Venetian Red Notebook: The Art of Reading (and Writing) in Bloomsbury

CarringtonStracheyDora Carrington, Lytton Strachey, 1916

The Bloomsbury Group of painters, decorative artists, novelists and essayists were also apparently avid readers. Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry painted many portraits of each other, their friends and relations reading, writing and painting. One of their favorite subjects was writer Lytton Strachey, author of Eminent Victorians. Grant, Bell and Fry all painted his portrait, as did Dora Carrington, a great friend of Strachey’s, who chose to keep herself on the fringes of the Bloomsbury circle.

Paintings of people reading are very intriguing. They are quite unlike portraits and self-portraits wherein the subjects make eye contact with the viewer and present how they see themselves, and, perhaps more importantly, how they wish the world to see them. Portraits can be very reassuring, the artist shows us another human face, we look in to their eyes, we recognize something familiar, we connect.

Reading is a solitary, contemplative act—the subject’s gaze is inward, their relationship is with the written word, and we seem to catch them slightly off-guard. The sitter may be deeply absorbed in their book, or perhaps gazing off, lost in thought, musing about what they have just read, or dozing as the book falls into their lap. The artist draws us in to this intimate moment.

Grant, Portrait of Vanessa Bell in an ArmchairDuncan Grant, Portrait of Vanessa Bell in an Armchair, 1915
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

In some cases we don’t see their face at all, as in Duncan Grant’s Crime and Punishment, below. Grant’s cousin, Marjorie Strachey, (sister of Lytton) is overcome with emotion— she has just finished reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which lies closed beside her on the sofa. Originally titled Despair, the image reverberates with the sense of isolation that pervades the novel.

Grant, Crime & PunishmentDuncan Grant, Crime and Punishment, 1909
Tate, London

Duncan Grant painted Crime and Punishment on board, on the verso is this painting, below, of Lytton Strachey reading a large tome.

Grant, Lytton StracheyDuncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, 1901
Tate, London

James Strachey, the much-younger brother of Lytton Strachey, and later a well-known psychoanalyst, pauses in his reading to reflect.

Grant, James StracheyDuncan Grant, James Strachey, 1910
Tate, London

Leonard Woolf was an author, political theorist and publisher, who with his wife, Virginia Woolf, founded the Hogarth Press in 1917.

Vanessa Bell, Leonard WoolfVanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf, 1940
National Portrait Gallery, London

Winifred Gill was an artist, textile designer, puppeteer and social activist who was an important contributor to the Omega Workshop.

Roger Fry, Winifred GillRoger Fry, Winifred Gill by the Pool at Durbins, 1912
Private Collection

Vanessa Bell’s Impressionist portrait of Lytton Strachey.

Vanessa Bell, Lytton StracheyVanessa Bell, Portrait of Lytton Strachey, 1913
Private Collection

The writer Dame Edith Sitwell, in a contemplative pose.

FryEdithSitwellRoger Fry, Portrait of Edith Sitwell, 1915
City Art Galleries, Sheffield

Another Bloomsbury member, the writer and economist John Maynard Keynes in two portraits by Duncan Grant.

Grant, J.M.KeynesDuncan Grant, John Maynard Keynes, 1908
Provost and Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge

Grant, J.M.KeynesDuncan Grant, John Maynard Keynes, c 1917
Private Collection

Duncan Grant painted this portrait of his and Vanessa Bell’s daughter, Angelica, reading by the stove.

Grant, The Stove, Fitzroy StreetDuncan Grant, The Stove, Fitzroy Street, 1936
Private Collection

Since so many of these portraits were painted by Duncan Grant we will close with this portrait of him reading in the sitting room at Charleston.

Vanessa Bell, Interior with Duncan GrantVanessa Bell, Interior with Duncan Grant, 1934
Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead

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2 Responses to “Venetian Red Notebook: The Art of Reading (and Writing) in Bloomsbury”

  1. Connie umberger Says:

    A really wonderful collection—-many I had never seen before. All the more reason why you’ve got to come with me to Charleston Farmhouse. Maybe on our way to Italy?????

  2. These paintings are simply awesome. Sign me up for the Italy trip . can’t make Charleston as I will be in Rodmell :)

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