Sarah Sands: How Bloomsbury morphed into Boden

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The Independent Online

So far as letters go, I have heard more interesting. "I have been looking after (son) Hugo while his nurse had a holiday. I've really enjoyed it although it makes one a little blank in the head." Yet because this was written by one member of the Bloomsbury Group, Rosamond Lehmann, to another, Frances Partridge, the passage was read out reverently on the Today programme on Friday, and a struggling Evan Davis responded that the newly released Bloomsbury archive would probably give great insight into the most famous 20th-century creative clique. He then slightly undercut himself by then describing Bloomsbury to his studio guest, the great-niece of Virginia Woolf, as "people who swan around talking about art".

Curious that Davis should overlook the contribution of John Maynard Keynes, who was swanning about talking about economics, and has been the beacon of our own recession. And as Virginia Nicholson, the daughter of Quentin Bell, pleasantly reproached him, this was not "country house" grandeur, merely privilege.

There are two reasons why the Bloomsbury Group continues to interest us, and neither concerns its body of work. The first is the obvious one. When Davis says they were swanning about talking about art, he was being polite. Practically every conversation seemed to include a partner swap. Take the dear late Frances Partridge's entrée into Bloomsbury. She was working in a bookshop when she met Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington and Ralph Partridge. Partridge married Carrington, who was in love with Strachey, who was more interested in Partridge.

It helps here that everybody wrote everything down. Second-generation Bloomsbury recorded every batsqueak of their elders. A couple of years ago in the South of France, I interviewed Angelica Garnett, daughter of Vanessa Bell – Virginia Woolf's sister – and Vanessa's bisexual lover Duncan Grant. Garnett wrote a book about her surprising biological parentage, Deceived with Kindness, but was splendidly haughty when I raised it with her, and suggested that I leave. It takes a particular strand of liberal privilege to make head-spinningly complicated sex commonplace, and writing about it serious and elevated. There was nothing bawdy about Bloomsbury.

Before my fruitless interview with Angelica Garnett, I had spend a cheerful afternoon with Virginia Nicholson's mother, Anne Bell, wife of Quentin Bell, daughter-in-law of Vanessa. She too shrugged off all the creaking on the stairs – of interest only to readers of the serious press.

The second reason for continued Bloomsbury mania, is that they are – perhaps to their dismay – a branch of the National Trust. Virginia Nicholson was shrewd to observe on Today that the true appeal of Bloomsbury is aspirational. Discussions of high art, with a hint of sexual promise, lovely Sussex farmhouses, lying about in beautiful gardens on summer days. Bloomsbury guilelessly offered a "lifestyle" just as, in a less troubling way, Boden or Mulberry went on to do. If I picture Lytton Strachey or Vanessa Bell, it is not beneath the sheets, but on the lawn. Every time I visit a garden centre, I think, "Now, what would Vanessa do?"

What Evan Davis called "luxurious" was the luxury of high art, with a bit of low sex, and no vulgar fretting about earning a living. I am not sure how likeable or noble these friends were, but Old Bloomsbury sounds like a Farrow and Ball range that I would buy like a shot.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

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