Volume 94, No.6, November-December 2008

Bloomsbury Blossoms Again by Robert J. Bliwise
Self-portrait by Vanessa Bell, circa 1915.
Self-portrait by Vanessa Bell, circa 1915.
Collection of Yale Center for British Art

Fueled by his own scholarly passion, Sanders made research trips around Britain. As described by Christopher Reed, an expert on Bloomsbury based at Pennsylvania State University, those trips had Sanders tracking down various Stracheys and their friends, including painter Duncan Grant, a Strachey cousin. The two traveled together to Grant's birthplace in the Scottish highlands. Sanders purchased from Grant thirteen works of art by both Grant and Vanessa Bell, among them sketches of Strachey and John Maynard Keynes. And Grant inscribed to Sanders a drawing of Thomas Carlyle based on a photograph by the pioneering Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was Vanessa Bell's and Virginia Woolf's great-aunt.

In the exhibition catalogue, Reed notes that the Duke English professor's professional engagement with Lytton Strachey and the history of British letters "exemplifies how Americans approached Bloomsbury through the group's writers." In contrast to American familiarity with Bloomsbury texts, he adds, Bloomsbury art remained almost unknown in North America for most of the twentieth century.

Sanders would help change that. In 1965, his daughter Nancy Sanders married Craufurd Goodwin, then a young economics professor at Duke. They had met on a blind date. Sanders arranged for Grant to sell the young couple Vanessa Bell's 1934 A Garden Walk, a painting of Charleston, the country meeting place for the Bloomsbury Group, in Sussex, England. Bell and Duncan Grant had moved there in 1916, and they filled it with murals, painted furniture, paintings, and textiles. The Goodwins now have two of Bell's three paintings of the house. The third is on display in Charleston.

Nancy Goodwin notes that A Garden Walk points to the Bloomsburys' shared interest in gardening. The garden at Charleston was designed specifically as a painting site by Roger Fry; John Maynard Keynes would carefully weed the path up to the house, one plant at a time. In 1977, the Goodwins acquired Montrose, a sixty-acre historical property in Hillsborough, which is now one of the most famous gardens in the U.S.

Craufurd and Nancy Goodwin have built up the most extensive collection of Bloomsbury art in North America. Some of it has a quirky quality, such as the carpeting, fabrics, and paintings commissioned for the interior of the Queen Mary, launched in 1935 by the Cunard White Star line in an effort to rebound from the Titanic disaster. On a preview tour, the wife of Cunard's chief executive was horrified by the modernist leanings of the decorations. So they were pulled down.

Some of them were acquired by Sir Kenneth Clark, the creative force behind the book and public-broadcasting series Civilisation, for display in his castle in Kent. The star of the decorative series, the largest composition ever done by Duncan Grant—twenty-six by fifteen feet—portrayed a Spanish peasant festival. After Clark's death, his heirs divided the composition into pieces that were more or less freestanding. The Goodwins bought the biggest piece, showing a cymbal player.

Tony Bradshaw, the Goodwins' London-based art dealer, who developed an interest in art after giving up a career as a stockbroker, says, "They don't buy everything put in front of them. They are discerning. And in following their inclinations, they have no interest whatsoever in the investment aspect of the art. They believe art is something to treasure and enjoy on one's walls, not something to think of in terms of what you put in the bank."

Bradshaw has sold Bloomsbury art to purchasers around the world, but the majority of the paintings have gone to the U.S., he says. The reason, he speculates, is that the Bloomsburys—particularly Virginia Woolf as an early icon of feminism—are taught more widely in the U.S. than anywhere else, including Britain.

But art critics have not been kind to Bloomsbury art. A 1999 exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London garnered this from The Independent: "I doubt whether the Tate has ever before presented such a large concentration of dud art." Dud art or not, the exhibition drew huge crowds. Hilton Kramer didn't have a much more positive assessment when, writing in The New York Observer, he reviewed the Bloomsbury show at the Yale Center for British Art the following year. He called it "a museological oddity" designed not to recognize an aesthetic vision but rather "to celebrate the lifestyle —which in this case also means the snobberies and vanities—of the Bloomsbury Group's leading personalities." He added, "Whatever its other achievement may have been, the Bloomsbury Group failed to produce a single first-rate painter."

Goodwin says those aesthetic assessments reflect the "remarkable cycles" in public affection—or lack thereof—that have accompanied the group. In the 1920s, Bloomsbury art was the most fashionable art in Britain; Duncan Grant in particular was in huge demand. In the aftermath of World War II, they were seen as having challenged and diminished the moral fiber of British citizenry, and as having challenged the longstanding verities of British life. Their art was dismissed just as the Bloomsburys themselves were dismissed.

In more recent years, with the publication of correspondence and biographies, they, and their art, have become more popular. (This fall, yet another Bloomsbury study was published, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury.)

Goodwin also disputes the conventional reading of the group as self-absorbed and elitist. He says the group members believed that "an informed, well-educated middle class was the only hope for society." Virginia Woolf, for one, identified with working-women's causes and wrote expressly for the common reader. In her essay "Memories of Working Women," she wrote admiringly of women who, even as they recognized "their own long hours and little pay," spread awareness of "the conditions of work in the country at large."

In the mid-1990s, Goodwin wasn't yet avidly collecting Bloomsbury art or reading Bloomsbury literature when, as chair of the Duke economics department, he found it was his turn to teach the first-year seminar in economics. Almost spontaneously, he says, he landed on Bloomsbury as a seminar theme.

He's continued to offer the seminar, now called "Economics in the Bloomsbury Group." Students read, in addition to short essays, Forster's Howards End, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. For many of them, Goodwin says, this is their first curricular exposure to the arts. "So they're forced to read literature and look at paintings. And maybe they'll start to think about what matters in life."

Naturally, they also think about some of the more peculiar dynamics of Bloomsbury. Just before class starts, one student remarks, "The first thing I found out about Bloomsbury is that they were all sexual deviants." Goodwin later acknowledges that "there were lots of strange goings-on."

When offered the possibility of doing the responsible thing, Goodwin says, the Bloomsburys typically chose the outrageous thing, in their personal affairs as well as in their work. In previewing the Tate exhibition in 1999, Britain's Guardian noted that Virginia Woolf was "married to Leonard Woolf, and most famously lover of Vita Sackville West." Vanessa Bell, her older sister, was married to artist Clive Bell and "had many affairs with other artists." Lytton Stratchey "lived with the painter Dora Carrington, who loved him, and her husband, Ralph Partridge, whom he loved."

One love shared by the Bloomsburys was biography. Keynes' book on the aftermath of World War I, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, was, oddly for an economist, largely an intellectual biography of the political leaders Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson. Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, looked at four enduring elements of British life—the church, the military, the independent schools, and women in society—through the stories of four individuals.

"The reason they were so intrigued with biography is that they found the explanations for human behavior that were present in the social sciences of the day unpersuasive," Goodwin says. "You'll find that throughout their literature, particularly in Keynes, but also in Virginia Woolf and Forster, a condemnation of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism.

"They went to psychology, which was just emerging. But they were not, on the whole, satisfied with what they found in psychology at the time, certainly not for themes that preoccupied them, such as conflict in the world or the nature of the arts. And so, they said, we'll learn about human nature from biography. In Virginia's letters you'll find an eloquent statement: 'We must look to the lives of those in the past to understand the future.' "

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