Roger Fry’s portrait of Edith Sitwell in the Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love & Legacy exhibition at York Art Gallery. Picture: Charlotte Graham, courtesy of York Museums Trust

“It soon became apparent that the collection we were working with was not telling the full story, so to broaden that narrative, Sahara was perfect to work with. 

“She studied painting at a very traditional Italian school, studying the techniques of master painters, and in her work she places Black figures in spaces traditionally filled by white portrait subjects, and luckily she thought it was right to do the portraits for this exhibition in a post-Impressionist style.”

Among Sahara’s portraits – along with novelist Mulk Raj Anand, Black queer Jamaican dancer and choreographer Berto Pasuka and Patrick Nelson, Jamaican boyfriend of Bloomsbury Group artist Duncan Grant – is the Jamaican writer and activist Una Marson, painted in oils on jute. 

“She was the first Black woman to broadcast on the BBC, and as far as I’m aware, there have been no portraits of her until now. She featured in Voice, a radio series produced by Goerge Orwell for the India section on the BBC Eastern Service in 1941, and she wrote poetry and plays, as well as her radio broadcasts, many of which contributed to her feminist, anti-colonial and anti-racist actions.”

Visitors move through three galleries, the first introducing the figures associated with the Bloomsbury Group, highlighting the importance of personal relationships, conversation and the privilege of time and space wherein to pursue creative practice.

Even if Vanessa Bell expressed initial disquiet at moving to Charleston Farmhouse in the Sussex countryside in 1916 with her sons Quentin and Julian: “It will be an odd life…but it seems to me it might be a good one for painting,” she wrote.

The second centres on the Omega Workshops, an enterprise established by Roger Fry in 1913 to sell furniture, fabrics and homeware designed by leading artists of the day, plus the rival Rebel Arts Centre. 

Becky Gee, curator of fine art at York Museums Trust, who worked for three years to put the Beyond Bloomsbury exhibition together . Picture: David Harrison

The third gallery focuses on activism and philanthropy, identifying causes of importance to group members and highlighting how such beliefs shaped the group’s collective mentality, such as being involved in establishing the Contemporary Art Society, in which York Art Gallery has played its part since the 1920s.

Summing up Beyond Bloomsbury, Becky says: “One of our aims is to celebrate the good but to critique the bad too, because if we didn’t do that, we’d just be telling the same story again.”

Oh, and should you be wondering what an exhibition about a bunch of posh arty southerners is doing in a Yorkshire gallery, Becky is quick to point out: “Look out for the portrait of Edward Carpenter, who lived just outside Sheffield.

“He was a Victorian gay rights activist and writer, so he’s from the generation just before the Bloomsbury Group, and he influenced EM Forster, a gay writer who did not come out in his lifetime.

“Edith Sitwell features in the exhibition, and the Sitwells had Scarborough connections, owning Woodend in the resort.”

Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love & Legacy runs at York Art Gallery until June 5. To book tickets, go to: yorkartgallery.org.uk.

Morgan Feely, senior curator at York Museums Trust, stands by Vanessa Bell’s portrait of David “Bunny” Garnett, painted in oil and gouache on cardboard, at the Beyond Bloomsbury exhibition. Picture: David Harrison