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Mark Hussey (edited and introduced by), Selected Letters of Clive Bell: Art, Love and War in Bloomsbury

Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2023, 248 p.
Anne-Pascale Bruneau-Rumsey
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Mark Hussey (edited and introduced by), Selected Letters of Clive Bell: Art, Love and War in Bloomsbury, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2023, 248 p., ISBN: 978-1-3995-1597-9

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1Clive Bell (1881–1964) is today chiefly remembered on two counts: as a member of the Bloomsbury Group and as the author of the theory of Significant Form, which he expounded in Art (1914). Bell’s role in the formation of the Bloomsbury Group was a central one, for it was his close friendship with Thoby Stephen at Trinity College that brought him, together with a small group of their Cambridge friends, into close contact with Thoby’s siblings, Vanessa, Virginia and Adrian. That early core, comprising Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Bell and the four Stephens, grew in the pre-war years into a circle to which Virginia Woolf would later refer as ‘Old Bloomsbury’, whose other notable figures included Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, Roger Fry and E. M. Forster. Clive’s marriage to Vanessa in 1907, soon after Thoby’s death from typhoid, and Virginia’s to Leonard Woolf in 1912, were at the heart of the involuted mix of family ties and friendship which characterised the group.

2While the Bells’ marriage soon came to exist in name only, with Clive embarking on a continual string of relationships and Vanessa living with fellow artist Duncan Grant, who fathered her third child, Angelica (officially Clive’s daughter), they maintained a close friendship—and the pretence to Clive’s family that they were still a couple. They rented rooms in neighbouring houses in Bloomsbury, and Clive also had his own rooms at Charleston, Vanessa and Duncan’s home in Sussex, eventually moving there during the Second World War. Bell also remained on an intimate footing with his sister-in-law, Virginia Woolf.

3Beginning to write on art in 1911, Bell is strongly associated with the promotion of Post-Impressionism in Britain in the pre-war years. He was involved in the selection of works for Roger Fry’s two landmark Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910-11 and 1912, and the thesis set out in Art had its roots in the appreciation of Cézanne, and of the contemporary movement which Bell and Fry interpreted as having been inspired by Cézanne’s painting. The book sought to dispel the view that Western art had found its culmination in late nineteenth-century academic practice and substituted Post-Impressionism—the painting of Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and their successors, Matisse, Picasso, Derain and others—as its current high point. Bell based his revaluation on the ‘aesthetic hypothesis,’ which proposed that it was an artwork’s possession of ‘Significant Form,’ not ‘beauty,’ that gave it aesthetic value. The discussion has remained one of the standard texts of aesthetic theory. Bell took on with gusto, and an evident pleasure in polemic, the role of champion of modern French painting and of a British strand of Post-Impressionism, challenging existing assessments of British art—as he continues to do.

4Bell’s letters are therefore likely to appeal primarily to two broad categories of readers besides specialists of his work—those with an interest in British visual arts and their links to the French art scene of the period on the one hand, and, on the other, those with an interest in Bloomsbury generally, or in specific figures of the group, notably Virginia Woolf.

5The selection made by Mark Hussey, his biographer, for this first edition of Bell’s letters clearly has this range of potential readers in view. This is also what its subtitle, Art, Love and War in Bloomsbury suggests, although its formulation runs the risk of implying a more trivial project than really is the case. ‘Love’ imposes itself as an unavoidable theme given Clive Bell’s personality, and the letters do testify to his serial involvement with a number of women, most prominently Virginia Woolf and Mary Hutchinson, but ‘war,’ here, is meant as more than just another allusion to Bloomsbury’s unconventional apprehension of interpersonal relationships and notorious penchant for gossip, or to feuds between its members and other artists or writers. It also refers to the positions adopted and publicly expounded by Bell in the two World Wars, these being the subject of letters that have been gathered into a specific ‘War’ section. The volume keeps a clear focus on Bell’s relevance as a Bloomsbury figure, beginning as it does in 1906, at the time of the group’s inception, and ending in 1963, with a letter to Duncan Grant written shortly before Bell’s death in 1964 at the age of eighty-three. Thus, even if Bell’s first, year-long, stay in France, in 1904, was important to the development of his artistic sensibility and contacts, as well as to his lasting affection for France, no letters from that pre-Bloomsbury time are included. Nor are there any to his parents and siblings. His relations to them are glimpsed exclusively through letters (to Virginia, Vanessa, Ottoline Morrell or Mary Hutchinson) evoking the utter incompatibility of their values with those of Bloomsbury, and evidencing his own negotiation of a participation in both worlds—aptly summed up in Thoby Stephen’s early description of Bell as ‘a sort of mixture between Shelley and a sporting country squire.’

6The letters are organized into eight thematic sections: ‘Bloomsbury Circles,’ ‘Virginia,’ ‘War,’ ‘Arts and Letters,’ ‘To the Editor,’ ‘Francophile,’ ‘Travels,’ ‘Love, Gossip, Home.’ Each is introduced by a concise exposition of the relevant biographical context, and the letters are supplemented by footnotes where appropriate. The volume also includes useful information such as a clarification of the various addresses from which Bell wrote, a set of biographical notes on the recurring figures in the letters, a chronology of his life, a list of his books and pamphlets, and an index.

7The organization by theme constitutes a loose, fluid categorization of aspects of Bell’s life and interests which is quite useful, even if encountering his younger self again after leaving him an older man at the end of each section can prove a little disorienting when reading the letters continuously. An example of where it works well is section 3 (‘War’), which sheds light on how Bell, holding on to his early, actively pacifist stance, advocated appeasement and negotiation with Germany as late as November 1940. These letters also reveal his profound distrust of Stalin. Section 5 (‘To the Editor’) is a slightly more confused category since there are also letters ‘to the editor’ in other sections. What it does provide, however, is an insight into Bell’s politics—clearly Liberal, if leaning towards Conservatism in the post–1945 period of Labour rule—and into his readiness to make his voice heard in the press. Understandably, given the nature of the material, there can be no watertight compartmentalization of content, and the overlap is constant. Thus, we encounter artists—Bell’s views on their works, his socializing with them—in a variety of sections. Those involved in the Ballets Russes appear in the ‘Bloomsbury Circles’ section as well in ‘Arts and Letters’ and ‘Francophile.’ James Joyce, whom Bell met in Paris in 1921, crops up in the ‘Francophile’ section, as do Wyndham Lewis (also referred to in ‘To the Editor’), and Graham Sutherland (also in ‘War’ and ‘Love, Gossip, Home’). Bell’s socializing with Parisian artists and friendship with some of them—he was close to Derain and Cocteau, and on friendly terms with Picasso—are discussed in letters to Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Mary Hutchinson, his main addressees in the volume. Two letters written in French to Picasso reveal the cautious respect due to the master, as well as Bell’s good command of the language.

8While many letters illuminate Bell’s direct contact with artists, collectors and critics in France and, later, in the US, and while a few focus on the grounding principles of his aesthetics, literature is arguably where the sharpness of his critical judgment is best evidenced by the selection, particularly when he discusses Woolf’s writings. Bell’s letters to Woolf reveal not only the exalted flirtatiousness that characterized their early relations and the mix of protectiveness and possessiveness on his part, but also how he encouraged her debuts as a writer of fiction and advised her on form, characterization and atmosphere as she wrote her first novel, The Voyage Out, while warning her against what he saw as a risk of being ‘priggish’ or ‘didactic’ in the contrasts she drew between men and women. Lauding her writing in Orlando (1928), he likened her inventiveness in ‘dealing with . . . the utterly capricious movement of time’ to that of Proust—on whom his own monograph, originally written at T. S. Eliot’s behest, was also just then appearing with the Hogarth Press. Other writers to whom letters are addressed include Eliot, Evelyn Waugh and Stevie Smith.

9The image of Bell that readers are likely to form through this highly readable selection of letters is that of a man of culture, possessed of a bright, active mind, whose depth was nevertheless somewhat limited by the difficulty, as he put it, of ‘find[ing] a North-West passage through the complexities of having been born with the capacity for about six different lives and the time for just one of them.’ He appears generous to family and friends, pragmatic, and intensely given to the pursuit of pleasure. The letters are elegant and witty, their frequent use of franglais lending them additional spice. They also show him as an inveterate socialite.

10The publication makes an enjoyable and informative read, giving us an overview of aspects of British cultural history over six decades of the twentieth century as well as insight into Bell himself. It is unlikely to change the views of those who have an entrenched dislike of Bloomsbury, who may easily see Bell as epitomizing some of its most egregious attitudes of social snobbery—although the group was in reality more plural than is sometimes assumed, and Bell is a very different figure from, say, Leonard Woolf. Yet one of the best qualities of Bell’s letters is their exemplifying of the freedom of thought and expression which counts as one of the most precious values transmitted by Bloomsbury. The volume offers a very valuable addition to our apprehension of what made that gathering so remarkable.

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Anne-Pascale Bruneau-Rumsey, « Mark Hussey (edited and introduced by), Selected Letters of Clive Bell: Art, Love and War in Bloomsbury »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 65 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/14269 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.14269

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Anne-Pascale Bruneau-Rumsey

Université Paris Nanterre, CREA-EA370

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