York Art Gallery has opened the second leg of the exhibition Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love, and Legacy, 4 March – 5 June 2022, in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, London and Sheffield Museums Trust. It occupies the gallery’s main rooms on the ground floor with a wonderful design interpretation by Lydia Capriani, community-led graphic artist from Hull. As her inspiration for the painted walls she used, as a template, a pattern from Duncan Grant, originally destined for the first-class lounge on the Cunard / White Star line’s RMS Queen Mary but was notoriously rejected along with his figure paintings in 1935.
The first central room opens with an overview (spanning over 30 years from 1905) of the fluid lives and loves of the characters of the liberal-thinking writers and artists of the Bloomsbury Group. They also had the economist John Maynard Keynes as a member and worked both in the city and beyond in the countryside. The exhibition contains painted and sculptural portraits and incorporates photographic and printed material as well as an interesting intervention – if a little reticent – of their contemporaries: the writers Uma Marson (1905-1956) and Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004), the dancer Berto Pasuka (1911-1963) and one of Duncan Grant’s lovers Patrick Nelson (1916-1963) by Sahara Longe. She is a British artist currently represented by Timothy Taylor Gallery – many will have seen her work at Ed Cross Fine Art, 1-54 Contemporary Art Fair, Somerset House, 2021 – who emboldens black sitters in a western canon.
The Group blossomed at the home of the siblings Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian Stephen in 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London when Thoby established a debating club on a Thursday and as a counterpart his sister Vanessa, who married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907, founded a forum for artists on a Friday. They were pacifists dedicated to many progressive causes in the post-Victorian era which included a tolerant outlook of any binary relationship, both political and personal. Almost as a metaphor to their way of thinking, the exhibition concludes with examples of work from the Omega Workshops (1913-1920) which blends the boundaries of fine and decorative art. That was started by a vociferous member of the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry (1866-1934), who had been a central player in the foundation of the National Art Collections Fund (Art Fund) and the art journal The Burlington Magazine in 1903. He was an artist, writer, art history teacher and curator but is probably best known for organising the ground-breaking ‘Post-Impressionist’ exhibitions (1910 & 1912) at the Grafton Galleries, London which led Virginia, who married the publisher Leonard Woolf in 1912, to note that 1910 was the year “human character changed”.
Perhaps less known is that was also the same year the Contemporary Art Society was inaugurated by Fry and six other individuals, largely from the Group, including Lady Ottoline Morrell (1878-1938), the great patron and hostess of young emerging modern artists who lived at 44 Bedford Square – another square nearby in Bloomsbury.
As well as interspersed throughout this exhibition, a whole room is dedicated to the artworks donated by the CAS to York Art Gallery from 1923 to the present day. It includes those by Jankel Adler, David Bomberg, Keith Vaughan, Nigel Hall, Patricia Ramsay, Dona Salmon, John Stezaker, Rose English, Phoebe Cummings and Jade Montserrat and a recent addition from the Patricia Barnes Gift, 2020 of a Fulham pottery plate by the art historian Quentin Bell, son of Clive and Vanessa. It admirably displays what the CAS does: augmenting public art collections throughout the UK with great works in all media.