The extraordinary writers, artists and thinkers of the Bloomsbury Group had a profound effect on British art and literature. Prolific, passionate and hugely gifted, their story is just as compelling as the work they created.
This autumn, a major new exhibition, Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love and Legacy, chronicles the lives, loves and work of this remarkable collective during the first half of the 20th century.
Beyond Bloomsbury brings together over 140 paintings, sculpture, works on paper and supporting material to celebrate the Group’s key figures, including writer and feminist pioneer Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. Alongside these more familiar narratives, the exhibition also shines a timely spotlight on their often overlooked peers, as well as reflecting on the Group’s important place in queer art history.
Curated through a partnership between Sheffield Museums, York Museums Trust and the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition makes its debut at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery on Thursday 25 November before continuing at York Art Gallery in March 2022.
The Bloomsbury Group was formed in London’s Bloomsbury District at the start of the 20th century, united by their liberal attitudes and desire to challenge conventions. Gathering together to share and debate ideas and discuss each other’s creative activities, they developed into a complex network of association, friendship and love. Amongst the romantic relationships they formed, many were between same-sex partners, challenging the societal norms of the time. Most of the portraits and wider representations featured in the exhibition are informal and intimate, and were often made as tokens of friendship or love – when displayed together they bring to life an intensely creative group of people who were passionate about their work and each other.
Primarily drawn from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery and enhanced with works from the collections of Sheffield Museums, York Museums Trust and a range of key loans, Beyond Bloomsbury will include paintings by Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, sculpture by Marcel Gimmond and Stephen Tomlin, and drawings and photographs by Cecil Beaton, George Charles Beresford, Lady Ottoline Morrell and John Nash.
On public display for the very first time, a portrait of Virginia Woolf by Ray Strachey can be seen alongside supporting material from Woolf herself, E. M. Forster, Vita Sackville-West and George Bernard Shaw. The exhibition will also include new work by contemporary artist, Sahara Longe, specially commissioned by Sheffield Museums and York Museums Trust to respond to the exhibition and the work of Bloomsbury artists.
Highlights in the exhibition include:
George Charles Beresford, Virginia Woolf, 1902: This portrait shows Virginia Woolf at twenty years old. During this time, she was beginning her writing career and had recently published her first novels, The Voyage Out (1915), and Night and Day (1919).
Vanessa Bell, The Memoir Club, around 1943: This portrait depicts eleven key figures associated with Bloomsbury, including Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf, David Garnett, Quentin Bell and E.M. Forster. On the wall behind are painted portraits of past members of the group - Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry.
Duncan Grant, The Mat Maker, 1913: This painting depicts Vanessa Bell finishing a rug in preparation for the opening of the Omega Workshops, an enterprise selling furniture, fabrics and household accessories produced by artists. As directors of the workshop, Bell and Duncan Grant were involved with Omega from its conception, and together they created some of Omega’s most experimental designs.
Barbara Mackenzie-Smith, The Bird Cage, around 1930: Barbara McKenzie-Smith was a close friend of Julian Bell and was one of a younger generation of artists to visit Charleston, the Sussex home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and gathering place of the Bloomsbury Group. Julian felt that her presence brought a new life to the house, declaring that Charleston became grey and dismal after her departure. The setting depicted within this painting is unidentified, but it was completed around the time of MacKenzie-Smith's visits to Sussex.
Kirstie Hamilton, Director of Programmes at Sheffield Museums said: “The story of the Bloomsbury Group’s creative achievements and the relationships they shared during the first half of the 20th century remains vivid, vital and compelling almost a century later. We’re delighted to be working with the National Portrait Gallery and York Museums Trust to explore the lives and achievements of those at the Group’s heart and the remarkable figures around them.”
Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London said: “We are delighted to be partnering with our colleagues in Sheffield and York to create this once in a generation opportunity to see some of the nation’s best-loved portraits exhibited together outside of London. Through all our projects and partnerships we hope to be able to share our Collection with new and different audiences across the UK, some of whom may not have had the opportunity to visit the Gallery in London.”
Becky Gee, Curator of Fine Art at York Museums Trust said: "We are thrilled to be working in partnership with Sheffield Museums and the National Portrait Gallery to tell the stories of not only the artists, but the writers, dancers, activists and philanthropists that were connected to the Bloomsbury Group. The exhibition will allow us to celebrate the LGBTQ+ relationships of the Group and explore these histories in our own collections. We are delighted to be working with painter Sahara Longe who has produced four new portraits that will sit beautifully alongside those from the National Portrait Gallery collection."
The exhibition coincides with the publication of The Bloomsbury Group, a new book by author Frances Spalding, a leading authority on the Group. Presenting fascinating biographies, the book is illustrated with paintings and intimate photographs created by members of the Group, demonstrating how this network of artists, lovers and patrons recorded one another obsessively in both words and images. The Bloomsbury Group is published by the National Portrait Gallery, London and is available now.
Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love and Legacy opens at Millennium Gallery, Sheffield on Thursday 25 November 2021 and continues until Sunday 13 February 2022 – entry to the exhibition is free.
For more info: www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/museums/millennium-gallery/exhibitions/beyond-bloomsbury-life-love-and-legacy