Exhibitions

The Bloomsbury painters bore me

By contrast the work of Frank Dobson and Matthew smith pack a punch, as a new National Portrait Gallery exhibition shows

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

National Portrait Gallery, until 26 October

Colour, Light, Texture: Portraits by Matthew Smith and Frank Dobson

National Portrait Gallery, until 6 April 2015

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) claimed that nothing has really happened until it has been recorded, so this new exhibition at the NPG devoted to her life can only now be said to have happened — for here I am recording it. Of course it is a truism that an exhibition only exists while it is on. Afterwards it remains in (some of) the memories of those people who visited it, and in photographic records or a catalogue of the exhibits. Among the items that will linger in my memory of this show are the portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron of Sir John Herschel, mathematician and astronomer, looking like a distraught French revolutionary; the lithograph of Henry James by William Rothenstein; Sydney-Turner by Vanessa Bell (despite the poorly painted hands); Dora Carrington’s self-portrait; and a 1934 photograph of Virginia Woolf by Man Ray — one of the most lucid and beautiful images here.

This exhibition is very much a family affair. It begins with wonderful photographic portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia Woolf’s great-aunt, then moves through the high days of the Bloomsbury Group, centred on Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf, who together founded the Hogarth Press, which published many key Bloomsbury texts. Chief Hogarth Press designer was Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, who also painted portraits of the main protagonists. Duncan Grant, predominantly homosexual, sometime lover of his cousin Lytton Strachey but also father of Vanessa’s daughter Angelica, was the other Bloomsbury court painter. The paintings of Bell and Grant dominate the show.

I must confess to being a little disappointed by the exhibition, which is well mannered to the point of being soporific. As a portrait of someone whose life was made up of dramatic lights and darks, the show goes along on rather too even a keel, in fact almost sedately. I longed for extreme oppositions and better art. How wonderful if Henry Lamb’s great portrait of Lytton Strachey had been included. I see that it is too big, and though an undisputed masterpiece, it would have overshadowed the exhibition and accorded Strachey disproportionate importance. Instead we have Simon Bussy’s very nice but sotto voce pastel portrait of the writer at work on a trestle table.

The exhibition’s sedative effect is probably the result of too many medium-sized and often mediocre Bloomsbury paintings. Although always interested in the work of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, I am rarely excited or moved by it, and have long felt that their true strengths lay in the abstract and decorative. What a pity that their decorative panels for the Woolfs’ house in Tavistock Square, bombed during the war, could not somehow have been recreated life-size and included here — that might have livened up proceedings. Virginia Woolf was a writer of considerable originality, one of the great innovative novelists of the 20th century, and in this she was something of a revolutionary. Her private life was beset by mental illness. Yet the exhibition conveys little impression of either her genius or her instability. How to do that through a chronology of photographs and portraits is of course the great challenge of any such documentary exhibition. I don’t underestimate the difficulties of rising to such a challenge, or the problems of getting the right loans, I just wish I had been more engaged by the show.


This is probably my fault. I had hoped to see something by Sickert on the walls, or at least in the display cases, given that Mrs Woolf wrote a short book about him in 1934, published by the Hogarth Press with a cover design by Vanessa Bell. Sickert is a great artist, unlike Grant or Bell, and perhaps would have put them in the shade, but I missed his acerbic presence. The one image that leapt off the wall was the dynamic colour linocut, ‘Rush Hour’ (1930), by Sybil Andrews. What a contrast to the sub-Modigliani portrait of fashion editor Madge Garland by Teddy Wolfe; even the mirror facings on its frame cannot disguise its ineptitude.

Perhaps I simply don’t warm to Mrs Woolf, who remains elusive despite having a National Portrait Gallery exhibition dedicated to her. As she said, ‘We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others.’ Words are so often used as a smokescreen, something to hide behind. She herself called them ‘an impure medium’ and suggested that it was ‘better far to have been born into the silent kingdom of paint’. Did she really believe that? The grass is always greener, even if it doesn’t look it in the painted version.

Despite my misgivings, I’m sure the exhibition will be a success. (It was certainly crowded when I visited.) As one of the great literary suicides, Virginia Woolf’s life (and death) still intrigue, even if her books are considered a bit hard-going. She’s the sort of figure people enjoy reading about more than reading, so Frances Spalding’s handsome illustrated biography, which doubles as the catalogue (paperback, £22.50), makes the perfect souvenir to take home and enjoy in a room of one’s own.

For people who like their art a bit more full-blooded, there is a lively display upstairs in Room 33 of portraits by sculptor Frank Dobson (1886–1963) and painter Matthew Smith (1879–1959). It’s a small show of seven photographs, four sculptures and four paintings, but it packs more punches than the Woolf exhibition does in more than 140 exhibits. Both Dobson and Smith are seriously underrated today, though both were successful during their lifetimes, and indeed Dobson was considered to be the modernist sculptor before Henry Moore came along and supplanted him. Both Smith and Dobson were prolific and rather uneven in output, but at their best (and artists should only be judged on their best work) they made images of real power and emotional complexity.

Smith is thought of primarily as a luscious Rubensian painter of large ladies, though he also painted landscapes of great depth and beauty, and could be a perspicacious portraitist. This can be seen from his substantial painting of the celebrated children’s writer Roald Dahl, which forms the centrepiece of this display. Smith had lost both of his sons in the RAF earlier in the second world war, so when Dahl sought him out in 1944, after his own plane had crash-landed in the Libyan desert, the two men had much to discuss. The painting that ensued, of Dahl in RAF uniform, has a poignancy that is rare in war portraits.

It is flanked by Smith’s portrayals of Jean Simmons and Angelica Garnett (daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant), and the trio makes a real splash of vivid colour across the back wall of the room. In front and to the sides are Dobson’s sculptures: two of Osbert Sitwell (the plaster original and the famous bronze that was cast from it), a plaster bust of actress Margaret Rawlings and a bronze head of the designer Marion Dorn. The Sitwell piece is the best here, but there still needs to be a proper Dobson museum retrospective so that his achievement may be fairly reassessed.

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  • Kitty MLB

    I’m not surprised The Bloomsbury Painters bore you especially
    if anything like the lofty ‘Bloomsbury Group’..the Oh so creme de la
    creme of society.
    More of an Old Masters kind of woman myself..the haunting works
    of Rembrandt and Michelangelo, could you imagine Virginia Woolf
    on the Sistine chapel…I rest my case.
    I adore Vincent Van Gogh also-got to know him whilst living in
    Holland.

    • statechaos

      Van Gogh died in 1890 – you must be very old!

      • Kitty MLB

        Good God, someone has actually turned up, I
        was beginning to think about answering myself.I
        could say that I have drank from the ancient springs
        of erernal life in hesperides orjust that I got to
        know Van Gogh metaphorically speaking whilst
        living in his homeland.

        • gerontius

          Don’t get impatient
          i visited Charleston farmhouse a couple of years ago
          Lovely house, and some nice things but the bloomsbury gang themselves strike me as somewhat precious. Probably just me – wife says i can be uncouth sometimes.

          • Kitty MLB

            The fireplace at Charleston House is interesting. Your wife is very perspicacious.
            If you were occasionally unrefined(and they were a precious bunch) then you would have
            rattled their oh so intellectual and visionary
            equilibrium.
            PS you are a chap, if any of you get pains in
            the chest I hope you’d listen to sensible wives
            and see a doctor and not blame stress.
            PS (2) I am not impatient, even someone with
            my idiosyncrasities would struggle to have a
            conversation with myself..and I am talkative.
            How many threads is it possible to have on
            Scotland…its very tedious.

          • gerontius

            My wife is indeed perspicacious.
            I never stress – though I do shout at Miss SatNav (“How can you remain so calm when you’ve got us so hopelessly lost, you dunderhead – panic i say, panic?!”)
            I’m sure you can talk to yourself – I can – Anyone over thirty can.
            Scotland is hilarious in a catastrophic sort of way – I got a few upvotes for my suggestion that, once we are certain that our great leaders have arrived in Scotland to plead with the natives, we lock the gates of England behind them.

          • Kitty MLB

            I am forever been stopped by men in cars when
            out walking, all looking bewildered and vulnerable, clearly without a Miss Sat Nav.
            If I think the look dodgy I’ll send them in the
            wrong direction.My husband calls his Sat Nav
            ‘Sally’and never shouts at her..I mean honestly
            the conversations would be very limited, she
            only says 5 words.
            Excellent idea, locking them in Scotland but might I suggest wearing burkas..for their own
            protection.

          • gerontius

            “If I think the look dodgy I’ll send them in the
            wrong direction.”

            Hah! So it was you – how could you?

          • Kitty MLB

            I told you above that I was worried
            about a health issue, i know thats not your worry but you spent Friday elsewhere speaking of morbidity rather alot.I did try and
            change the subject to no avail. Then later
            that night I wandered onto the Speccie and
            noticed a conversation between Fenton and
            yourself that made me smile as I like openness
            and friendliness, but I have to say, I thought your response to me was a tad spiteful and
            quite out of character for a chap that’s usually
            nice and who you like is no concern of anyone
            else but you, I am nice to everyone even telemachus, so didn’t need swatting.
            I’ll say goodnight and there is no need for you
            to respond.

          • gerontius

            ??
            Kitty what on earth did I say?

          • Kitty MLB

            I have explained above, but you don’t seem to
            understand subtlety and those who speak
            quietly.I think you are amongst the few people
            I chat alot with (or to, as in your case) and yet
            you have no idea why you might have offended
            me last Friday on Rod Liddle’s thread..Oh
            that speaks volumes actually.
            Oh I must go back to sleep, hospital appointments tomorrow, sorry for rambling,
            I should leave you to chat with those you
            prefer to speak with, I am very bad at hogging
            people. Good night and there is really, really
            no need to respond to this.

          • Kitty MLB

            Oh,the word offended was incorrect, I am not
            easily offended..I meant disappointed, especially when you apologised for being childish…I do that rather a lot.
            When I turned up at twilight I was hoping to
            bump into Sarah or Fergus..who I knew would
            say something cheery. And I am sure those Bloomsbury bunch would have done so too.
            By the way I know this is of no interest but I
            was once nearly a fencing champion and I can
            play the violin rather well…but like a baby elephant with the piano..useless. Ciao.

          • Kitty MLB

            I am sorry.

          • Kitty MLB

            Fear of the death led me to be rude to the nicest and
            most kind of people who I liked and respected.
            You cant read this but I’m crushed by my words
            goodbye.

          • Kitty MLB

            My heath concerns are serious but I was wrong to explode in public and to a nice person, it all just got too much. I should have stayed away, don’t think too badly of me, Elgar’s composition.

  • Kitty MLB

    Might I add I could have been a member of this bloomsbury group
    at a moment in time…but would have been too rebellious.

    • gerontius

      I thought they were a bit avant garde in the personal relationship side of things. Are you sure that’s your thing Kits?

      • Kitty MLB

        Oh no, I only meant the unconventional life.They certainly were debauched, had complicated entanglements and sybaritic lifestyles that
        focused on maximizing pleasure amongst their
        own group.God knows what they got upto in
        these meeting places and what they were taught
        at the ‘friday and saturday clubs’ at Trinity College.

        • gerontius

          You have disappointed me Kitty.
          For a minute…….

          • Kitty MLB

            Disappointed you…Oh I saw the question as a
            trap and I’m sadly on my best behaviour and
            always one step ahead these days.

          • gerontius

            “I’m sadly on my best behaviour”
            Are you always on your best behaviour Kitty?

          • Kitty MLB

            Now this could be a trap but I trust you.No my
            impish nature always leads me to misbehave.
            Unless spoil-sports try and ruin my fun by telling
            me to be on my best behaviour, sadly.But
            such as life.

          • gerontius

            Oh all right, you can trust me.
            I’m so good it hurts.
            I’m going to bed – goodnight.

          • Kitty MLB

            You could never disappoint. The fear of death led me to be
            rude to one if the nicest and polite of people, someone I like
            very much. You have gone and I can never apologise, so I must be gone too.

    • Kitty MLB

      ..

  • Kitty MLB

    ..

  • Kitty MLB

    ..

  • Kitty MLB

    Well those Bloomsbury lofty types bore everyone I have been the
    only soul to visit.Admittedly twice to practice with the Tablet..
    its private here you see.

  • statechaos

    It is entirely your fault that it bores you. As a visual history of the Bloomsbury set it is an excellent exhibition. Perhaps they should have sent someone else to review it.

    • Kitty MLB

      Indeed.

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