I have just been to see ‘A Room of Their Own: Lost Bloomsbury Interiors 1914-1930’, at The Victoria Art Gallery in Bath. It’s a lovely, old-school museum of a place just off Pulteney Bridge.
Inside the door of the exhibition is a portrait of my hero Vanessa Bell, by Duncan Grant. I am reading Frances Spalding’s biography of Bell, so when I saw this portrait printed in Evolver magazine, among the seascapes and pictures of Colmers Hill, it grabbed my attention and I planned my trip to Bath.
Nothing, of course, matches standing in front of the real thing. I can’t take my eyes off it. The use of colour is spectacular. Deep Indian Red set off against pale Cobalt Blue. Viridian Green beads versus the red of her dress. Bloomsbury colours at perfect pitch. The careful observational drawing is worn lightly, as if casually sketched. The composition is sexy, monumental and powerful. I notice his amazing control of shape for the first time. She is sitting with her arms relaxed on her legs with her hands clasped in front. The shape made between her arms by the red dress becomes important. He is so good at seeing the essential shapes in the composition and giving them a life of their own. I want to go back to life drawing class and try again.
Next on the wall is a self-portrait of Duncan Grant himself, staring intently out of a dark corner. I look back at him with renewed respect.
It’s hard to move on to the rest of the exhibition, but it is a good place to start because it is this mastery of colour, closely observed drawing and light touch that make the famous Bloomsbury interiors, by Grant, Bell and their friends, so special. They appear not so much designed as spontaneously painted over every surface of the house. My thing about Vanessa Bell has a lot to with the way that Painting was the way she lived. Ideas flowed from canvasses to walls and back again and created a space where she and her friends could breathe and be themselves.
The first room recreated in this exhibition is from the Omega Workshops, which they set up with Roger Fry. They wanted to find a way for painters to make some money and to champion the Post-Impressionist art that they loved. They believed that if people lived with colour and abstract shape in their houses, they would find them easier to accept and understand in painting. The walls are painted in blue, red and yellow rectangles, copying an illustration of an original scheme. There are also angular fabric designs, an abstract geometric rug and a dining table painted with narrow stripes. Among the other furniture and objects from this time is a screen by Duncan Grant called ‘Lily Pond’ which is based on one of his paintings. The use of colour is incredibly vivid. The dark greens throw the bright orange forward, giving the design an amazing depth. It could only have been designed by someone with the same grasp of colour theory and practice as the author of the Vanessa Bell portrait in the entrance.
There are designs for needlework, still life paintings featuring Omega Workshop objects, some wonderful fans, an occasional table, and a big turquoise ceramic dish. Looking at this collection, and the recreated room, I get a real sense of the way the bright colours work in a space and of enormous creative energy. I am reminded of the dark drawing rooms in which Frances Spalding’s book sets Bell’s early life. There are also, upstairs in the gallery’s main collection, some wonderful examples of the kind of Victorian art that the Bloomsbury group couldn’t abide. What a glorious reaction this blue and red room is against all of that.
The way the space is organised in the exhibition is very good, considering that it is fairly small. The next scheme they have put together is a music room, full of objects from the 1920s. The music room feels like a defined interior without using much floor space or fighting with the earlier dining room for attention. It flows nicely from the earlier Omega collection and helps you appreciate the difference. Here is a less geometric, more painterly style, figurative, a bit classical, but very relaxed and directly drawn. There are dark outlines around the figures like in Bell and Grant’s painting when they were first influenced by Post-Impressionism. A musician on a corner cabinet serenades a lady on a balcony in the panel above him. A low screen of nudes playing musical instruments in lovely green alcoves. I like the decorative details around the scenes, pillars and borders, stippled marble, and circles of pure colour. It is delightfully handpainted with sweeping lines and loose brushmarks. There is a drape of yellow fabric called ‘Charleston Grapes’ which was used in a display of a music room that they made at the Lefevre Galleries in 1932.
A dividing wall with an oil painting of a male nude by Duncan Grant from this period, with the lovely pale blue background from his Vanessa Bell portrait, then we are transported to the next interior.
The next scheme is a recreation of a dining room, decorated in 1930 for Dorothy Wellesley at Penns-in-the-Rocks in Sussex. Huge painted panels of figures in alcoves, and a similarly presented ‘Vase of Flowers,’ are hung together as they would have been in the original room. These are monumental, carefully arranged figure groups. ‘Toilet of Venus’ and ‘Children Arranging Flowers’ have a clear pyramid structure, like something out of one of the frescoes the Bloomsbury Group loved to visit in Italy. In ‘Father and Son’ a statuesque male nude holds his angelic young son high above his head. Even the ‘Vase of Flowers’ is painted standing in an arched alcove on a plinth with a classical drape of green fabric. The poses are ordered and heroic but the line is soft and delicate, the situations clearly domestic, and the relationships between the characters full of tenderness and joy.
I would never have imagined without seeing it reassembled, how light the effect of this room, with its enormous wall paintings, is. I’ve read it described as painted in ‘pastel shades,’ but I don’t think that’s right. The pale Indian Red that dominates seems, rather than being softened, to throw the white in it right back at you. It is helped by being combined with their trademark grey, a mixture of Indian Red, Cobalt Blue and white, which accentuates any other colour put with it. Touches of red and blue in the pictures are taken up by the furniture. Indian Red and Cobalt Blue return in lines and circles on an octagonal dining table and a fireplace. Using touches of colour to unite a composition strikes me as the way you would construct a painting, like the touches of Viridian Green in my favourite portrait, but perhaps this is also how any interior designer works?
Like many of their rooms, the original complete interior doesn’t survive. This whole scheme was put up for auction in the 1970’s for under £1000 and still failed to sell. If only I had been there!
The exhibition finishes with some objects and photographs from Charleston, where Bell and Grant lived and painted, and which is one of the only Bloomsbury interiors that isn’t lost. There is another lovely painting by Duncan Grant, of his daughter Angelica playing the violin in front of a painted fireplace. It is a beautiful example of how their interiors made their way in and out of their art, and their mastery of domestic subjects and settings.
I found this exhibition very inspiring, and would recommend it to anyone. It is very easy to get to, in the centre of Bath. Entrance to the Victoria Art Gallery is free and the exhibition only costs £4.00.The exhibition runs until 4 September 2016, here is a link to their website.