Unreal Food Uneaten

Julian Bell

  • The Art of Bloomsbury edited by Richard Shone
    Tate Gallery, 388 pp, £35.00, November 1999, ISBN 1 85437 296 3
  • First Friends by Ronald Blythe
    Viking, 157 pp, £25.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 670 88613 0
  • Bloomsbury in France by Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright
    Oxford, 430 pp, £25.00, December 1999, ISBN 0 19 511752 2

My grandmother was the painter Vanessa Bell. She died aged 81 when I was eight. I loved my grandmother, but 39 years later I have few memories of her. If, that is, a ‘memory’ is some kind of private mental property. The picture I have of her may be faintly tinted by first-hand experience, but its contours come from public documentation. Through biographies, critical writings and the tourist phenomenon of her home at Charleston, Vanessa has become a cultural commodity, and it’s this commodity I chiefly address if I think of her. Perhaps this is more or less the pattern of memory for anyone growing up in a home with a well-thumbed photo album. Looking over the snapshots of your childhood, it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish the savour of your primary experience from all the parental talkovers that have developed and transmuted the family story. With Vanessa, with Charleston, I’m not sure how to peel away the private colouring from the public lines, and to date I’ve felt no great urge to try.

Maybe one private half-image comes to mind. A polka-dot sleeve and billows of a polka-dot dress, and the rest of her obscured. She is in an armchair facing mine, and an easel and canvas come between us; I am being paid to sit for her. I’m puzzled: why, when I look up, is she always face to the canvas, never seeming to look at me? Well, I go on being puzzled, in a sense; I have never quite understood how it felt to be holding that brush on the far side of that canvas, even though I’ve followed her into the family trade of painting. Familiar as I am with her markings, fond as I am of them, I have never felt my way into them.

So perhaps there was an element of personal curiosity as I approached a show of Vanessa’s paintings at the Tate last winter, presented along with those of Duncan Grant and Roger Fry as The Art of Bloomsbury. On another level, I approached a show of that name as one does a walk down a rainswept trunk road: however close you pull your coat, you know you’re going to get soaked. In England, ever since Wyndham Lewis fell out with Roger Fry in 1914, ‘Bloomsbury’ has been a word that raises more hackles than hopes. To suppose that 85 years later the derisive clichés it provokes might make way for a rethink is to underestimate the tenacity of cultural stereotypes and the stale-mindedness of press writers like Philip Hensher (who twice rehashed Leavis’s line that the ‘set’ were not artists but self-publicists) and Waldemar Januszczak (‘Bloomsbury. Just tapping out these ten tedious letters has brought on a severe attack of RSI’).

Yet in truth – to throw off my coat entirely – I find myself readily empathising with that last remark, more readily, possibly, than I empathise with the work of painters I knew and loved. Whatever I may owe to my ancestors, ‘Bloomsbury’ is a memory, or commodity, on which I mostly turn my back. What is it that makes this discomfiture inescapable?

Evidently, Bloomsbury makes a strong salespoint because it’s a story with a strong mixture of ingredients: sex, friendships, betrayals, glam connections, nice locations, eccentric personalities, the odd suicide, a touch of politics, more sex ... Functioning as a haut-bourgeois soap, it affords a nice cue for moralising – ‘he shouldn’t have done that’; ‘she should have done this’ – and, for an English audience especially, it offers the nagging fascinations of class: we half-relish their snobbery and élitism, half-revel in the righteous disdain these provoke.

All this is a matter of broad cultural psychology, and complaining about it is like carping at the current placings in the pop charts – harmless, but pretty futile. The thing to acknowledge is that these are the leading factors drawing an audience to look at ‘the art of Bloomsbury’, whether in the Tate or at the customary shrine of Charleston. For – pace the drift of the Bloomsbury critics, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, with their demotion of illustration in favour of ‘significant form’ – people have always liked their pictures to bear on a good story. Why not? But then there’s a subsidiary headset guide to the pictures, the art-historical one; and it’s hard to listen to that and keep a cool head, because you find yourself listening to opposing voices, one in each ear.

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