Though it is a collective name with which none of the group’s so-called “members” personally identified, the Bloomsbury Group was a circle of like-minded friends who championed gender and sexual equality, the importance of personal relationships, rational debate, and the arts, among other things. Included in their set were some of the twentieth century’s most significant writers, artists, critics, and intellectuals, including E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and Virginia Woolf.
The Origins of the Bloomsbury Group: Cambridge University
Despite its name, the roots of the Bloomsbury Group can be traced back to Cambridge University, which all the male “Bloomsberries” (aside from Duncan Grant) attended. In 1899, Thoby Stephen, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sydney-Turner, and Clive Bell all began their studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. The friendship between these young men formed what was to become the core of the Bloomsbury Group.
In 1902, Strachey, Sydney-Turner, and Woolf were all invited to join the Apostles – an intellectual society in which one member a week presents a talk on a set topic, which the other members then discuss – to which older members of the Bloomsbury Group such as Roger Fry, E. M. Forster, and Desmond MacCarthy had belonged and which John Maynard Keynes would join in 1903. This emphasis on lively intellectual debate established at Cambridge was to be central to the dynamic of the Bloomsbury Group.
Two Deaths in the Family
1904 is often seen as marking the start of the Bloomsbury Group as we have come to understand it. It was during this year that Sir Leslie Stephen, Thoby Stephen’s father and the editor of The Dictionary of National Biography, died. Thoby and his siblings Vanessa, Virginia, and Adrian Stephen moved out of their childhood home at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington and into 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
At the time, Bloomsbury was not typically seen as a desirable area of London. However, having tired of the demands placed on them by good society, it was precisely this aspect of Bloomsbury that appealed to the Stephens, and to Vanessa and Virginia in particular. Instead of receiving guests for their father at tea time, the Stephen sisters began hosting “at homes,” to which Thoby duly invited his friends from university.
However, in 1906, during a family holiday in Greece, Thoby Stephen contracted typhoid, from which he died shortly after returning to London. Shortly after his death, Clive Bell asked Vanessa Stephen to marry him, and – having been declined previously – Vanessa agreed, drawing the Bloomsbury Group into an even closer alliance. And when Virginia Stephen married Leonard Woolf in 1912, the bonds uniting the various friends were consolidated even further.
Arguably Bloomsbury’s most famous member, Adeline Virginia Stephen, was born on 25 January 1882. Like many middle-class girls, she was educated at home by her parents while her brothers were sent to school – a gender disparity that she resented. She did have unrestricted access to her father’s “unexpurgated library,” however, and her father recognized her literary talent. It was only just after his death, however, during a month-long holiday in Manorbier in Pembrokeshire, that she herself realized that she would become a writer.
Eleven years later, she released her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), followed by Night and Day in 1919. It was not until the publication of Jacob’s Room in 1922, however, that she developed her unique voice and distinctively modern style of writing. She then produced an extraordinary output of work, including the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931), political writings such as A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), and the pseudo-biographical novel Orlando (1928), which was inspired by her love affair with Vita Sackville-West.
Throughout her life, however, she suffered bouts of severe depression and psychotic episodes. After completing the first draft of her novel Between the Acts, she entered another period of deep depression, and on 28 March 1941, she drowned herself in the River Ouse.
Leonard Woolf was born in London in 1880 to a Jewish family. His father, a successful barrister and Queen’s counsel, died when Leonard was twelve.
Having given up a promising imperial career as an assistant government agent in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the hopes that Virginia Stephen would agree to marry him, Leonard Woolf went on to become an adviser to both the Labour Party and the Fabian Society, was among the earliest advocates for abandoning colonial rule, and dedicated much of his life to championing international peace, being a leading intellectual force in the formation of the League of Nations.
With his wife, he also established the Hogarth Press in 1917 and wrote novels, journalism, memoirs, and political works. He also cared for Virginia during her illnesses and had many beloved pets.
Vanessa Stephen was the first child born to writer and editor Sir Leslie Stephen and his second wife, Julia Duckworth, who had been a model for Edward Burne-Jones, George Frederic Watts, and her own aunt, the photographer, Julia Cameron. From an early age, Vanessa understood that there was a literary side and an artistic side to her family. Always closer to her mother, she aligned herself with the latter.
She received tuition in drawing from E. Wake Cook and attended Sir Arthur Cope’s art school before going on to study at the Royal Academy in 1901. The paintings she produced during this time were typical of the style favored by the New English Art Club, but through her relationship with Roger Fry, she came to embrace a more progressive, Post-Impressionist aesthetic. Her work also included interior design and the decorative arts.
Following the death of her eldest son, Julian, during the Spanish Civil War, Vanessa Bell never fully recovered. Around this time, her style of painting also fell out of fashion. In 1961, she developed bronchitis and soon after died of heart failure at her beloved Charleston.
An older member of the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry was born on 14 December 1866 to Quaker parents. After studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, Fry decided to dedicate his life to art. Better known for his art criticism than for his art, he was instrumental in introducing continental Post-Impressionist art to Britain. In doing so, he helped support a new generation of progressive British artists inspired by the artworks of Matisse and Cézanne. Among this generation was Vanessa Bell, with whom he had an affair before she left him for Duncan Grant. Their friendship survived, nonetheless, and Fry, Bell, and Grant worked together on the Omega Workshops.
He continued to champion French art throughout his life, which was tragically cut short when he died unexpectedly following a fall at his London home in 1934.
One of the most innately gifted British painters of the early twentieth century, Duncan Grant was born on 21 January 1885. Fellow Bloomsbury Group member Lytton Strachey was his cousin, and Grant lived with the Strachey family from 1899 to 1906. It was Lady Jane Strachey who convinced Grant’s parents to allow him to pursue an artistic career and who sent him to the Westminster School of Art.
Like Vanessa Bell, his artistic training taught him how to paint with skill, though stylistically speaking, his work of this period was traditional, conservative, and “shadowed by his knowledge of the Old Masters” (see Further Reading, Spalding, p. 55). Together, Grant and Bell developed an artistic partnership. They experimented with new compositional styles and lived together until Vanessa’s death in 1961. When Grant died in 1978, he was buried beside Vanessa.
Giles Lytton Strachey was born on 1 March 1880 to a large Anglo-Indian family. Though he was a sickly child, his mother was adamant that he received the best education possible.
That education culminated in Strachey studying at Trinity College, Cambridge. After failing to secure a career in either the civil service or academia after his graduation, Strachey embarked on a life of writing. He published Eminent Victorians in 1918. Here, and in his later works Queen Victoria (1921) and Elizabeth and Essex (1928), he pioneered a new style of biographical writing, which prized empathy and entertainment as highly as factual accuracy.
Throughout his life, Strachey had love affairs with various men and even fell in love with some of his fellow male “Bloomsberries,” including Duncan Grant and Thoby Stephen. After an abortive, ill-judged proposal to Virginia Stephen in 1909, he encouraged Leonard Woolf to ask her to marry him. Lytton, meanwhile, enjoyed a loving though platonic “marriage” of sorts with the painter and peripheral Bloomsbury Group member, Dora Carrington, with whom he lived from 1917 to his death in 1932 from stomach cancer.
E. M. Forster
Edward Morgan Foster was born on 1 January 1879. Having inherited a sizeable fortune from his great-aunt, the abolitionist and human rights activist Marianne Thornton, he had the financial security to devote himself to his writing. Four years after graduating from Cambridge, he published his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, in 1905.
He then wrote three more novels in remarkably quick succession: The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), and Howards End (1910), basing the Schlegel sisters on Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. His next novel, A Passage to India, however, was not released until 1924, and he did not publish another novel in his lifetime.
Following his death in 1970, the novel Maurice (1971) was published posthumously. Maurice centers on the love affairs of the novel’s eponymous protagonist, Maurice Hall, with Clive Durham and Alec Scudder. Though Forster’s sexuality was known to his friends in the Bloomsbury Group, and though private homosexual acts between men over 21 were decriminalized in the United Kingdom in 1967, Forster understandably felt this change in the law had come too late in his own life to have had any impact on his personal happiness.
John Maynard Keynes
Born on 5 June 1883, John Maynard Keynes increasingly came to seem something of an anomaly within the Bloomsbury set. While his closest friends were famous writers, artists, and art critics, he himself was an influential economist and joined the Treasury in 1915. As Frances Spalding notes: “his close involvement with high finance and politics often wrong-footed him with his friends, either because he was privy to more information than they were or because a certain worldliness had blunted his sensibility” (see Further Reading, Spalding, p. 85).
Nonetheless, the philosopher and peripheral Bloomsbury Group member Bertrand Russell deemed Keynes’ “intellect […] the sharpest and clearest that I have ever known.” Moreover, he was instrumental in the formation of the Arts Council of Great Britain and remained close to his fellow “Bloomsberries,” even giving Vanessa Bell the benefit of his financial advice.
Though it was never a movement as such, but rather an informal group of like-minded friends, the Bloomsbury Group did have a major cultural impact during the first half of the twentieth century in everything from art and literature to economics and politics. Perhaps inevitably, therefore, they were the target of a great deal of criticism and mockery. To this day, the perception of the Bloomsbury Group as elitist and supercilious persists.
While the “Bloomsberries” were largely middle class, white, and (Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey in particular) had a propensity for snide and snobbish humor, they also rejected a great deal of the middle-class pretensions with which they had been brought up. Their emphasis on discussion and the importance of personal relationships meant that they championed gender equality and sexual freedom while also reshaping art, literature, and society as we know it. Thus Stephen Spender concluded that the Bloomsbury Group constituted “the most constructive and creative influence on English taste between the two wars” (see Further Reading, Spalding, p. 5).
Licence, Amy (2015). Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Books.
Spalding, Frances (2021). The Bloomsbury Group. London: The National Portrait Gallery.