Love in triangles: the Bloomsbury Group

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Duncan Grant’s bedroom at Charleston, the Bloomsbury Group’s infamous farmhouse retreat. Photo courtesy of Penelope Fewster, Charleston Trust.

Speaking on the Bloomsbury Group, the writer Dorothy Parker famously quipped that they “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”. Over a century on and their liberal approach to love, life and the arts continues to make genteel society go hot under the collar. Yet, for all the TV dramas and notes on a scandal, it is the groundbreaking art and design for which the group should really be remembered.
From the recent Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place to Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current Vanessa Bell retrospective, the last few months have seen a resurgence in interest in the Bloomsbury Group’s expressionistic style. So with our very own Heal’s 100 exhibition currently on display at the Tottenham Court Road store, what better time to share some of the stories that bind this infamous social set with Heal’s.
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This closeup shot taken in the dining room of Charleston House gives a feel for the abstract, expressionist style so synonymous with Vanessa Bell’s art and design. Photo courtesy of Penelope Fewster, Charleston Trust.

Intellectual, spiritual and physical bedfellows, the Bloomsbury Group started innocently enough as a gathering of friends with core members including the artists Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, writers E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, and the economist John Maynard Keynes. The group would meet in London’s Bloomsbury, hence the name, in between their studies at Trinity College, Cambridge and by 1905 were holding exhibitions of their paintings and literature as part of the “Friday Club”.
The Bloomsbury Group quickly became a feature of the bourgeois art scene of Fitzrovia and could regularly be spotted at the Mansard Gallery on the fourth floor of the Heal’s building. For this was one of the few places in the country where one could see the latest contemporary art from Europe including works by Picasso, Modigliani and Bloomsbury associate Wyndham Lewis.

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HEAL’S 100: Omega Workshop rug by Duncan Grant (1913-15)

“This rug is symbolic of Heal’s support of the arts. Sir Ambrose Heal had a keen interest in fine art and his involvement with painting and drawing paralleled his development as a designer, manufacturer and retailer. In 1917, he opened the Mansard gallery within heal’s Tottenham Court Road Store, with exhibitions showing the work of artists including Modigliani for the first time in the UK. The top floor gallery naturally became a regular haunt of the Bloomsbury Group with this rug designed by principal member Duncan Grant for the Omega Workshop.” Magnus Englund, Curator of the Heal’s 100 and Director of the Isokon Gallery Trust

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A selection of furniture designed by Roger Fry for the Omega Workshop, circa 1913-1919.

Founded in 1913, the Omega Workshop provided an industrial output for the Bloomsbury Group’s expressionist takes on home furnishings. While all designs were anonymous, signed simply with an ‘O’, the majority of pieces were created by the businesses founders Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who not only produced furniture but also ceramics, book covers and dress fabrics.
Despite the workshop being located just around the corner from Heal’s in Fitzroy Square, it would seem that such decorative design was too much even for the innovative tastes of Ambrose Heal, not to mention the public, with the business going into liquidation in 1919. Thankfully, all is not lost, for those who wish to experience the Bloomsbury Group’s unique style of interior decor can simply pay a visit to Charleston House in the South Down’s. Home to Clive and Vanessa Bell, the country retreat was, for a time, the centre of the set’s universe past Fitzrovia and is painted from top to bottom with post-impressionist motifs.

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HEAL’S 100: Trees Fabric by Cressida Bell for Heal’s 1810 (2014)

“Cressida Bell is an artist and designer of fine lineage. The daughter of critic, author and artist Quentin Bell, the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell and great-niece of Virginia Woolf, she is understandably influenced by her family’s background in the Bloomsbury group. She has, however, also developed her own individual style, which is more meticulous and less painterly. In 2014, Cressida created the immensely popular Trees fabric for Heal’s as part of the Heal’s 1810 range, the first collection of exclusively designed fabrics from the retailers since the 1970s.” Magnus Englund, Curator of the Heal’s 100 and Director of the Isokon Gallery Trust

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Details of Clive Bell’s, husband of Vanessa Bell, bedroom at Charleston House. Photo courtesy of Penelope Fewster, Charleston Trust.

To discover more stories from the Heal’s 100, an exhibition showcasing the 100 best items sold at Heal’s in the last century, visit our Tottenham Court Road store or browse the collection online.