Bloomsbury Blossoms Again

A century after the Bloomsbury Group formed as an informal creative enterprise, economist Craufurd Goodwin sees the boundary-pushing circle of friends as enduringly important—and helps spearhead a celebration of their legacy.

It's class time on a characteristically hot afternoon in early September, and Craufurd Goodwin, now in his forty-sixth year on the Duke faculty, is musing about themes that, to most of his economist colleagues, would seem uncharacteristically eclectic. He tells his students that history and sociology reveal certain qualities in creative communities. A creative community needs a founding document. It needs a lightning-rod personality. And it needs to coalesce around an event that's a little rebellious, a little dangerous.

For Goodwin Ph.D. '58, James B. Duke Professor of economics, that offbeat interest is both personal and professional. As a scholar, a teacher, and a collector of art, he's become drawn more and more into the particular creative community of the Bloomsbury Group, an informal association of friends in post-Victorian Britain. A half-century ago, one of his faculty forebears made a similar scholarly shift to Bloomsbury. That was longtime Duke English professor Charles Richard Sanders—Goodwin's father-in-law.

Cutting across creative fields, the Bloomsbury Group included Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster in literature; John Maynard Keynes in economics; Leonard Woolf, Virginia's husband, in political science; G.E. Moore, whose Principia Ethica mocked the idea of humans as rational calculating machines and gave the group its founding document, in philosophy; and Clive Bell, in art criticism. A remarkably outlandish personality in a circle of outlandish personalities, Bell never even earned a high-school diploma, was a serial seducer of women, and filled the role, as Goodwin sees him, as the group's lightning rod of criticism and controversy.

There were several artists in the group, including Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington, and Duncan Grant. Then there was Roger Fry, an art historian and organizer of the two Post-Impressionist art exhibitions in London, in 1910 and 1912, that introduced Cézanne, Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso, and other "radical" painters to the English-speaking world. It was the signal of aesthetic rebelliousness that became a rallying point for the group. As chief curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Fry worked closely with business tycoon J.P. Morgan, the trustee chairman. Fry accompanied Morgan as an adviser on an art-purchasing trip to Europe; it ended badly as they disputed whether the art should find a home at the museum or in Morgan's personal library.

If they embraced Fry's high-minded aesthetic theory, the Bloomsburys, as Goodwin calls them, had as well a hard-headed, entrepreneurial dimension. They set up the Omega Workshops, allowing them to produce and sell their own paintings, drawings, ceramics, furniture, and textiles. All of those works carried the collective "Omega" stamp rather than being individually signed. They also operated the Hogarth Press, founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf as a repudiation of traditional publishing standards. Hogarth published some of the earliest works on psychoanalysis along with works by the Woolfs.

Bloomsbury is the basis for a winter exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art, accompanied by a year's worth of programs—including what Goodwin believes to be the most important gathering on Bloomsbury in the U.S. Scholars of Bloomsbury will explore Bloomsbury and Keynesian economics, gender and sexuality, notions of empire, and circles of creativity. Other parts of the program will offer a theater production, a film series, and an online book chat. Goodwin is one of the key organizers. With his wife, Nancy Sanders Goodwin '58, he is also the lead lender of art to the exhibition.

The Bloomsbury artists would often paint together, says Nancy Green, the organizing curator, who is based at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. (The exhibition travels to Cornell after Duke.) "They would set up a still life or they would set up a model, and they would all sit together and paint the same theme. And you get completely different interpretations."

The Bloomsburys didn't just explore their subjects with fierce originality; they also experimented across artistic media. "They painted everything," Green says. "Nothing was sacred. I mean, they would buy furniture and paint it. They would paint the walls, paint the ceiling—everything was a potential work of art. It was almost an obsession about living with art and about enjoying art. And they didn't just paint; they didn't just make pottery. They tried everything, and if they didn't know how to do it, they taught themselves to do it. They worked on books in conjunction with writers, and the designs they came up with were revolutionary. They were creative in every aspect of their lives."

One of the early American enthusiasts for the art was Sanders, who was recruited in 1937 to supervise freshman instruction in the English department and taught at Duke for almost forty-five years. A specialist in nineteenth-century British literature, he would go on to write articles on "Coleridge as a Champion of Liberty" and, in the thick of World War II, "Freshman English for War and Peace." Toward the end of his career, he helped launch a monumental edition of the correspondence of Scottish essayist, satirist, and historian Thomas Carlyle.

In the war years, Sanders embarked on a scholarly diversion. It would lead him to plunge into the curious currents of the Bloomsbury Group.

His focus was the Strachey family, which produced two Bloomsburys: Lytton, a biographer and the oldest member of the group, and his younger brother James, who translated Sigmund Freud's writings into English. Echoing a common refrain of the Bloomsburys, Sanders saw biography as broadly revealing of humanity. Beyond that, there was an undeniable attraction, as he put it in The Strachey Family, to "talented or eccentric individuals," to the "picturesque and influential groups" in which they gathered, and to the peculiar episodes that they were immersed in, like the monument erected in India at the death of a family member's (and colonial administrator's) favorite dog, Glancer.    

Sanders was notably impressed with what he saw as the deeply humanist strain in Lytton Strachey and his circle. "He and his friends at Cambridge consciously sought for what was truly important, which, for them, meant what was truly interesting," he wrote. "So far as they could, they excluded the rest. Significantly, intensity and passion are two of Strachey's favorite words. The objects to be chosen—the objects of highest value—were always those which possessed the power to intensify and impassion the mind and emotions."

Self-portrait by Vanessa Bell, circa 1915.

Self-portrait by Vanessa Bell, circa 1915. Collection of Yale Center for British Art

Fueled by his own scholarly passion, Sanders made research trips around Britain. As described by Christopher Reed, an expert on Bloomsbury based at Pennsylvania State University, those trips had Sanders tracking down various Stracheys and their friends, including painter Duncan Grant, a Strachey cousin. The two traveled together to Grant's birthplace in the Scottish highlands. Sanders purchased from Grant thirteen works of art by both Grant and Vanessa Bell, among them sketches of Strachey and John Maynard Keynes. And Grant inscribed to Sanders a drawing of Thomas Carlyle based on a photograph by the pioneering Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was Vanessa Bell's and Virginia Woolf's great-aunt.

In the exhibition catalogue, Reed notes that the Duke English professor's professional engagement with Lytton Strachey and the history of British letters "exemplifies how Americans approached Bloomsbury through the group's writers." In contrast to American familiarity with Bloomsbury texts, he adds, Bloomsbury art remained almost unknown in North America for most of the twentieth century.

Sanders would help change that. In 1965, his daughter Nancy Sanders married Craufurd Goodwin, then a young economics professor at Duke. They had met on a blind date. Sanders arranged for Grant to sell the young couple Vanessa Bell's 1934 A Garden Walk, a painting of Charleston, the country meeting place for the Bloomsbury Group, in Sussex, England. Bell and Duncan Grant had moved there in 1916, and they filled it with murals, painted furniture, paintings, and textiles. The Goodwins now have two of Bell's three paintings of the house. The third is on display in Charleston.

Nancy Goodwin notes that A Garden Walk points to the Bloomsburys' shared interest in gardening. The garden at Charleston was designed specifically as a painting site by Roger Fry; John Maynard Keynes would carefully weed the path up to the house, one plant at a time. In 1977, the Goodwins acquired Montrose, a sixty-acre historical property in Hillsborough, which is now one of the most famous gardens in the U.S.

Craufurd and Nancy Goodwin have built up the most extensive collection of Bloomsbury art in North America. Some of it has a quirky quality, such as the carpeting, fabrics, and paintings commissioned for the interior of the Queen Mary, launched in 1935 by the Cunard White Star line in an effort to rebound from the Titanic disaster. On a preview tour, the wife of Cunard's chief executive was horrified by the modernist leanings of the decorations. So they were pulled down.

Some of them were acquired by Sir Kenneth Clark, the creative force behind the book and public-broadcasting series Civilisation, for display in his castle in Kent. The star of the decorative series, the largest composition ever done by Duncan Grant—twenty-six by fifteen feet—portrayed a Spanish peasant festival. After Clark's death, his heirs divided the composition into pieces that were more or less freestanding. The Goodwins bought the biggest piece, showing a cymbal player.

Tony Bradshaw, the Goodwins' London-based art dealer, who developed an interest in art after giving up a career as a stockbroker, says, "They don't buy everything put in front of them. They are discerning. And in following their inclinations, they have no interest whatsoever in the investment aspect of the art. They believe art is something to treasure and enjoy on one's walls, not something to think of in terms of what you put in the bank."

Bradshaw has sold Bloomsbury art to purchasers around the world, but the majority of the paintings have gone to the U.S., he says. The reason, he speculates, is that the Bloomsburys—particularly Virginia Woolf as an early icon of feminism—are taught more widely in the U.S. than anywhere else, including Britain.

But art critics have not been kind to Bloomsbury art. A 1999 exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London garnered this from The Independent: "I doubt whether the Tate has ever before presented such a large concentration of dud art." Dud art or not, the exhibition drew huge crowds. Hilton Kramer didn't have a much more positive assessment when, writing in The New York Observer, he reviewed the Bloomsbury show at the Yale Center for British Art the following year. He called it "a museological oddity" designed not to recognize an aesthetic vision but rather "to celebrate the lifestyle —which in this case also means the snobberies and vanities—of the Bloomsbury Group's leading personalities." He added, "Whatever its other achievement may have been, the Bloomsbury Group failed to produce a single first-rate painter."

Goodwin says those aesthetic assessments reflect the "remarkable cycles" in public affection—or lack thereof—that have accompanied the group. In the 1920s, Bloomsbury art was the most fashionable art in Britain; Duncan Grant in particular was in huge demand. In the aftermath of World War II, they were seen as having challenged and diminished the moral fiber of British citizenry, and as having challenged the longstanding verities of British life. Their art was dismissed just as the Bloomsburys themselves were dismissed.

In more recent years, with the publication of correspondence and biographies, they, and their art, have become more popular. (This fall, yet another Bloomsbury study was published, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury.)

Goodwin also disputes the conventional reading of the group as self-absorbed and elitist. He says the group members believed that "an informed, well-educated middle class was the only hope for society." Virginia Woolf, for one, identified with working-women's causes and wrote expressly for the common reader. In her essay "Memories of Working Women," she wrote admiringly of women who, even as they recognized "their own long hours and little pay," spread awareness of "the conditions of work in the country at large."

In the mid-1990s, Goodwin wasn't yet avidly collecting Bloomsbury art or reading Bloomsbury literature when, as chair of the Duke economics department, he found it was his turn to teach the first-year seminar in economics. Almost spontaneously, he says, he landed on Bloomsbury as a seminar theme.

He's continued to offer the seminar, now called "Economics in the Bloomsbury Group." Students read, in addition to short essays, Forster's Howards End, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. For many of them, Goodwin says, this is their first curricular exposure to the arts. "So they're forced to read literature and look at paintings. And maybe they'll start to think about what matters in life."

Naturally, they also think about some of the more peculiar dynamics of Bloomsbury. Just before class starts, one student remarks, "The first thing I found out about Bloomsbury is that they were all sexual deviants." Goodwin later acknowledges that "there were lots of strange goings-on."

When offered the possibility of doing the responsible thing, Goodwin says, the Bloomsburys typically chose the outrageous thing, in their personal affairs as well as in their work. In previewing the Tate exhibition in 1999, Britain's Guardian noted that Virginia Woolf was "married to Leonard Woolf, and most famously lover of Vita Sackville West." Vanessa Bell, her older sister, was married to artist Clive Bell and "had many affairs with other artists." Lytton Stratchey "lived with the painter Dora Carrington, who loved him, and her husband, Ralph Partridge, whom he loved."

One love shared by the Bloomsburys was biography. Keynes' book on the aftermath of World War I, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, was, oddly for an economist, largely an intellectual biography of the political leaders Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson. Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, looked at four enduring elements of British life—the church, the military, the independent schools, and women in society—through the stories of four individuals.

"The reason they were so intrigued with biography is that they found the explanations for human behavior that were present in the social sciences of the day unpersuasive," Goodwin says. "You'll find that throughout their literature, particularly in Keynes, but also in Virginia Woolf and Forster, a condemnation of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism.

"They went to psychology, which was just emerging. But they were not, on the whole, satisfied with what they found in psychology at the time, certainly not for themes that preoccupied them, such as conflict in the world or the nature of the arts. And so, they said, we'll learn about human nature from biography. In Virginia's letters you'll find an eloquent statement: 'We must look to the lives of those in the past to understand the future.' "

The Blue Bowl by Roger Fry, circa 1918

The Blue Bowl by Roger Fry, circa 1918. Worcester Art Museum

The Bloomsburys were also drawn to the arts, Goodwin says, as emblems of truth, beauty, love, and friendship—values that stood for "civilization." That attraction was entwined with a deep distrust of strong national governments, a sentiment deepened by the devastation of World War I. In his essay "What I Believe," published just before World War II, E.M. Forster wrote that human relations should trump patriotic ties: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." It's a stirring line in its fervor about friendship. It's also a fraught line, Goodwin notes, and it became especially so in the era of the Cold War with the attendant accusations of disloyalty.

As a center of creative ferment, Bloomsbury was in some ways a model for a university community. Economists "like to think of Keynes as the Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge, and editor of an economics journal," says Goodwin. "And they forget that he was, in fact, devoted to this group of friends, that he was very active in the administration of the arts in Britain. I think that makes him a much more meaningful figure."

Goodwin says the Bloomsburys had particular scorn for the universities of their day, which they considered hidebound. (Many in the group were products of Cambridge University.) When Roger Fry was asked what he thought of the then-reigning professor of art history at Cambridge, he mused, "The most intelligent thing he's ever said is, 'Next slide, please.' " In her polemical Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf writes dismissively of the university as a cog in the war machine. "No guinea should go to rebuilding the college," she declares, adding that a combustible combination of "rags, petrol, and matches" would helpfully serve to "burn the college to the ground."

In today's terms, the Bloomsburys would be considered interdisciplinary thinkers, according to Goodwin. "What the Bloomsburys discovered was that there really could be contributions made from a novelist to an economist or to a psychologist. All sorts of connections emerged, which are often quite subtle. I think, for example, that Keynes' understanding of human nature, which is really a very complicated understanding, grew out of his contacts with the novelists and psychologists—contacts that the typical modern economists don't have."

For the Bloomsburys, the flow of ideas worked in all directions. Goodwin singles out Forster's 1910 novel, Howards End, for raising a long list of questions about the causes and consequences of poverty, the significance of class distinctions, unemployment and its effects, charity and philanthropy, degradation of the environment and urban sprawl, neglect of local history and traditions, relegation of men and women to fixed social roles, empire, militarism, nationalism, and the search for "civilization." (With symbolic power, a bookcase falls on the head of a civilization-seeking protagonist.)

Like the other Bloomsburys, Keynes was convinced that human progress involved much more than economic growth. Human potential, then, would be realized not in economic relationships but through the arts, literature, and science. So Keynes' essay "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," published a year after the stock-market crash of 1929, envisioned an age in which technological improvement and capital accumulation would allow human beings to pursue projects of "greater and more permanent significance" than the pursuit of wealth, meaning the life of the mind.

Goodwin finds common cause with the Bloomsburys—the faith in friendship, the commitment to social reform, the eagerness to take on intellectual risks. Weeks before parts of his collection are due to be taken down for the Nasher exhibition, he pauses before one of his favorite works. It's Vanessa Bell's The Expulsion from the Garden, from 1952, a gloomy, gauzy, emotionally charged copy of a composition by the early Renaissance master Masaccio.

The Bell watercolor is reproduced in an essay by Goodwin, "Economic Man in the Garden of Eden." He writes that the Bloomsburys were fixated on what they took to be the stories, whether biblical accounts or ancient Greek myths, that served as instruments of social control. Those stories, they believed, prevented Britain from fully joining civilization; they caused the nation to "acquiesce in a foolish war, sustain an immoral empire, and continue the subjugation of women."

In his essay, Goodwin quotes Keynes as observing that "it seems clearer every day that the moral problem of our age is concerned with the love of money," "the habitual appeal to the money motive," "the universal striving after individual economic security," and "the social appropriation of money as the measure of constructive success." That reads like a remarkable statement about a still-unrealized civilization—and about the corrupted life mistaken for the good life—from one of the preeminent economists of all times. Given Keynes' circle of friends, though, perhaps not all that remarkable.

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