This book is a wonderful and engaging exploration of how the Bloomsbury Group visually expressed their identity and aesthetic. I was immediately drawn to its arresting cover, which shows the bottom section of Vanessa Bell’s painting Mrs St John Hutchinson. Its texture mimics the roughness of a real painting, yet is still pleasing to the touch. The illustrations inside are also stunning; the book is as much a visual treat as it is a literary one.
The first chapter explores the roots of Virginia and her sister Vanessa’s awareness of their own image. Both women grew up learning to curate their image and identity through photographs – something we are now all too familiar with in the age of social media! Chapter two looks at how the Bloomsbury Group used dress and undress to express their identity. I found Hitchmough’s analysis of the role of nudity in their self-expression particularly interesting. The third chapter covers the Omega Workshops, which exhibited the Group’s aesthetics and values, taking inspiration from Post-Impressionist art.
My favourite part of the book was in the final chapter. There’s an entertaining account of Vanessa Bell going to Maynard Keynes’ house while he was on his honeymoon, unscrewing one of his pictures from the bathroom wall, and taking it. This task was the sole purpose of her trip from Sussex to London; she was apparent terrified of Keynes’ reaction when he found out. It really emphasised the contrast between the Bloomsbury Group’s collective identity and the individual power dynamics within it. As glamorous and iconic as the Group seem, I kept thinking how suffocating being part of it must have been. Hitchmough describes how the ‘back-biting and bitchiness’ within the circle is ‘both entertaining and appalling.’ I feel like Bell’s picture theft illustrates this brilliantly!
My knowledge of the Bloomsbury Group was limited before reading this book, but I found it both riveting and accessible and would totally recommend it. Plus, its visual presence really brightens up my bookshelf!