A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections is the largest collection of Bloomsbury art to have been shown in the states for almost a decade. I strongly suggest you make every effort to see it. It will probably be more than ten years before a comparable opportunity presents itself again. If you can’t see the show, which is now at Cornell University, but will shortly move on to other colleges, consider buying the handsome catalog, to which (full disclosure!) I contributed an essay.
Largely created by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Dora Carrington, or products of the Omega Workshops, the show’s works provide a vivid sense of the kind of art Woolf surrounded herself with, supported financially, and occasionally wrote about. Though portraits of Woolf are included, most strikingly one by her sister, now in Smith College, these are not the only objects connected to her.
At Cornell (but not, alas, other locations) it’s a delight to find a writing desk she owned. Around 1929, Quentin Bell decorated the desk, painting a female figure on its work surface. There she reclines, wearing sandals and a leafy crown: trumpet in one hand, quill in the other. Was, one wonders, Woolf’s nephew alluding to the recently published Orlando and the mock pageantry of its famous transformation scene?
Woolf’s books, the product of her desk, suit a gallery space almost as much as a study. Vanessa Bell dust jackets and woodcuts are included in the show but, more interestingly, so is a selection of seldom seen preparatory works. Providing insights into how Bell arrived at her final designs, we see studies for Flush’s illustrations and for the covers of A Room of One’s Own, Mrs Dalloway, and The Common Reader.
The exhibition also includes works that relate to Woolf’s broader interests and imagery. With its array of eclectic objects, Roger Fry’s still life of Paper Flowers on a Mantelpiece (1919) speaks of the impulse to collect, display, and share objects—a theme memorably explored in Woolf’s contemporaneous story “Solid Objects.” Woolf’s main character, John, will also place his strange collectables on a mantelpiece, and vivid descriptions of objects on a mantle appear in “Blue and Green,” a short, imagistic work found in Monday or Tuesday.
Finally, another favorite Woolfian subject appears in a Grant study. His 1933 watercolor portrait of Elizabeth Tudor was destined to end up on a plate, part of a large dinner service designed by Grant and Bell for Kenneth Clark. The service’s coordinating concept was “famous women” and Woolf’s likeness was included in it, too.
Grant’s study indirectly reminds us that Woolf and Elizabeth can, in fact, already be found together on American soil, where they are again associated with appetite. Both are among the guests of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, now permanently installed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Thus long after the current show ends, Woolf will still have a place, or place setting, reserved for her in America.