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Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love & Legacy at York Art Gallery 

‘It will be an odd life … but it seems to me it ought to be a good one for painting’ – Vanessa Bell 

Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love & Legacy is an exhibition of paintings by the National Portrait Gallery Collection, in cooperation with York Art Gallery and Sheffield Museums Trust, depicting the personalities behind the Bloomsbury Group, and demonstrating their considerable artistic skills. The exhibition displays a stunning variety of artwork and explores how these individuals had such a significant impact on art and literature. 

David Garnett by Vanessa Bell, 1915.
Picture credit: National Portrait Gallery

Moving between the rooms of this exhibition, the range of the artwork displayed is striking; from paintings and sculptures to books, it is clear the Bloomsbury Group was a melting pot of artistic talent, paving the way for new, emerging artists to be further freed from the confines of traditional artistic expression. Roger Fry’s 1913 creation of the Omega Workshops is underscored as central to this project. The exhibition highlights how the complicated interwoven personal relationships of the Group members mirrored their art’s non-traditional forms. This is exemplified by two paintings presented alongside each other in this exhibition, one by Vanessa Bell, the other by Duncan Grant, both depicting David Garnett. The differing ways that they presented the same subject reflect the complex love triangle of these three individuals. 

Members of the Bloomsbury Group are well known for their liberal politics and unique approach to art and literature; this exhibition further draws parallels between their complex and unconventional private lives, and the impressive creative output that ensued. Throughout the exhibition, an emphasis is simultaneously placed on their progressive politics (in particular their advocacy for lifestyles of sexual fluidity and freedom), but also on the elitest formal education underpinning their work, and the ties to old money and colonialism that many of them had through their families, thereby highlighting a contradiction at the heart of their collective political positions. The exhibition considers issues with their purportedly liberal and inclusive politics, citing problems such as questionable views on empire, and instances of antisemitism. 

However, philanthropy clearly was important to the Group, as was patronage – both through the distant and wealthy figures that supported key Group members, but also through the way that new talent was aided; young, emerging artists without the necessary experience or connections to make it in the industry were actively sought out by the Bloomsbury Group, who were keen to be of assistance. 

Male Nude (Pat Nelson) by Duncan Grant
Picture credit: Art UK

Efforts from York Art Gallery’s curators to increase queer representation amongst the artwork the gallery displays influenced the planning of this exhibition; while this applies to many members of the Bloomsbury Group and their unconventional relationships, Duncan Grant is a particularly notable example. He produced many portraits of his male lovers, with several of these included in the exhibition. However, despite the clear affection in these paintings, and the beautiful colour and brushwork characteristic to his portraiture, the tone of the exhibition is careful to take a balanced stance, remaining supportive of the artist’s life and celebratory of his artistic successes, while commenting on some of the aspects that are more worthy of criticism. One particular painting by Duncan Grant (a nude from behind of his lover, Patrick Nelson) is aesthetically stunning and highlights both the artist’s skill with a paintbrush, and his clear affection for his partner, however also generates questions surrounding the role that exoticism and racial fetishisation played in their relationship or Grant’s attraction to Nelson. 

Written by Hannah Shakespeare

‘Beyond Bloomsbury: Life, Love & Legacy’ is being shown at the York Art Gallery from 4 March – 5 June 2022.