The Philosophy and Aesthetics of The Bloomsbury Group

January 20, 2019

One of the most interesting artistic phenomenon on the British soil at the beginning of the 20th century, the Bloomsbury Group gathered young people willing to break with conservative and highly rigid social cannons using innovative ideas which went beyond the constraints of art. Namely, the writers, intellectuals, philosophers, and artists embraced experimentation in their daily lives and practiced new forms of relationships and social interactions.

A large number of people gathered around this rather informal group came mostly upper-middle-class professional families, and was closely associated with the Cambridge University for men and the King's College London for women. They lived, worked and studied, as the title of the group suggests, near Bloomsbury, in London. In retrospect, the activity of the group immensely influenced the development of literature and art criticism, reflected largely on aesthetics and economics, and promoted modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality.

Left Duncan Grant - Portrait of Vanessa Bell Right Vanessa Bell - Flowers
Left: Duncan Grant - Portrait of Vanessa Bell, 1917. Image via Flickr / Right: Vanessa Bell – Flowers. Image via Flickr

The Origins and Members of The Bloomsbury Group

The story of The Bloomsbury Group started around 1899 when a group of men befriended Thoby Stephen and his (rather famous) sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, as well as other women.

The leading members of the group were Clive Bell, art critic, Vanessa Bell, the post-impressionist painter, E. M. Forster, fiction writer, Roger Fry, art critic and post-impressionist painter, Duncan Grant, post-impressionist painter, John Maynard Keynes, economist, Desmond MacCarthy, literary journalist, Lytton Strachey, biographer, Leonard Woolf, essayist and non-fiction writer and Virginia Woolf, fiction writer and essayist.

Vanessa Bell began organizing the Friday Club in 1905, while her brother run Thursday Evenings, so these gatherings were the first impulses of the Bloomsbury Group. A year later Thoby tragically passed away of illness which shook his peers and they became even more attached to each other; they became what is now known as the Old Bloomsbury, however, the group changed with the upcoming generations during the 1920s and 1930s.

All of the members were interconnected since they were either in marriages or in love affairs. For example, Duncan Grant and his lover Lytton Strachey became really good friends with the Stephen sisters, Vanessa and Virginia; Grant had affairs with siblings Vanessa and Adrian Stephen, as well as David Garnett, Maynard Keynes, and James Strachey. Clive Bell married Vanessa in 1907, and Leonard Woolf married Virginia in 1912.

The group gatherings took place not only in their homes in central London, but also at their countryside estates such as Lewes in Sussex: Charleston Farmhouse, where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant moved in 1916, and Monk's House (now owned by the National Trust), in Rodmell, owned by Virginia and Leonard Woolf from 1919. The group attracted a great number of other intellectuals, relatives, and friends such as T. S. Eliot, Vita Sackville-West, and Dora Carrington to mention a few, and they were not necessarily members of The Bloomsbury Group.

Dora Carrington Stephen Tomlin Walter John Herbert Sprott Lytton Strachey
Lady Ottoline Morrell - Dora Carrington; Stephen Tomlin; Walter John Herbert ('Sebastian') Sprott; Lytton Strachey, June 1926. Vintage snapshot print. Image via creative commons

The Modern Ideas

The Bloomsbury Group was quite influenced by the ideas proposed philosopher G. E. Moore; that overlapping and interconnection of the members was based on their pursue for creation, enjoyment of aesthetic experience and knowledge. They was quite determined to deconstruct the rituals of the British society, especially the bourgeois habits of the Victorian life by proposing an informal, yet sophisticated and highly articulated ideal of personal relationships and individual pleasure.

Logically, the Bloomsbury Group advocated mainly left-liberal standpoints, but they were initially not involved in political debates, which changed with their 1930s successors. However, they supported the campaign for women’s suffrage, which was perhaps best expressed in the fictional Virginia Wolf’s The Years and Night and Day works about the movement.

When it comes to visual arts, one of the most important proponents was painter and art critic Roger Fry who joined the group in 1910; he proposed the Post-impressionism, empowered the other artists, and  rejected the traditional distinction between fine and decorative arts. Fry’s writings collected in 1920 book called Vision and Design, along with the book called simply Art by Clive Bell published in 1914, were among the most influential art writings which shaped the development of modernism.

Left Roger Fry - Self portrait Right Dora Carrington - Portrait of E M Forster
Left: Roger Fry – Self-portrait, 1928. Image via creative commons / Right: Dora Carrington - Portrait of E. M. Forster, 1924-25. Image via creative commons

The Cultural Significance of The Bloomsbury Group

The development of the Old Bloomsbury was disrupted with the outbreak of World War I and along with it just about everything else in modernist culture. A large number of men belonging to the group were conscientious objectors, which was quite controversial at the time.

However, the 1920s were quite fruitful for some individuals of the Bloomsbury Group: E. M. Forster wrote the novel Maurice which could not be published because it treated homosexuality untragically. In 1917, Virginia and Leonard Woolf founded their Hogarth Press and published the literary works of T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, and others. On the other hand, a new generation of artists belonging to the group in the 1930s - Barbara Hepworth, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, and Henry Moore - was much more interested in social ideals and abstraction which was in sync with the tendencies and general socio-political atmosphere of their time.

The Old Bloomsbury Group was criticized for their elitist lifestyles and even their art which was considered as decorative and unoriginal in contrast with their later achievements. Nevertheless, the art production of the Bloomsbury Group was progressive because it did not nurture only the innovative approaches in the practical sense, but it also enforced emancipatory processes, which were of great significance in broader social and even political sense.

Although their achievements may seem traditional when compared with later twentieth-century art, their radical ideas of flexible relations, community, solidarity, mutual understanding, and empowerment were and still are of extreme importance for constructing a better society.

The bloomsbury group virginia and leonard woolf clive keynes, time and life in london virginia woolf clive london keynes life virginia woolf clive london keynes life virginia woolf Editors’ Tip: The Bloomsbury Group

The Group began the twentieth century with a desire to challenge what they felt were the religious, artistic, social and sexual taboos of Victorian England. Together they created a revolution in British style that resonates with contemporary painters, writers, actors, designers, fashion editors and publishers. The Group began the twentieth century with a desire to challenge what they felt were the religious, artistic, social and sexual taboos of Victorian England. Together they created a revolution in British style that resonates with contemporary painters, writers, actors, designers, fashion editors and publishers. This book explores the impact of Bloomsbury personalities on each other, as well as their legacy to the twenty-first century.

Featured image: Left to right: Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Nys (neither members of Bloomsbury), Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell. Image via creative commons.