Frances Spalding says that what distinguished the Bloomsbury Group from other early twentieth-century developments of ‘liberal thought’ was ‘the emphasis it placed on private life’. This is a blog based on a visit to the ‘Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love & Legacy’ exhibition made on the 4th March 2022 at York Art Gallery (York 2022 blog No. 2).

Frances Spalding says that what distinguished the Bloomsbury Group from other early twentieth-century developments of ‘liberal thought’ was ‘the emphasis it placed on private life’. [1] This is a blog based on a visit to the Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love & Legacy exhibition made on the 4th March 2022 at York Art Gallery (York 2022 blog No. 2). Up

My collage representing the exhibition in 2022. The book cover is of Francis Spalding (2021, 4th ed) The Bloomsbury Group, London, National Portrait Gallery (NPG) Publications, which the gallery uses as its (partial) catalogue) of the NPG holdings in the show.

See my thank you to York Blog which opens up some of the questions at the rich and necessary margins of this exhibition raised here at the link in this sentence. But this piece may also stand alone.

This is one of the richest exhibitions I have ever seen and, without a full catalogue, I cannot remember all of the works on which it would be valuable for me to reflect more. This is because, though you would never guess from seeing the exhibition because it overwhelms in the best possible manner, it is built rather from historical contingencies. Sometimes however, I think, it is such historical contingencies coming into welcome interaction that moves knowledge about and critical and emotional response to art on into further development. First, parts of the National Portrait’s Gallery (NPG) needed to be moved safely from London given current refurbishment of the building. However, curators being the inventive people declining funding forces them to be, have made this accident a virtue by marrying it to the duty of national and local collections to connect more to community and change the very nature of what it means for audiences to relate to art. Co-curation by York and Sheffield Art Galleries have opened up even more regional exhibits which have allied themselves to the NPG Bloomsbury holdings. It is the latter that need some documentation, though the captioning is as always excellent. It was clearly decided that a permanent book form memorial, for the NPG-owned works at least, could be safely represented by Francis Spalding’s (2021, 4th ed) The Bloomsbury Group, London, National Portrait Gallery Publications, even though the 1st edition of this book was first published in 1997.

Another contingency related to community work in innovative galleries is the use of practising artists to appreciate, critique and work with aesthetically the influence of this powerful art. Power can imply harm as well as beneficence and I have spoken about different ways of distributing and humanising this power in my first York blog and will not repeat this here, although this feature transforms the very look, feel and meanings of some of the paintings, especially around the notion of intersectional identity. However, it is important that we confront the meaning of the racism perceived in the art of this period, especially in relation to queer sexuality, where heavily hypersexualised images of black men were common, but not only amongst queer white men. It is in this light, as well as that cast by comparative images from artists of today, that we should look at Duncan Grant’s relationship with Patrick Nelson, the subject of nude and clothed portraits by Grant (though only a nude portrait in dorsal view (seen from the back) is available in this exhibition). Below is a collage of that painting of him with selected details, which latter I have deliberately organised to emphasise the fragmentation of these parts from the whole as an aid to seeing specific sense effects (haptic as well as visual) in relation to certain body parts of the black male nude.

However recognising the hypersexual is not always easy and distinguishing it from the haptic appreciation of the naked body, black or white, almost impossible. In comparing Sahara Longe’s clothed frontal portrait of Patrick Nelson with Grant’s, as they appear in this exhibition, the NPG commentary sees a particular kind of ‘racist stereotyping’, which ‘involves the fetishisation of black subjects by white artists’. This is emphasised at the cost of other readings in the otherwise useful York caption.

Meanwhile, ‘Longe’s sensitive portrayal of Nelson gives him agency beyond this relationship’. Personally, I think this may be a problematic statement that over-simplifies, in the grandiose manner of academic art-history and art-theory that is divorced from awareness of human praxis, the relationship between gender/sex, race, identity and the means by which images are valorised in sexual ways. The same happens in treatments of John Singer Sargent’s relation to his black model, Thomas McKeller, according to Colm Tóibín and I have examined this essay in a previous blog (available at this link). For the only thing that makes this portrait hypersexual would be the fact that the model is nude. But this is no more nor less sexual than the paintings of, for instance Paul Roche, the man who became Grant’s last personal assistant and, at least until his heterosexual marriage but perhaps afterwards, Grant’s lover in a physical as well as in other ways. For instance, we can see that in comparing the reclining nude drawing of Paul Roche and Patrick in this exhibition, it is Paul who is presented as sexually inviting to the gaze of the viewer, whilst Patrick’s dorsal nude emphasises the vulnerability (noted in the York caption) in my eyes more than sexual allure to a specifically white male gaze; and certainly not a lack of agency as Longe suggests.

Compare the above two works: (1) a dorsal view of Patrick Nelson and (2) a reclining nude Paul Roche seen from below. Both are by Duncan Grant, who was a lover of them both.

Moreover, it creates a false impression to imply that Grant only portrayed Patrick Nelson in the nude. His 1960-63 (Nelson died in 1963) portrait postdates the 1930ss nudes and their sexual relationship and hence the points made by Long and NPG may still stand. However, if we compare his 1930s portrait with one by his Omega colleague, Edward Wolfe (below) I think that fetishistic sexualisation can be claimed more for the latter than for Grant.

In looking at Nelson I am drawn more to the visual and haptic effects of the paint that enables the performance of black skin seen as purely beautiful. Even any attempt to suggest that the representation of the anal crevice and curves is that of a sexual object seems doomed to me. What we sense in the detail is more the play of shadow in relation to variations of skin tonality that emphasises something of the interiority available to haptic apprehension of the skin and orifices of the body. In my view, this is a perception heteronormative, or even homonormative, perspectives find it difficult to grasp, so obsessed are they by the model of the queer as ‘sodomite’ and the associations of horror and dirt that come with that. The interiority is emphasised by the delicately angled head seen from the back that looks both deep and within for its subject.

However, there is evidence that we can justly also seeing in Grant a man who was not free of white queer male fantasies about black potency. For instance a similar point to that made by the NPG can be found in Rianna Parker’s discussion of the use of black male models by Edward le Bas, in whose employ as model, Grant found Patrick. She says:  

It was not unusual at the time for Black Londoners with minimal options for employment and housing to work as models, posing and pandering, when required, for portraits. This exchange, albeit uneven, is widespread in 19th- and 20th-century portraiture, where the Black model is subject to hypersexualization and exotification, relegated to the role of muse without a name. Nelson was just one of a few queer Jamaican sitters, including his friends Berto Pasuka and Richie Riley, who would go on to found the all-Black ballet company Les Ballets Nègres in 1946.[2]

This would certainly be your view if all you knew of Grant’s use of models was taken from his private erotica, where at the best, the full frontal nudes emphasise Nelson’s sexual equipment more than any other feature – and do so by the play of the pencil in somatic curves that rhyme with the swing of his large penis, although these are not unlike those of white men and may say more about Grant’s private sexual preferences. At their frankest, they literally  rejoice in the excitement of differently coloured bodies merging through penetration (although this is not one-way as we see in the comparative examples shown below). There are stereotypes here, in the picture of the sexually passive black male and the sexually active black male, who is presented as facially aggressive, where we might suspect that their desirable nature has been reduced to these simplistic stereotypes.

However, since I am not a black queer male I may be not entitled to judge such matters. Nevertheless it seems a travesty to me to see Grant as incapable of finding something in Nelson as he appears in Grant’s public painting as a figure that is the mutual equal of himself and not necessarily apprehended by him as an inferior, although the same may not be precisely true of Singer Sargent given the differences in life experiences (I do not know). Likewise unlike the more caricatured erotica here, I do not in the portrait nudes see negative different typed into racial difference. Frances Spalding gives little detail about Patrick in her biography of Grant but she does cite a letter to Grant written by Nelson when, parted because Grant was at Charleston and Nelson pursuing a relationship, where marriage was an option, with someone known to us only as ‘girl called Olive’. In this letter there is much of a both an interior Patrick Nelson, whose analysis and feelings are spoken as if they were expected to be recognised and acknowledged by Grant as that of another like himself and not as someone ‘othered’:

“… if you were still in London there would be no need for me to be fond of the girl, nor anyone else, it is only because we can’t see each other as we use[d] to at the old studio. O Duncan I wish we could again be intimate and once more enjoy life – do you think the days gone by will ever come again? We must hope?”[3]

This is not to disagree fundamentally with the point made at the exhibition but it is certainly to suggest that we must deliver such judgements with nuance in the light of evidence lacking from voices who can tell us about black queer male experience in ways we recognise the intersectional contradictions experienced. Indeed, this is often the issue when institutions that seek to represent LGBTQI+ experience and social cultures use established norms, from whatever source. So says, at least, Patrik Steorn, Museum Director at Thielska Galleriet in Stockholm, Sweden. He speaks of museums allowing ‘for queer presences to occur on their own terms rather than co-opt LGBT culture into their favoured structure and forms of exposition’, and to ‘mobilize pluralistic passions and dissident, embarrassing emotions too often foreclosed in the standard picture gallery’.[4]

One issue we struggle with in apprehending Bloomsbury is their ability to manage experimental psychosocial and psychosexual relationships that resist binary classification as ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ and too often get reduced to oft-quoted, but difficult to attribute, witticism as people who ‘lived in squares and loved in triangles’. Humour too often ‘others’ the embarrassment of the human situations it objectifies. The not-so-private lives which lived on the cusp of contradictions between socio-psychosexual difference in their life-choices, on the one hand, and the normative values of ‘established’ relationships which they also sometimes paradoxically validated. In my own personal view, the aim of the Bloomsbury Group artists is often misunderstood by equating it too often with the views of the very wordy Clive Bell, who is often thought for have reduced response to merely formal issues relating to the distributions of paint on the surface and the notion of ‘form’. But Virginia Woolf comments on her sister Vanessa Bell’s paintings in ways that show us that response to art was not so formal as to reduce her in the eyes of some observers to ‘a painter’s painter’, since even the discourse of form does not solve the problem of what feels to Woolf to be a silent and relational (since ‘they claim us and make us stop’) inner excursion into puzzling emotions.

But Mrs. Bell says nothing. Mrs. Bell is as silent as the grave. Her pictures do not betray her. Their reticence is inviolable. That is why they intrigue and draw us on; that is why, if it be true that they yield their full meaning only to those who can tunnel their way behind the canvas into masses and passages and relations and values of which we know nothing – if it be true that she is a painter’s painter–still her pictures claim us and make us stop. They give us an emotion. They offer a puzzle.

And the puzzle is that while Mrs. Bell’s pictures are immensely expressive, their expressiveness has no truck with words. Her vision excites a strong emotion and yet when we have dramatised it or poeticised it or translated it into all the blues and greens, and fines and exquisites and subtles of our vocabulary the picture itself escapes[5]

For Bloomsbury, I would say, the ‘inward excursion’ is everything, wherein private reticence about emotional connections that are not normalised (and therefore unobtrusively and insignificantly silent) is alive with connectivity to a viewer. Hence, I think they give us groups and portraits that show people in relation to us as if in relation to those others, and the unspoken narratives (without showing or telling them) which lie behind them, asking for us to see the external as interpreted and at odds sometimes with the internal, whilst acknowledging the latter’s separate power. That in a nutshell is the novels of Woolf and E.M. Forster too. But its source is probably the socialist poet and philosopher, Edward Carpenter, who saw himself as following in the footsteps of Walt Whitman in the USA. This extract from his 1893 volume Towards Democracy will perhaps illustrate this:

Not by running out of yourself after it comes the love which
lasts a thousand years.

If to gain another’s love you are untrue to yourself then are
you also untrue to the person whose love you would gain.

Him or her whom you seek will you never find that way – and
what pleasure you have with them will haply only end in pain.

Remain steadfast, knowing that each prisoner has to endure in
patience till the season of his liberation; when the love comes
which is for you it will turn the lock easily and loose your chains –

Being no longer whirled about nor tormented by winds of
uncertainty, but part of the organic growth of God himself in
Time –

Another column in the temple of immensity,

Two voices added to the eternal choir.

This is as abstruse as I have previously been in trying the capture the meaning of ‘inward excursions’, but it possibly does show how Carpenter related truth to ‘self’ as a political and spiritual and liberationist commitment (these things, given that deity is not invoked, are equivalents in Carpenter’s thought) which aim to free the person to relate outside the restrictions of a current oppressive social structure and its politics: to ‘turn the lock easily and loose your chains’. If we think laterally we shall see picture evidence of this in this exhibition, because it contains Roger Fry’s portrait of Edward Carpenter (1894), painted one year after the first publication of Towards Democracy. I have collaged my photograph of this painting with a picture of the poems as they appeared in the USA edition.

The NPG’s commentary on this painting Is instructive as a start to contrasting the way in which the great Bloomsbury figures worked with the external image of their sitters, even each other, whilst emphasising that that is not the issue.

In 1886, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and C. R. Ashbee invited Edward Carpenter, the sandal-wearing socialist, to lecture in Cambridge. He made a huge impression, not least on Roger Fry, who was then in his second year as an undergraduate. Together with Ashbee, Fry went to visit Carpenter in Derbyshire and they became friends. In 1894, Fry painted this portrait of him, looking suitably raffish, alone in a bleak interior and wearing what Fry called his ‘anarchist overcoat’. Following Carpenter’s death in 1929, Fry offered the portrait to the Gallery: ‘In view of the position that the late Edward Carpenter held in the world of social reform you may, I think, wish to have a portrait of him. I knew him well in my youth and one of my earliest more or less complete works was a portrait of him. I should be very glad to offer this to the National Portrait Gallery should it be found acceptable.’[6]

Carpenter is sold to the home of images of persons of national importance as justified by ‘the position that the late Edward Carpenter held in the world of social reform’. But the portrait itself emphasises a kind of reflexive interiority – not least by the central use of a mirror to double the image – making the bodily image seem even more to be pushed into the personal space of the viewer. The ‘deep Cave of the heart’ after all runs deeper and contains much more than the ‘the outer shows of the world and people’, in Carpenter’s words, extracted to his volume’s title-page. Indeed this picture seems to create a kind of mock up Plato’s cave allegory in which the sources of light is seen only in the reflection in the mirror if we except the fact that the genuine source of that the light glints in the eyes of this visionary man in ‘anarchist overcoat’.

In fact, this duality is the key to the power of most of the Bloomsbury portraits I saw in this exhibition. In, for instance, those portraits represented here by Dora Carrington of her lovers but also of those public figures she knew as absorbed in matters located in the ‘deep Cave of the Heart’ such as E.M. Forster. The latter was a friend of Fry and Carpenter, and equally certain that liberalisation of the possibilities of romantic and sexual relationships were radical necessities of social change in terms the governance of social relationships, including class, status and the constitution of the human. In the exhibition Carrington’s 1916 portrait of Lytton Strachey is represented only by the studies also owned by the NPG. However, this alone shows her aim to see this man, not immediately attractive, as a force in the forging of aspiration for the new and ‘seemingly’ impossible. Spalding cites her comment to a later aspirant to her love, Gerald Brenan, that: “I would like to paint like Ucello and I never shall … it has something – this desire – to do with my wish to have Lytton as a lover, a wish which the verriest goose could have know impossible”.[7]

That this aspiration to be the lover of a man who looked mainly to men for love and sex is seen as comparable to wanting to paint like a fifteenth-century Florentine master of perspective is difficult to understand, except that both are ‘impossible’ in the conventions of life as she knows it and which yet continue to motivate her. However, her portrait of Gerald Brenan himself is more telling. Brenan, who slept with Carrington only once, fell in love with her when she was the wife of his beloved friend, Ralph Partridge, who had himself been the beloved of Lytton Strachey and lived with Carrington and Strachey. This is a portrait wherein the light falling on Brenan (lighting the side of his face on the viewer’s right mainly) is not that of the circumambient scene, which is dark and stormy. That light seems to be causing some contraction of his eye on that side. It is impossible to ‘prove’ that this is a strategy that internalises our relation to him – the absence of a background and perspective however makes the scene seem like that of a daydream. In my sight in invites us to relate to the man and his interiority as a adjunct to the man we simply ‘see’.

I would further say that this invitation to relate to the subject is true of more public portraits like that of E.M. Forster, which was not painted from life. The external outline of the painter is deliberately made vague with some obvious highly coloured effects creating that outline at some distance above Forster’s arm – colours reflected in the daylight scene outside the French window, the threads of a suit (especially the arm leaning into the picture frame) that seems fragmenting into a kind of pointillism and in the more vivid patterns of the man’s waistcoat pocket handkerchief. Here again light is multi-directional although falling mainly from some impossibly illuminated internal source, pointing I believe to the fact that some of it, that falling on the face and high brow particularly, is imagined for the purposes of art. But the purpose of art here is to make us relate to Forster’s inner vulnerability, indicated by the downward tip of his head and those soft eyes. His clothing has a depth of topographical depth that makes it shift as if unreal. It feels like a light shed by a photographer’s lighting but is not.

I used to think that Spalding’s characterisation of Duncan Grant’s 1994 portrait of Desmond MacCarthy was aimed at the same theme as I pursue here but rather in the spirit of how you paint a man who has resigned the outer show of inner life and love. She says that he is contained ‘by the outline the chair and cut off from the spectator by the act of reading’ but I now think that description will not do if aimed to show that Grant was only interested in showing an ‘affable, reserved individual’. I do still believe that MacCarthy’s belief in the “spirit of dignified selection, what we call reserve” which “alone makes companionship, yes love, possible”  is targeted in this painting but not at the expense of confirming that man’s belief in the inner life as a characterisation of the man Grant knew.[8] This painting is after all set in Charleston and Grant makes the star of it the décor and painted objects of that magical interior.

For this painting is contrasting the externally presented man tightly held in by clothing and chair and a lovely painterly preoccupation with a setting that is luxuriously rich in the show of vibrant interiority. The issue here is not that MacCarthy is ‘reserved’ (as indeed he was) but that Grant knows that this reserve hides inner riches like the untidy pile of books besides him. He seems to uses Charleston and Omega designs as a codex of an inner light of the emotional man, the man Woolf described as instinct with ‘general goodwill and human love’.[9] After all, we are all ‘contained’ by frameworks of one kind or another, as in Vanessa Bell’s 1940 painting of Leonard Woolf which also shows a man contained ‘by the outline the chair and cut off from the spectator by the act of’ writing.

Leonard Woolf’s eye may have a favourable turn on the spectator and he is far from contained by either chair or clothing, but the picture does not use this items just to characterise him, but to show us a man full of emotional life, not least shown by the proximity of his dog. For ‘reserve’ is the home of emotion even in Jane Austen’ heroines, such as Anne Elliott, in Persuasion.

And this of the importance of relationship is at its most poignant in the ways that even paintings uses notions of anachronism in time and the role of memory and anticipation. A favoured painting in this collection is The Memoir Club painted in 1943 and containing a group representation of Bloomsbury Group members assembled in Charleston, the home of Grant and Bell. In my collage below below I have summarised information about the figures there represented from the appropriate NPG webpage. However, I have omitted the following about the significance of the gathering for those who may wish to fix on the actual date at which the group depicted sat together. Here it is (after the collage of the painting itself):

It thus includes David Garnett and members of the younger generation, such as Quentin Bell, who were later admitted. Bell’s own depicted presence in the painting suggests this is an imaginative evocation, rather than the depiction of an actual meeting. The club continued in an evolved state until Clive Bell’s death in 1964.[10]

It may be thought that the evidence of this being an ‘imaginative evocation’ is not useful for anyone looking at the picture with little or no knowledge of the chronology of the biographies involved. However, that in itself is not the only reason we might associate it with an interest in the notion of remembered and anticipated lives. That notion might be in part given away by the idea of a group based on ‘memoir’, for it started as a conversation group about the modern novel.

Isn’t this because a feature of this painting is that the individuation of its members are in part created by the reserved distance that they sit from each other (sometimes like the figure of Forster lost in their own interior worlds)? It is created to by the sense that what matters here is relationship across space and time – between any distance, in fact, even that between viewer and viewed persona, and the even distance created by the fact that this is a painting. This point about the function of painting as bring the absent near is I think why central members of the group’s history are there as paintings by present group members who are present, if only, in the case of Bell herself as an imaginative self-projection. Of course my point is speculative but points about the ‘relational’ nature of selves have to be to some extent. I no longer feel I need to justify that for myself.

One painting that is, somewhat at a tangent, that is also related to concepts of the Bloomsbury group as an identity like unto that of one being is William Roberts’ No! No! Roger, Cezanne Did Not Use It. I love William Robert’s paintings but have only ever seen reproductions in books of this one and was not expecting to see it here (or to see its small size since I expected a huge painting). It is commonly thought of as a satire of the Bloomsbury Group, since it pictures all the key players, but even its title I think makes it much more likely to be aimed at Clive Bell’s bossy theorisation of the work of Cezanne as the model of Bloomsbury’s art. The painting contrasts Bell’s bookish gaze with the greater attention to the practice of painting of other figures, even Fry, if we include his contrasted direction of gaze to that of Bell.

Roberts’ point is that the Group exists as a group less than it believes it does and hence allows them to be seen satirically, although I sense admiration of the figure of Duncan Grant at least, because he just continues painting (as did Cezanne). Nevertheless the point remains that relationship is the key to the power of Bloomsbury painting which projects the private and interior into the public and exterior. This allows for the embarrassment that Patrik Steorn calls for in queer art curation that will ‘mobilize pluralistic passions and dissident, embarrassing emotions too often foreclosed in the standard picture gallery’, in a statement already cited above.[11]

To confront the work of Bloomsbury artists is oft to confront embarrassment even in the freedoms it takes with the usual purpose of generic literary and aesthetic formal norms, such as the group or individual portrait. This is not least the case in the ways in which they made subjects of artworks of each other whilst living their life in social groups which were only at the simplest level describable as a ménage á trois, often being much more numerously populated than by triads I have tried to address this, probably inadequately, in a blog critical of traditional art-historical methods in a book on the Group (use link to read it), with relation to Vanessa Bell’s brilliant portrait of Mary Hutchinson, her husband Clive Bell’s mistress and often her, and her partner Duncan Grant’s, house-guest.

Vanessa Bell (1915) painting Mrs St John Hutchinson Oil on board, 737 x 578 mm. Tate, London. Available at: Also in Wendy Hitchmough’s (2020: 111) The Bloomsbury Look New Haven, CT & London, Yale University Press.

However, the points I strain to make there might be made much more clearly shown in another portrait of the same year of her sexual partner (and the unacknowledged father of her daughter Angelica Bell) Duncan Grant’s male lover, David (or as they knew him ‘Bunny’) Garnett of 2015. Garnett was later (in 1940 after the death of his first wife) to become Angelica’s husband, claiming that he had loved her since she was known to him as his male lover’s daughter. And indeed the painting of him is a very queer one, so let’s look at my collage of photographs, including details, of the portrait of David Garnett (1915).

To confront this painting is to be aware of it almost ‘embarrassing’ differences from our expectations of a male seated nude torso painting as either illustrative of adult male anatomy or action in an admiring way. In contrast to this notion, Garnett appears boyish and somewhat pudgy. His painted skin is made up of smears of paint to mime the fall of shadow on his preternaturally pallid chest, with its obvious nipples, made from a pulled impasto that keeps reminding us it is paint. Whilst the colours of the background are stark, as if from an abstract painting, again they reflect in the skin – green in service as shadow between his left arm (on our right) and chest, shades of red as lips, a pink boyish blush in cheeks and ears and in the Matisse like preternatural colouring variations of his hair. Spalding’s caption to the painting in her NPG book talks of bold experimentation ‘with luminescent colour and a loose touch’.[12] But the casual feel she conveys is missing for me.

I do not know whether, this painting conveys much emotion but it is clear that there was much expression of emotion around in 1915. Vanessa at that time decided, according to Garnett’s latest biographer that to ‘keep Duncan close, she needed to be close to his lover’, and praised his good looks as appealing to both her and Duncan.[13] In his Journal in September of that year he speaks of being sick ‘of all this dull sodomitical twaddle’, a form of words he almost certainly heard first from his friend D.H. Lawrence. Suspicion of the rejection all this involved often led Duncan into ‘emotional outbursts, from which Bunny retreated.[14] Vanessa Bell, meanwhile, was used to the play of immature boys with her sons Julian and Quentin (sons of Clive Bell) and my own feeling is that it is in juvenile play that she situates the man in her portrait. Since she knew that Bunny actually harboured a sexual fascination with her, she scotched it by advising him of her wish to have a baby with Duncan.[15] She writes to Bunny also when she tries to keep him available to the ‘Bear’, their common play name for Duncan, and tells him that Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey see both he and Duncan as no better than the primary school children Julian and Quentin were:

“known as the old gentlemen [they] don’t think us very grown up. They speak of us as ‘they’ as doctors do of lunatics and Lytton was very much angered when Duncan drove him with his head into the sea and tried to pee on his hat and drew cocks and cunts in the sand”.[16] 

The messaging is clear. Both men act, not like men, but little boys and this is the state of the man in the portrait; unable to handle the emotion that is projected upon to him in many colours. His confusion is good to look at but rather a confused front to the adult passion of Vanessa’s flowing adult rich emotion. In fact she told Bunny at the time that she and the Bear, ‘decided we liked looking at you and after all what more can one say of anyone’?[17] This playful attitude to male bodies from a woman is the stuff of the queer lives in Bloomsbury: it speaks of embarrassing unequal crushes and queer fetishisations of the flesh or body parts, such as those insistent nipples of Bunny’s. It isn’t at all a ‘normal’ portrait of a man but a truer one of relationships, something which Bunny, as the adult novelist of Aspects of Love dealt with brutal honesty of his own self-suspected paedophilia, within a messy muddle of other relationships

This has been a long trip if you are still with me. It includes much of the reasoning about why I love Bloomsbury but none of the circumspection and dislike of some of their experimental relationships ‘The Idle Woman’ points too with distaste in her blog on Aspects of Love, but without doubt some of these relationships tended into the exploitative in regard to vulnerable group members, and many of them were that.[18] It all needs more thought but I have gone on long enough.

All the best


[1] Francis Spalding (2021, 4th ed.: 9) The Bloomsbury Group, London, National Portrait Gallery Publications.

[2]Rianna Jade Parker (2019) cited in Frieze (online) [25th September 2019] Available at: Black in Bloomsbury: What Duncan Grant’s Portrait of Patrick Nelson Reveals | Frieze

[3] Letter probably dated 1939-40 cited Frances Spalding (1998 Pimlico Ed: 372) Duncan Grant: A Biography London, Random House 

[4] Patrik Steorn (2018: 72) ‘The Art of looking at Naked Men: Queering Art History in Scandinavia’ in Jonathan Katz & Änne Söll (Eds.) On Curating: Queer Curating Issue 37 (May 2018) 67 – 72.

[5] From Virginia Woolf’s 1930  essay on her sister Vanessa Bell, cited with grammar and spelling mistakes (here corrected) in  Gráinne Sweeney (ed.) (2021: 41) Picture Article: Meet the Artists: Challenging Convention London, Artizine Limited. Pages 40 – 43.

[6] National Portrait Gallery webpage on Edward Carpenter (1894) by Roger Fry. Available at: NPG 2447; Edward Carpenter – Portrait – National Portrait Gallery

[7] Cited Spalding 2021 op.cit; 74

[8] The quotations and citation from ibid: 31

[9] Ibid: 30

[10] NPG 6718; The Memoir Club – Portrait – National Portrait Gallery

[11] Patrik Steorn (2018: 72) ‘The Art of looking at Naked Men: Queering Art History in Scandinavia’ in Jonathan Katz & Änne Söll (Eds.) On Curating: Queer Curating Issue 37 (May 2018) 67 – 72.

[12] Spalding (2021 op.cit: 102)

[13] Sarah Knights (2015; 84f.) Bloomsbury’s Outsider: A Life of David Garnett, London, Bloomsbury Reader.

[14] Ibid: 86.

[15] Spalding 1998 op.cit: 170

[16] Ibid: 171

[17] Ibid.


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