Located between Gower Street and High Holborn, and behind the British Museum, Bloomsbury became the home of the group of writers and artists between the Wars. From 1904 onwards, they met regularly at the Gordon Square home of Thoby Stephen in Bloomsbury, London. Thoby and his sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, and brother Adrian hosted get-togethers where they and their friends from Cambridge indulged in free conversations about art, literature and philosophy.
It was a sunny morning, almost the first warm day in May after a severe winter that we walked over the meadows on the banks of the River Cam towards Rupert Brook’s village, Grantchester, a few miles from Cambridge. The village looked deserted, and when we entered The Orchard, Rupert Brooks’s house now turned into a charming pub, I was reminded of The Bloomsbury Group which often met here and which had been instrumental in introducing modernism to England.
I imagined them lazing in the sun, engaged in simple pleasures of their common love of the written word, their love of fine art, and their love of talking about anything that came to mind—politics, love, their upper-class friends, and new literary writings. All the while, coffee, tea and wine with anchovies on toast were passed around to "quench other forms of hunger and thirst."
On that sunny morning, The Orchard appeared to me as a greenhouse, which had encouraged the growth of healthy art forms, had fought for liberalisation of English culture and the vogues of modernism, as well as supported, and strengthened the genius of innumerable artists and writers, especially Virginia Woolf. No doubt, F. R. and Q. D. Leavis through their literary journal Scrutiny had sharply assaulted and critiqued Bloomsbury, the impact of the movement has left an indelible mark on Anglo-American cultural and political outlook.
Fiercely intelligent and fervently high-minded, Bloomsbury Group was composed of family, friends, lovers, and colleagues, of writers and painters who chatted about art and literature and at the same time propped up each other. Self-adulation and condemnation was their main pastime, jealousies and ambitions their chief motivations.
Clannish in every way, this coterie of intellectuals almost believed in the art of snobbery: Reading to the Memoir Club from her essay Am I a Snob? Virginia Woolf maintained that "...the essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people. The snob is a flutter-brained, hare-brained creature so little satisfied with his or her own standing that in order to consolidate it he or she is always flourishing a title or an honour in other people's faces so that they may believe, and help him to believe what he does not really believe—that he or she is somehow a person of importance." No wonder, some thought them flamboyantly stuck-up, pompous and unpatriotic (many objected to World War I and fled from London to the countryside).
D. H. Lawrence had once referred to them as "little swarming selves". But a century after its institution and, especially through Michael Holyroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey, its artistic and intellectual impact has been reinterpreted. Its oppositional stance and its cultural influence have been seen to be visible in the radicalism and permissiveness of the 1960s.
In 1904, exactly 100 years ago, Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa, moved to London following the death of their father, Sir Leslie Stephen, last of the Victorian men of letters, leaving behind the disappointment and world-weariness of their life at Hyde Park Gate for the intellectual pursuits of Bloomsbury. Located between a series of squares between Gower Street and High Holborn, and behind the British Museum, Bloomsbury became the home of the group of writers and artists between the wars. From 1904 onwards, they met regularly at the Gordon Square home of Thoby Stephen in Bloomsbury, London. Thoby and his sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, and brother Adrian hosted get-togethers where they and their friends from Cambridge indulged in free conversations about art, literature and philosophy.
The association stemmed from student friendship at Trinity College, Cambridge, at the turn of the century. Four of the members had gone to Cambridge in 1899 and they were immediately attracted to the intellectual air of the university as opposed to the barrenness and boredom of other schools they had been to.
The group began as a social clique, meeting every Saturday night for drinks and conversation. Its members were unswerving in their dismissal of what they felt were the strictures and taboos of Victorianism on religious, artistic, social, and sexual matters. A tight-knit group for many years, the Bloomsbury's reputation as a cultural circle was fully recognised to the extent that its mannerisms were spoofed and Bloomsbury became an extensively used term connoting a blinkered, snobbish aestheticism.
Exceptional in the brilliance, diversity, and output of its members, the group has remained the centre of attention of pervasive scholarly and popular interest. Michael Holroyd is of the view that they "were the progressives and the embodiment of the avant-garde in early years of this century. Every time we look at them again they seem to have something for the contemporary world, whether in sexual ethics, liberation, biography, economics, feminism or painting."
The group included Clive Bell (Virginia's brother-in-law), Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf (Virginia's future husband), Vita Sackville-West (Virginia's friend and lover), Duncan Grant, Adrian Stephen (Virginia and Vanessa's brother), the MacCarthys, Roger Fry and E. M. Forster. Others like the artists Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant were deeply influenced by the Post Impressionists and their celebration of the sensuous beauty of everyday domestic surroundings. Ray Costelloe, in a letter to Mary Costelloe wrote in 1909, "It is a very fascinating, queer, self-absorbed, fantastic set of people. But they are very interesting..."
The ‘Bloomsberries’ had always wished to sustain the intellectual quality imbibed at the late 19th-century, free thinking Cambridge and described by E. M. Forster as "...a magic quality. Body and spirit, reason and emotion, work and play, architecture and scenery, laughter and seriousness, life and art—these pairs which are elsewhere contrasted were there fused into one. People and books reinforced one another, intelligence joined hands with affection, speculation became a passion, and discussion was made profound by love."
Forster went to the extent of holding Bloomsbury as the "only genuine movement in English civilisation", liberal in politics, psychologically anti-patriarchal and anti-authoritarian, and keenly standing up for "unvarnished, undoctored truth". Modernism had finally arrived in England and it all began in Cambridge and Granchester.