Quentin Bell's Bloomsbury Recalled

Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline and other comic relatives

Quentin, Angelica, and Julian - not far from their aunt's house
  • Quentin, Angelica, and Julian - not far from their aunt's house

Author: Quentin Bell, born in London in 1910 to painter Vanessa (Stephen) Bell and critic Clive Bell. Quentin Bell was brought up in London and Sussex. Bell perhaps is best known in the United States as biographer of his aunt, Virginia Woolf. Bell’s aunt, Virginia, who died a suicide in March 1941 by filling her pockets with rocks and walking into the River Ouse, remains one of our century’s greatest novelists and essayists. Bell is a painter, sculptor, potter, author, and art critic, and has been professor of fine art at the University of Leeds; Slade professor of fine art at Oxford; and professor of the history and theory of art at Sussex. His books include On Human Finery, Bloomsbury, and the two-volume Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Mr. Bell and his wife, Olivier Bell, editor of Virginia Woolf s diaries, now live only a few fields away from his childhood home, Charleston Farmhouse.

Bloomsbury Recalled; Columbia University Press, 1996; 235 pages; $24.95 Type: Memoir, biography Place: England Time: 1900-present

Titled (more gracefully) Elders and Betters in England where it was published last year, Bloomsbury Recalled offers Bell’s portraits of men and women connected to Bloomsbury, the circle of friends who met in one another’s parlors in and around London’s Bloomsbury area in the early decades of the 20th Century. At Bloomsbury’s hub were Quentin Bell’s parents, his aunt, Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf; artist Duncan Grant; biographer Lytton Strachey and the Slade Art School “mop head” Dora Carrington who loved Lytton (and whose life is subject of the current film Carrington); novelist E.M. Forster; critic and journalist Desmond MacCarthy and his wife, Molly; critic and Omega Workshop founder Roger Fry; economist John Maynard Keynes and his wife, Lydia Lopokova; hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell and her husband, Philip “Pipsie” Morrell; and novelist David “Bunny” Garnett, whose mother, Constance, translated Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy into English for the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press.

Bell offers portraits of his scalawag father, Clive Bell, and his mother, Vanessa, whose romantic alliances, while far fewer than Clive’s, were nevertheless unusual in their time. Vanessa, after her marriage to Bell, who fathered Quentin and his brother, Julian (killed in the Spanish Civil War), found herself involved in an affair with Roger Fry. Then she became enamored of painter Duncan Grant. Inclined to love men rather than women, Duncan nevertheless conceived a passion for and daughter (Angelica) with Vanessa. (Angelica Bell’s 1984 autobiography, Deceived with Kindness, deals far less kindly with the Bells and their friends than do Quentin’s accounts.) The Bells’ marriage foundered, but Quentin’s parents remained close, often living together with their various sweethearts under the same roof. And although Duncan Grant all his life engaged in homosexual liaisons (including an affair with David Garnett who later married Angelica, Duncan’s and Vanessa’s daughter), Vanessa and Duncan lived together until Vanessa’s death.

In Bloomsbury Recalled Bell writes sparsely about his aunt, Virginia, because, as he notes, he’s already written so much about her elsewhere. He devotes an entire lengthy chapter to Leonard Woolf and a chapter each to the Stracheys, Keynes, Lady Ottoline, Garnett, Fry, the MacCarthys, composer Ethel Smyth and Mary Butts, a girlfriend of Gabriel Atkins “who had been Maynard Keynes’s catamite and indeed the toast of the British Sodom.”

When Mr. Bell and I spoke recently, by telephone, the sun was falling over Sussex. Mr. Bell had only gotten up from his afternoon nap. I had read that Mr. Bell, 86, looks rather like a child’s image of God — long white beard, a full head of white hair. I had read, too, that he smokes a pipe and stops, while talking, to fill and tamp the pipe’s bowl.

Conversation wasn’t easy. Mr. Bell allowed as how he did not hear well and noted that in addition to his deafness, “California’s very far away.” He urged me to shout out my questions and I did.

I told him how much I enjoyed Bloomsbury Recalled and he piped out several thank-yous. He explained, “The book grew from small beginnings. I began simply with a little autobiographical sketch and with my family and friends and finally decided to make it a little bit wider because the family and friends are well-trodden ground. I decided to bring in characters who were acquaintances rather than friends.”

We chatted about the extravagant and eccentric Lady Ottoline, among whose many romantic conquests was philosopher Bertrand Russell; the two had a passionate adulterous romance. I said that I’d always had difficulty imagining Lady Ottoline, garbed in her voluminous skirts and vast hats, with the tall, slender, and abstemious philosopher.

Mr. Bell laughed. “Bertie, he was extremely amusing, delightful company, but I did not know him at all well. It’s rather hard for me too to imagine the two of them together, but I think I can understand it, the romance, because Ottoline was conscious of Bertie’s enormous reputation as a philosopher, and I think he was dazzled by Ottoline, who was indeed a dazzling creature in a dazzling way.” Mr. Bell laughed again. “I imagine Bertrand Russell walking down the street with Lady Ottoline in all of her finery. I agree with you that it is an intriguing spectacle. It’s comic, but also rather sad, but it was also ludicrous, it was an odd mixture.”

I said that unlike many historians of Bloomsbury, Mr. Bell treats Lady Ottoline with great kindness in his account of her.

“Ah, I couldn’t do otherwise because she was very good to me really. I owed her a depth of friendship. She was a very complex creature but at the same time, slightly ridiculous. She was always on the edge of being magnificent but absurd. She was very good to me, always.”

Was Lady Ottoline’s husband, Philip Morrell, quite in her thrall in the early days of their marriage? *

“Oh, yes, I imagine so. But of course I only knew them in their later years. I rather liked him but he was a rather ludicrous figure, you know.”

I asked if it was true that people called Philip “Pipsie.”

“Oh, yes, indeed.” Mr. Bell laughed. “It was their notion of short for Philip, I’d guess. But funny, ‘Pipsie.’ ”

I wondered if Mr. Bell recalled what his aunt, Virginia, gave him for birthdays when he was a child.

“I can’t remember her actually giving me presents. I expect she did, but I can’t remember what they were. She was extremely kind to me. She was very good with children, to young people altogether. When I heard, ‘Virginia’s coming to the house,’ it was like being told that we were going to have a treat. It was so wonderful. We wrote absurd books together. I did the pictures and she did the text. Some day these may be published, although I rather hesitate.”

By 1918, when Angelica was born, the Bells and Duncan Grant were living at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, a short walk away from the house where the Woolfs lived. Vanessa sent the boys to stay with Virginia and Leonard during Angelica’s birth and for a time afterward. I asked Mr. Bell if he recalled that time.

“Yes, that’s true. We did go there. My brother and I went. Virginia read us, I remember, the opening pages of Waverly. I must confess that she didn’t start me off with a taste for Scott. But the whole thing was gorgeous, our life then.

“She was so good with us. The only trouble was that I don’t think we were very good for her. Our being there could lead to her getting tired. She became ill so easily and Leonard had to intervene at some point. ‘Now,’ he would say, ‘You children, you must go up and give us all a rest.’ ”

Virginia Woolf, in her letters and diaries complains of the problems in acquiring proper clothes — the tiresomeness of shopping, of dressing for parties. Other memoirists of the period, writing of Virginia and Vanessa, describe the women’s dress as dowdy and unfashionable. I asked Mr. Bell, who has something of an interest in fashion, what he recalled about his aunt’s dress.

“She was baffled by the whole psychology of dress. In a way she wanted to be invisible, I think, and of course the point of clothes is to make you visible.”

Leonard Woolf in his memoirs makes much of the pleasures of his garden. Did Virginia work in the garden with her husband?

“No, Virginia didn’t help very much in the garden. I think when she wanted exercise she took a walk, which she did very resolutely and for long distances. The garden was somehow Leonard’s preserve, and all were rather conscious of the fact.”

After his aunt committed suicide, did Mr. Bell continue to see his uncle?

“Oh, yes, I saw Leonard very frequently in his later years after her death. He was a tremendous man, you know. He was shattered by her death, as anyone would be. But he did recover in an extraordinary way and we saw much of him for years after Virginia’s death.”

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, during middle age, carried on something of a romance. Did Mr. Bell recall Vita?

“Ah, Vita. I, of course, knew Vita, and we used to see her. But actually the person who was really kind to me and who I found interesting was Harold [Sir Harold Nicolson, Vita’s husband, was a historian, diplomat, and member of Parliament]. He was awfully good with young people. I remember we went up to see an eclipse of the sun with them once. The grownups were of course talking about grownup things. I was only a boy of 14. Harold went out of his way to be kind and talk about the kinds of things that he knew would interest me. He did that really well indeed. He was in many ways an extremely nice character. Yes,” Mr. Bell paused, and I imagined him smiling. “Harold, yes.”

I said that from what I’d read, it would seem that Vita must have been rather a trial for Sir Harold.

“Of course she must have been rather something,” Mr. Bell said. “But rather worthwhile to have around. She was, you know, a rather splendid creature, Vita.”

During much of Mr. Bell’s adult life he has made pottery. I asked when he began.

“I was in my 20s when I visited various potteries to learn. Then I came back to Charleston and was just starting up in the summer when my brother was killed in Spain and that together with tactical difficulties held me up so that I got very little work done before 1939. And then of course I had to go off and do other things because of the war. And the pottery at Charleston, during the war, was used for storing onions. Then I started up in the pottery again after the war was over.

“There is still a kiln there at Charleston and my potter’s wheel. The kiln was a fairly low-temperature kiln, for low-fired pottery. I never made porcelain. I made earthenware. I think porcelain is particularly civilized and refined and it doesn’t suit my hands. I leave it for others.

“But I do think that making pottery is good for one. It’s a good way of having some way of controlling nature by exerting one’s self on the clay, which I think psychologically is rather good for one.”

I asked if Mr. Bell would tell me a story about his aunt that wasn’t in his books. He thought for a moment and while he thought, I could hear what I guessed were tea things — cups and saucers, perhaps, clattering against one another as a tray was set down.

“I don’t know whether this is a story,” Mr. Bell said. “But one thing I often remember are the times when I was quite young, and Virginia and I would work on our books together. These books, they were usually comic lives of friends — we did one of my father, one of my mother, one of Duncan Grant and so on. I would go over to Rodsmell, where Virginia lived, quite an easy walk for a child, and spend the day with her. She would sit there, in her chair, apparently doing nothing. I would wait and grow impatient. I can understand it now, but as a child I didn’t. I didn’t understand why she would be quite unable to start writing. I would say to Virginia, ‘But, Virginia, I make drawings without thinking about it. You’re a professional writer. Why don’t you write?’ She would say, ‘You’re a pest and a bully, Quentin.’ ”

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