Bloomsbury Beginnings: The Friendship of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry

Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry were the three key artists of the Bloomsbury group – a group of artists, writers and thinkers responsible for radical innovations in twentieth-century literature, art and design. The friendships formed in the Bloomsbury group were lifelong and shaped the artists’ work together, from Bloomsbury in London to Charleston in Sussex.

In 1904, Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf (then Vanessa and Virginia Stephen) used the newfound freedom following their father’s death to move to Bloomsbury in London – much to the horror of their friends and family. There they began to make lives for themselves, exploring their respective arts, and formed a network of friendships that would last their lifetimes. It was the beginning of the Bloomsbury group.

Vanessa Bell was attending the Slade School of Art and, alongside her work and studies, she set up the Friday Club, a group of artists who met weekly to share ideas and support each other’s creative activities. The artists formed close connections and, through the Club, Bell met the man who would eventually prove to be the love of her life – the artist Duncan Grant. The Friday Club was part of a wider Bloomsbury circle, which included Grant’s cousin Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and Vanessa Bell’s husband the critic Clive Bell. While the Bloomsbury group would continue to meet for the next thirty years, the Friday Club came to an end in 1910 at a time of great change in the art world.

‘On or about December, 1910, human character changed’, wrote Virginia Woolf about Roger Fry’s ground-breaking exhibition ‘Manet and the Post Impressionists’, which introduced London to the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. While the exhibition outraged the public, and for a while cost Fry his reputation as an art critic, the Bloomsbury group met it with great enthusiasm and Fry became a central figure in their circles.

When Vanessa Bell met Roger Fry that year, their friendship, brief romantic relationship and the works she saw at his exhibition gave her a new artistic direction. She became interested in Fry’s Post-Impressionist theories and began to experiment with colour and form, moving away from directly representational art. Bell was a source of inspiration for Fry too; her attitude towards interior design, which rejected a dreary, fussy Victorian aesthetic in favour of simplicity, bright colours and bold design, encouraged Fry to establish the Omega Workshops, a design collective based at 33 Fitzroy Square in Bloomsbury that would include many of the twentieth century’s most avant-garde artists. Inspired by the spirit of Post-Impressionism, the Workshops produced items for the home designed and made by artists – from printed fabrics to ceramics, furniture and clothing.

Friendship was key to the Omega Workshops. By the time of the Workshops’ opening, Bell, Grant and Fry had become close friends, painting together regularly, and all three were co-directors. As well as furthering the Post-Impressionist movement, the Workshops gave artists a space to work and socialise together, supporting each other financially and breaking the isolation that was often part of an artist’s work.

However, just two years after the Omega Workshops opened, the three co-directors were rarely painting together. Bell and Grant had become closer, as Fry complained in a letter to Clive Bell: ‘In painting Nessa and Duncan have taken to working so entirely altogether and do not want me […] I find it difficult to take a place on the outside of the circle instead of being, as I once was, rather central.’ In 1916, Bell and Grant would move to Charleston, and when the struggling Omega Workshops had to close, just six years after they opened, Fry was the only original artist still working regularly at Fitzroy Square. Fry wrote in a letter to a friend ‘The utter indifference […] of the public to what we have attempted has bought Omega to disaster.’

Together at Charleston, Bell and Grant decorated the interiors of their house; the playfully painted surfaces and furniture make it the embodiment of a Post-Impressionist home. They brought an array of Omega objects with them – and to this day, you can find pieces at Charleston, from the tableware they ate with to the chairs they sat on. Charleston became the country home of the Bloomsbury group, with artists, writers and intellectuals making regular visits to the rural home in Sussex. Bell and Grant’s domestic and creative partnership would endure for 50 years, and, although Grant’s sexual relationships were generally with men, they had a child, Angelica, together in 1918. Despite their close partnership, Bell and Grant maintained creative and romantic connections with other people, and their friendship with Roger Fry lasted until his death.

Roger Fry lived long enough to see many of his once bitterly attacked theories accepted and, by the time of his death in 1934, he was recognised as a champion of modern art. His death devastated the Bloomsbury group; Vanessa Bell decorated his casket in a last tribute to him and Virginia Woolf wrote in a biography after his death that ‘[h]e had more knowledge and experience than the rest of us put together.’ Fry’s theories, as well as his generosity of spirit, had encouraged much of the Bloomsbury group’s innovation, and they would ensure that he was remembered to this day as both an art critic of great influence and as a true friend.

 

The exhibition Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops continues at Charleston until 19 January 2020.

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