The book contains eleven essays, with an introduction and index. Six of the essays focus chiefly on four pivotal members of the influential “Bloomsbury Group” – the artists Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell, the art critic Clive Bell, and the writer Virginia Woolf. Significant new light is shed on them, partly through the presentation of previously unpublished pictures, photographs, and texts, partly through the fresh examination of relevant manuscripts and images. At the same time the life and work of Fry’s wife, the artist Helen Coombe, and her feminist friend the suffragette-supporting inspector of prisons Mary Louisa Gordon, who were never “Bloomsberries”, receive close attention. The five non-Bloomsbury essays too are based on primary source-materials, including previously unpublished texts and images. The first presents thirteen letters from the British writer Rose Macaulay to the Irish poet and novelist Katharine Tynan. It is followed by two essays about the prodigious teenage talents and achievements of Dorothy L. Sayers, destined for fame as a detective novelist and religious writer. The penultimate piece is about the exotic origin and eventful life of Richard Williams Reynolds, who taught J. R. R. Tolkien at school; and the last illuminates the artist Tristram Hillier and especially the personally and professionally important first visit he made to Portugal in 1947. The collection combines homogeneity and variety, and this combination contributes to a rich and balanced picture of the cultural scene in the first half of the twentieth century.
Bloomsbury in the book’s title is the “Bloomsbury Group” of writers, artists, thinkers, and theorists associated with the Bloomsbury area of London and active in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Essays 1–6 are mainly, but by no means exclusively, about four of its pivotal members – the artists Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell, the art critic Clive Bell, and the writer Virginia Woolf. The essays do not attempt a comprehensive account of their lives and works, and the same is true of the writers and the artist treated in the five out-of-Bloomsbury essays – Rose Macaulay, Katharine Tynan, Dorothy L. Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien’s schoolteacher Richard Williams Reynolds, and Tristram Hillier. Instead, the intention is to enhance knowledge and understanding of them by presentation of previously unpublished texts and works of art, pictures, and photographs, and by the close re-examination of known documents. Rebecca West warns that biography is often heavily reliant on speculation. The present book prefers to deal in hard facts, many of them previously unknown. The mixture of Bloomsbury and non-Bloomsbury, present even in the Bloomsbury essays, makes possible a varied and balanced picture of the cultural scene in the first half of the twentieth century.
Essay 1 presents two recently discovered portraits by Roger Fry. One is an unsigned drawing of an unnamed woman. The identity of the artist is certain, as is that of the sitter. Comparison with other images proves that she is Roger’s wife, the artist Helen Coombe. The drawing was made on their wedding day in 1896. The occasion is indicated by her dress and jewellery and clinched by a passionately loving note in her handwriting. The other portrait, executed in pencil and gouache on paper, is of Vanessa Bell. Roger and Vanessa had fallen in love on a visit to Turkey in the spring of 1911, and his “new” portrait of her is to be dated 1911–1912, when their affair was going strong, his style was much influenced by Matisse, and he had recently put on the first of his two post-impressionist exhibitions in London. So the second portrait, like the first, belongs to a very important time of his life.
Essay 2 presents and discusses ten previously unpublished nude photographs of Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, and Roger Fry taken during a seaside holiday at Studland in Dorset. The photographs were taken out of doors on a single occasion in early morning. The Bells had several holidays in Studland, in 1909 and the following years, but there was only one occasion when Roger was there as well, and that was in September 1911. This was a time when he and Vanessa, unknown to Clive, were vigorously pursuing their love affair, and it is this circumstance that makes this nude-posing threesome particularly remarkable. It is most likely to have been organised by Vanessa. Although the Bells were in Studland for almost the whole of September, the event can be securely dated to the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th for several reasons, including the presence of the only known spectator, the economist Gerald Shove.
Researched and written in collaboration with Helen Walasek, former curator of the Punch archive, the essay concerns the remarkably frank account which Clive Bell gave the select and influential Bloomsbury Memoir Club of his first lover, Annie Raven-Hill, the wife of the illustrator and cartoonist Leonard Raven-Hill. The full text of the memoir, read at a meeting on 2 February 1921, is published for the first time, with full annotation and discussion. The affair began in 1899, when she was thirty-five and he was not quite eighteen and about to go up to Cambridge. It continued, with interruptions, until 1914. The relationship was one of lust rather than love, although there was clearly some affection on both sides. The text of the memoir is preceded by an introduction of four sections. The first describes the foundation, character, and history of the Memoir Club. The second is about the presentation and reception of Clive’s memoir. The third, a selective chronology, illuminates his life and work and provides a context for his affair with Annie. The fourth, about Annie, is the first attempt to compare Clive’s account with the facts of her life and to present a fuller and fairer picture of her.
The essay is a detailed study of the visit Virginia Woolf made to Greece with Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry, and Roger’s sister Margery Fry in April–May 1932 – the one happy time in an otherwise unhappy year for Virginia. The study, the first by a classical scholar, is based on close examination of the primary sources, published and unpublished. These are: Virginia’s diaries and letters; Roger’s letters; Leonard’s pocket-diary; and Virginia and Leonard’s photographs. After explanation of the background to the holiday and discussion of the relations between members of the party, especially Virginia and Roger, the exact itinerary and timetable are set out. Many of the scenes in the photographs are correctly identified for the first time, including one in which the Woolfs and Frys are seen standing in front of a ruined temple in Athens. The temple, said by leading Bloomsbury writers to be on the Acropolis, is shown to be no such thing. Comparison of the published versions of Virginia’s diary and letters with the manuscripts of them reveals some significant errors, including one that seriously misrepresents her assessment of Roger’s character – no trivial matter, given her admiration for him and their close friendship.
The first discussion concerns Virginia Woolf’s attempted suicide in September 1913 and her recuperation from the attack of mental illness that provoked it. The main focus is on the interest and advice of Roger Fry, whose wife, Helen Coombe, had a long history of mental illness which invites comparison and contrast with that of Virginia. When Virginia was convalescing, and a new nurse was required for her, Roger approached the medical superintendent of the hospital in which Helen was a patient. The letters exchanged between the two are made known for the first time. The superintendent was a keen amateur artist, and Roger discussed with him the effect of colour on the mind and its possible therapeutic benefits in cases of mental illness. The second discussion is a postscript to the discussion, in the preceding essay, of the photographs taken by the Woolfs in Greece. It is about Maggie Humm’s claim that the error of misidentifying the Temple of Olympian Zeus as a building on the Acropolis originated with Virginia herself and is of psychobiographical significance. It is demonstrated that Humm’s claim is incorrect, and that the edifice she seeks to build on this fallacious foundation is unsound.
After Virginia Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry was published in 1940, she received a letter from Mary Louisa Gordon strongly critical of her portrayal of Roger’s wife, the artist Helen Coombe, and even more critical of Roger’s character and conduct. Mary and Helen had been friends before the latter married in 1896 and went on to develop severe mental health problems. In 1936 the Woolfs had published Mary’s historical novel, Chase of the Wild Goose, about the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The essay is in four sections. The first is introductory. The second is about Mary, discussing Chase of the Wild Goose, its relationship to Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, and Virginia’s comments on it and its author, whom, in letters to Ethel Smyth, she calls “the Hermaphrodite.” It goes on to describe Mary’s life and career as medical doctor, suffragist, first female Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales, and scathing critic of the prison system. The third section presents Mary’s letter to Virginia, with significant corrections of the text published by Beth Rigel Daugherty; and the fourth describes Helen’s life, personality, and artistic talents, with discussion of Mary’s assessments of her and Roger.
The article presents and discusses thirteen previously unpublished letters from the British novelist and poet Rose Macaulay to the Irish poet and novelist Katharine Tynan, who in 1913 initiated a correspondence and friendship when she wrote to congratulate Rose on winning with The Lee Shore in a prestigious and valuable Novel Competition which she too had entered. Katharine continued to express admiration for Rose’s writing, especially her novels, not only in her letters to Rose (not preserved), but also in memoirs and articles. Rose in turn praised Katharine’s work, especially her poetry, emphasising particularly the comfort it gave her and others in wartime. She herself had lost several friends, including Rupert Brooke, and was anxious about her brother, who was serving in the army. Katharine’s two sons were in the army too. Rose took an interest in Katharine’s daughter, Pamela Hinkson, who was showing early promise as a writer. In 1925 Katharine sent Rose a novel, The Victors, by Peter Deane. When Rose replied, she did not realise that Peter Deane was a pseudonym used by Pamela, let alone that the sad story was closely based on the postwar experiences of Katharine’s elder son.
The essay reveals, describes, and discusses an important event, overlooked by her biographers, in the childhood of the detective novelist and religious writer Dorothy Leigh Sayers. In August 1908, when she had only just turned fifteen and was still being educated at home, she made a major contribution to a pageant in the Huntingdonshire village of Somersham, near her home in Bluntisham, where her father was rector. Historical pageants were so much in vogue at this time that the term “pageantitis” was coined to describe the infectious enthusiasm for them. The Somersham pageant, under the professional direction of D’Arcy de Ferrars, was an important local event and even the subject of a report in a national newspaper. Dorothy, as well as being one of three musical accompanists, composed the words for the “Somersham Triumph Song,” sung by a professional soprano, and the verses for at least two of the tableaux. Her compositions, revealing a prodigious talent and singled out for special praise at the time, including in the national newspaper, total a minimum of fifty-six lines of verse.