Venetian Red Notebook: The Art of Reading (and Writing) in Bloomsbury
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.
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.
Duncan Grant painted Crime and Punishment on board, on the verso is this painting, below, of Lytton Strachey reading a large tome.
James Strachey, the much-younger brother of Lytton Strachey, and later a well-known psychoanalyst, pauses in his reading to reflect.
Vanessa Bell’s Impressionist portrait of Lytton Strachey.
The writer Dame Edith Sitwell, in a contemplative pose.
Another Bloomsbury member, the writer and economist John Maynard Keynes in two portraits by Duncan Grant.
Duncan Grant painted this portrait of his and Vanessa Bell’s daughter, Angelica, reading by the stove.
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.