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Museum Spaces: The Bloomsbury Group

By Lara Mangano

The Bloomsbury Group were a collection of artists and writers living in late- nineteenth and early-twentieth century London. Their legacy in early modernism is imprinted through the literature of Virginia Woolf and the art of her sister Vanessa Bell who, along with other associated artists, visually contributed to the daring modernist abstraction of painting and decorative arts, freeing visual culture from its previous limits. What always strikes me is the relatively early period of their flowering in the 1910s, rather than later in the interwar period, cementing them as the cutting edge of the avant-garde. The post-World War I world of the 1920s and 30s, associated with Art Deco, embraced the geometric abstract lines in the mainstream; it is as if the Bloomsbury Group were foreshadowing this tendency for modernism.

Left: Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, c.1918. Oil on canvas, 94 x 60.6 cm. National Portrait Gallery. Right: A view of the fireplace in Clive Bell’s Study at Charleston, 2015Photograph taken from Home & Antiques.

It is in the context of the First World War that the group retreated to Charleston, the countryside cottage in East Sussex, in order to avoid conscription and work in the war effort in alignment with their pacifist values. The entire house is a doll’s house delight for their lifestyle and aesthetic: painted walls lined with decorative patterns; bright yet muted colours and textures covering each surface; ceramics and rugs produced at their design enterprise Omega workshops interspersed with an equally impressive collection of antique furniture and ceramics collected from around the world. The unique shapes and colours that you encounter in the curated space of domestic objects transports you to their world, not just through individual artefacts or paintings but experienced within a wider environment of the room all together. This perhaps encapsulates the late-nineteenth-century modernist notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, a concept championed by the Vienna Secession. It was indeed in this period when the avant-garde were looking to unify the arts and undermine the hierarchy of fine art predominating over decorative art, in order to create freedom, bring modernism to everyday spaces, and democratise the experience of art.

Omega design letterhead, 1913. Image taken by Annabel Cole. Source: Tate.

Perhaps in a similar spirit, the recent renovation of Somerset House has restored and modernised the spaces of the Courtauld Gallery, bringing back the rooms of art to the public. The closet space in the North Wing houses a room dedicated to the Bloomsbury Group, which in my opinion is a highlight of the entire gallery. The reason is not due to a stylistic preference against the gorgeous ceiling mouldings of the Blavatnik Galleries, but the fact that the room, small as it is, makes up for its size with the sensory experience that is created by the mode of display. The room aptly recreates the physical environment of the Bloomsbury Group, while not inauthentically seeking to be a copy of Charleston. The walls are painted in the characteristic earthy red matte, with a geometric block of moss green contrasting with the navy wainscoting panels and providing a rich backdrop for the framed paintings, as well as a case filled with ceramics from the Omega workshops. Thankfully, even the museum case does not take the viewer out with a stark white backdrop—the surfaces of the framed case covered with pale green dupion silk, fitting in with the wider colour scheme. Most pleasing of all is the chair and reliquary figure in the corner, not enclosed in a museum case. 

Left: Gorgeous corner at the North wing exhibit at Somerset House The Bloomsbury Group, the Courtauld Gallery. Photograph taken by (me!) Right: North wing exhibit at Somerset House The Bloomsbury Group, the Courtauld Gallery. Photograph taken by (me!)

I comment on this as often the glass barrier between the person and material cuts the connection of the senses, and museum spaces with stark, simple white walls unfortunately decontextualise the art exhibited. The art often feels like a fish out of its pond, unable to be appreciated in the way it was seen when created, environmentally separating people from the art. The minimalist lighting, though disappointing in such historic space, has limited distraction in this room thanks to the dim, warm hue helping to create the atmosphere that is fitting to the Bloomsbury Group. Even the rug underneath, based on an Omega drawing by Roger Fry at the Courtauld collection, help transport the viewer through the furnishings and colours, that little bit closer to early-twentieth century modernism. I hope that in future, more exhibition spaces are increasingly ambitious in de-gentrifying museums and public spaces and are unafraid to bring authentic spaces and objects to life. 


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