Praising and Burying Bloomsbury
Bloomsbury is an elusive term, difficult to define, complex in character, burdened with decades of misinterpretation. It is discussed at the highest academic levels and used as an emotive catch-phrase in the most superficial journalism. The history of its critical fortunes moves through distrust and suspicion, to adulation and hatred. But the term is nearly always used inaccurately or with a looseness that denies it any effective meaning. I was forced to think anew about my definition when I was asked to curate 'The Art of Bloomsbury' – a major exhibition at London's Tate Gallery this autumn.
But the more Bloomsbury is studied, its primary sources scrutinised and its reputation assessed, the more a definition escapes into cumulus clouds of cultural history. Each commentator has their private notion of Bloomsbury which presumably satisfies their own tastes and prejudices. Was it, asked Bloomsbury 'member' Clive Bell, 'beyond meaning something nasty ... a point of view, a period, a gang of conspirators or an infectious disease?' Was it, as one of the group's most implacable foes, Wyndham Lewis, suggested in 1913, a 'family party of strayed and Dissenting Aesthetes'? Or does a later historian, Andrew Roberts, hit the mark more accurately when he found that Bloomsbury was more or less responsible for 'just about every ill to have afflicted English society since 1915?