Books: Who's Who of the splattering classes

Michele Roberts on an overly vapid account of the Bloomsbury group; Bloomsbury and France: Art and Friends by Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright Oxford pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Where did the Bloomsberries go for their summer holidays? When the Charleston palled, they fled, like millions of us after them, first to Bloomsbury-sur-Seine, otherwise known as Paris, and subsequently to sunny Bloomsbury-sur-mer, Cassis, the little fishing-port on the Mediterranean coast. But they weren't mere tourists like us, of course. They were serious artists in pursuit of a fresh vision.

If my tone sounds jeering, blame the opening paragraph of the introduction to this book: "A table on a covered terrace has been set with three places. The light of the Midi falls streaked through the leaves overhead onto their bright ochre plates from Aubagne, filled with green and black olives, pale yellow cheese from the Luberon and tomato slices with freshly picked basil." This lifestyle-supplement prose isn't quite Elizabeth David - why not tell us the name of the cheese? - but mercifully only occurs at the beginning of chapters, to set the mood. It reads like notes for Bloomsbury: the Movie. They loved! They chatted! They sketched! Some sort of impressionist painting in words, I think it's supposed to be, designed to evoke nostalgic sighs for la recherche du temps perdu.

There's a certain kind of bourgeois, English or American, who worships all things Woolfian and all things toujours Provencal, and this book, dense with photographs of beaming pals, is firmly aimed at them. At first it seems merely a cosy guidebook to make Outsiders feel like insiders, a Who's Who of the splattering classes in the 1920s; once you scrape off the silly surface you find something more serious and interesting underneath. The current show at the Tate in London on the art of Bloomsbury has been panned by most critics. This volume helps one see what Fry, Bell and Grant were on about. If they couldn't be Cezanne, Matisse and Derain, at least they studied, admired and tried to reproduce them.

Bloomsbury and France is in fact ambitious in aim and scope. A collective biography cum photo album, it spins a web linking together just about everybody ever connected in any way with the Bloomsbury group, whether in England or France, quoting copiously from letters, journals and memoirs. The resulting mass of information and authorised comment is divided into three parts. It opens with descriptions of the early visits of Bloomsbury figures, such as Lytton Strachey, to France, from 1896 onwards. Next come the trips to France of Leonard and Virginia Woolf and of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. We're not quoted Virginia's endearing question to a sailor on deck: "est ce-que la mer est brusque?" We are given, however, a lengthy account of her madness, and her caustic comment about the earnestness of Vanessa and her husband Clive, who "talk a great deal about beauty and Art, and meet various old bachelors who have known Whistler, and play the violin, and can't paint". Lacking Woolf's cheerful capacity to puncture pretentiousness, Caws and Bird Wright remark severely: "While she may have envied Vanessa the satisfaction she apparently derived from marriage, Virginia seemingly had little respect for the intellectual level she and Clive had attained." Er, yes.

Part One continues with an account of Clive Bell settling in to Paris, John Maynard Keynes and Ottoline Morrell popping over, and all of them staying with the American artists Ethel Sands and Nan Hudson at their conveniently situated chateau near Dieppe. Part Two looks at the Bloomsbury painters: Grant, Fry and Bell. Insouciant coat-tailers, they chased after Matisse and Picasso, and, in the authors' own words were "always hoping to find the perfect curve of a Mediterranean bay, the perfect light for a landscape, the perfect arrangement on a Provencal table". Fry might have failed to achieve that but, at least, by organising exhibitions and writing critical texts, he introduced the post-impressionist painters he esteemed to an English audience.

Part Three is the most absorbing, because its subject is less well known. Charting the relationship between the English writers of the group and certain French intellectuals, such as Charles Mauren, it looks at questions of translation and criticism and argues for the profound importance of poets like Mallarme on the development of English modernism. Who benefited more from these exchanges? The Brits, one assumes. Fleeing the "gloom" and the "drab insularity" of England (poor England), they were inspired by "the vigour and light, the colours and delicacy, of France". For the French had, I bet you didn't know, "a certain way of looking at art, of treating artists, and of living". Duncan Grant managed to give Picasso a helping hand, however. In February 1914 he "discovered some rolls of wallpaper in the closet of his Parisian hotel that Pablo Picasso was able to use in seven collages, now considered to be among his most significant creations. Duncan's gift ... added a new dimension to Picasso's work." The doubters among us should be satisfied with this kind of detail, which pads out the book and frequently achieves an effect of bathos.

Time and again the authors teeter into portentousness and banality. They spend half a page telling us how Lytton Strachey falls over and hurts his leg. They assure us too often that Proust was "clearly an important reference point for many members of the Bloomsbury group". A good editor should have patted away this flab and corrected the errors of spelling, punctuation and fact. The Palais Royal, for instance, is not on the Left Bank. And who paid for the wallpaper? I think we should be told.