An exhibition at the Millenium Gallery, Sheffield, 25th November 2021 to 12th February 2022

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Interest in Bloomsbury never seems to wane. Books, newspaper and magazine articles, films, radio and TV programmes, all crop up regularly. And visitors flock to Charleston, the country home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.  There are also exhibitions, including the current one in Sheffield. I have to admit that my first impulse on hearing about it was to wonder if there is anything new to say or see about the “Bloomsberries”, a name applied to Virginia  Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the rest, by Molly McCarthy, wife of the writer Desmond McCarthy. She was captured on canvas by Bell.

It was the word “beyond” which attracted my attention and persuaded me that the exhibition might offer more than a round-up of the usual suspects. They are all there, of course. Woolf and her husband Leonard, Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Dora Carrington……the list goes on. And they are amply represented in paintings and photographs. The National Portrait Gallery provided a number of items from their extensive collection of material, and devotees of Bloomsbury won’t be disappointed with what they find on display. 

Of more interest, at least to me, were works by artists who, in one way or another, might be said to have been on the fringes of Bloomsbury. Matthew Smith, Edward Wadsworth, Nina Hamnett, William Roberts, Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg, and Mark Gertler.  Paintings and drawings by them can be seen in the exhibition, and to my mind often overshadow the visual work by “insider” Bloomsbury artists like Bell. Fry, and Grant. I don’t dislike Vanessa Bell’s paintings, for example, but they seem to lack individuality. You couldn’t say the same about Matthew Smith’s colourful portrait of Angelica Garnett.

The presence of the artists I’ve referred to does indicate that those in the close Bloomsbury group were meeting a variety of painters. When the London Group was formed in 1913 it included members of the Camden Town Group, Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticists, and people like Bell, Grant, and Fry. There is a delightful illustration by William Roberts which satirises the Bloomsbury contingent  as they appear to be debating something that  Cezanne did or said. Roberts himself had been influenced by Cubism, and would have been aware of Roger Fry’s important work in introducing French Post-Impressionist art into Britain. But a little gentle mockery doesn’t go amiss.

There are examples of publications from the Hogarth Press and products from the Omega Workshop. The display cases have interesting items with accompanying details. There were some minor errors (two different dates given for Vanessa Bell’s date-of-birth, for example) and a curious mistake in relation to Molly McCarthy. A note about her is accompanied by a copy of the American writer Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.  Surely someone should have spotted this? There appears to be no connection between the two McCarthys.

Beyond Bloomsbury is a generally worthwhile and informative exhibition. It will obviously appeal to those fascinated by the legends of Bloomsbury – the affairs, intrigues, and arguments – and the work, whether written or visual, created by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. But it also has the added value of widening the usual picture to incorporate other artists, writers, and personalities.

Sadly there isn’t a catalogue for the exhibition, nor were there postcards on sale. But there isn’t an entrance fee, just a request to make a donation. Its next stop will be York from 4th March to 5th June.