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Why Does Bloomsbury Fascinate Us?

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

Nearly 100 years ago Virginia Woolf described her circle of friends in the Bloomsbury Group of London as "like nothing so much as the lions' house at the zoo." They were dangerous, suspicious of each other but also "full of fascination and mystery."

Not surprisingly, that fascination and mystery surrounding the group of talented artists, writers and intellectuals continue to captivate us today. And this spring Woolf's controversial cadre of friends was the focus of a unique new English course at Smith College, Crafting Creative Nonfiction: Reading and Writing with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.

Roger Fry. British, 1866-1934. Winifred Gill by the Pool at Durbins, 1912. Oil on board. Private collection. Photograph by Julie Magura, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Click image to enlarge.

As for the particulars of Bloomsbury, Smith seemed the perfect place for this first-time course offering because it holds so much relevant primary material. From an extensive collection of Woolf papers and manuscripts in the Mortimer Rare Book Room to the paintings, sketches, sculptures and furniture on view in a travelling exhibition at the Smith College Museum of Art, Bloomsbury's dazzling presence seemed to be everywhere on campus this spring.

The Museum of Art's main show, on view from April 3 to June 15, was "A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections." The exhibition focused on the work of Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Dora Carrington and included more than 150 pieces—prints, paintings, watercolors, drawings, books from the Hogarth Press, and decorative objects from the Omega Workshop (1910-1950s)—drawn from public and private collections across the United States. It was organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, in conjunction with the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

Several years ago, when Smith's museum announced that the travelling exhibition was coming in 2010, it set in motion a series of "what-if" conversations among an interdisciplinary cluster of scholarly minds at Smith. To Robert Hosmer, senior lecturer in English language and literature, the exhibition presented an ideal opportunity to design a class using the resources on campus. By the end of the semester he hoped his students would develop a new appreciation for works of art "through experience as up-close and hands-on as possible." Likewise, that exposure, he anticipated, would refine the critical and analytical abilities of his students and give them the panache to translate observation and scholarship into fluent and persuasive prose.

Dora Carrington. British, 1893-1932. Cattle by a Pond, View from Ham Spray, 1930. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Photographs by Julie Magura, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Click image to enlarge.

"Smith happens to have splendid resources and here was an unparalleled opportunity for my students to use the unique collections of the rare book room and the museum to have a larger appreciation for Woolf and Bloomsbury," says Hosmer, who teaches fiction, poetry and masterpieces of Western literature while specializing in the work of 20th-century women writers, including Woolf. "And here's a chance for them to gain a surer, stronger sense of themselves as thinkers and writers."

To see and hold the manuscripts for Woolf's novels, written in her own hand, is an important experience for students, says Hosmer. "To complete one of her novels, she made seven drafts. That is one of the beauties of going through the manuscripts for the students: to see how she sometimes struggled, to see the purple ink on the corrected page proofs, to think about what Woolf is telling us about herself. Ití's so important for students to know this process of writing. You can go from draft to draft to draft."

For Ann Musser, associate director for academic programs and public education at the museum, the course was an opportunity to teach students how to look at art, think about it, write about it, "from observation to idea to interpretation, which is a creative act in and of itself."

Consequently, through the museum-based course program, which encourages Smith faculty to use museum resources in their teaching, Hosmer and Musser designed a course that would work in concert with the Bloomsbury exhibition. It was one of two museum-based courses in the English department offerings; the other was "Bloomsbury" taught by Professor of English Language and Literature Cornelia Pearsall.

Planning a museum-based course requires plenty of energy and enthusiasm on the part of the professor. "It takes a professor who is exceptionally excited about the collection as a resource. After all, part of the benefit of a museum-based course is that if a class is talking about an object or a painting, they can actually go into the gallery and take a look," Musser says.

The study of visual art in a course about nonfiction writing is valuable, says Hosmer. "We can look at these works as a visual language and a contemplative response to intellectual inquiry. Looking at a painting, we come to understand how this art is a byproduct of the creative mind at work."

"So let's talk about the Bloomsbury Group," says Hosmer one afternoon midway through the spring semester. "Who were they? We know they lived in the Bloomsbury district of London, in the early 20th century, in a period of social flux. And over time the Bloomsbury name became synonymous with a way of thinking and creating art that influenced a lot of early-20th century issues, from economic and historical to literary and artistic."

Smith students in Robert Hosmer's English class spent the semester in the rare book room and in the museum exhibition gallery reading and writing with the work of the Bloomsbury Group. They are, clockwise from top left, (Sarah) Alana Katz '11, Teresa Pandolfo '10, Jaimie Fritz '10, Amy Yun '11, Hosmer, Deborah Asseraf '10, Sophia Ouellette-Howitz '12. Photo by Judith Roberge.

The six students in his class have settled in around large tables in Nielson Library's quiet, wood-paneled rare book room surrounded by Woolf's letters, diaries, manuscripts and family photographs. First-edition books from Hogarth Press are also opened and resting on bookstands. The rare book room has been part of the students' weekly class rhythms for the past eight weeks, where on Mondays and Wednesdays they meet with Hosmer and Karen Kukil, associate curator of special collections. Together, they look through the large collection of original Woolf papers.

To Kukil, it is an opportunity to show students the richness of the collection in the rare book room. The Woolf material dating from 1902 to 1956 includes letters, reading notes, drafts of essays and short stories, corrected page proofs of novels and collected essays, and photographs.

"Students love writing with these materials as a resource on Woolf and Bloomsbury," Kukil says. Most of the students in Hosmer's class say they consider themselves writers, and perhaps because of this they are even more intrigued by this group of artists and writers who havebeen described over the years with a galaxy of adjectives from impish and eccentric to imaginative, charming and wildly brilliant.

"I've always been interested in Virginia Woolf," says Alana Katz '11. "In this class, I've had a chance to read some of the letters written between Vanessa Bell and Virginia. They had a complex relationship. And Vanessa was a little competitive with Virginia. But I think she actually writes better letters than her sister."

Roger Fry. British, 1866-1934. Paper Flowers on a Mantelpiece, 1919. Oil on canvas on board. Collection of Bannon and Barnabas McHenry. Click image to enlarge.

Jaimie Fritz '10 is researching painter and designer Duncan Grant for an assignment. In preparing a report for the class, she found herself sorting through the details of a complicated character. He was a prolific artist and, in addition to his paintings, he designed furniture and fabrics, pottery and glassware. But he was probably best known for his Bloomsbury relationships, she says, and of those there are these details: he was cousin to Bloomsbury member Lytton Strachey; he lived with Vanessa Bell for 40 years but never married her; he fathered Vanessa's daughter Angelica; he was friend to Paul Roche, his artist's model with whom he also had a 32-year relationship. (A noted poet and novelist, Roche, incidentally, was an English instructor at Smith from 1956 to 1958.)

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"Everyone loved Duncan Grant," notes Karen Kukil pointing to some vintage photographs she has pulled from the collection. They show informal gatherings of various Bloomsbury individuals, depicting the ordinary, not the extraordinary, as they lived and worked together—a 1913 get—together to watch Bell cut Strachey's hair, a 1921 interlude in the gardens of a country house. Grant was a regular and familiar face.

Two weeks later, following spring break, the class has moved to a new location: the galleries of the Smith Museum of Art, where Hosmer and his students meet until the end of the semester.

In the softly lit gallery where the Bloomsbury artwork is on view, Jaimie Fritz "dwells" in what Hosmer often refers to as "a contemplative space with works of art." She is peering at the vibrantly colored larger-than-life oil painting Cymbal Player for Queen Mary that Duncan Grant completed in 1937 on commission for the Queen Mary ocean liner.

Vanessa Bell. British, 1879-1961. Still Life of Flowers in Jug, 1948-50. Oil on canvas. Collection of Bannon and Barnabas McHenry. © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photograph by Julie Magura, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Click image to enlarge.

Fritz, who is headed for graduate school in a rare book program of the library sciences, says she is fascinated by this painting and has decided her final research paper will be on Grant. "He' not as high profile a member of Bloomsbury as Vanessa or Virginia, but he was an impassioned artist. And when people talk about him it seems he was an enigmatic character. It makes me want to crack open this fascinating character and dig deeper," she says.

Nearby, Teresa Pandolfo '10 sits imagining what must have inspired 8-year-old Dora Carrington to create the astonishing collection of pen and pencil drawings and watercolors on the wall in front of her. Pandolfo says she is pulling her thoughts together to write a 10-page essay on Carrington and her relationship to Lytton Strachey. Intrigued by the stream-of-consciousness style Woolf often employed in her writing, Pandolfo started to write freely about Carrington, jotting down whatever came to mind. She was pleased with the result.

"I wrote pretty much everything that came into my head, without editing it out, and I realized that some of my best ideas for the paper came after I had been writing like that for a while."

"There's an interesting analogy between digesting an art work and a literary work," adds Musser. "The artists and the writers in the Bloomsbury Group were open, interactive, collaborative. Everything about them was a creative process. And with this group, personal relationship was tantamount as well."

"Think of the Bloomsbury art as a conversation," Hosmer said to his students as the semester wound to a close, "whether it's literature or a painting. And that was at the heart of Bloomsbury, the art of conversation."

Dora Carrington. British, 1893-1932. Honey Label Design for David Garnett, 1917. Two-color woodcut. Collection of Bannon and Barnabas McHenry. Click image to enlarge.

As he wanders from student to student in the gallery, offering suggestions, answering questions, Hosmer notes that his students are enjoying the opportunity to explore "the life of the mind."

"Our work in this class shows us that these Bloomsbury artists were radicals, doing crazy stuff; they were shifting the way their own neural grids worked. It shows us what we can do when we open our minds and answer the question 'what if?'" he muses. "This course has given students a chance to do something like that as well."

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