by John | Sep 9, 2015 |

The Bloomsbury Group in Suffolk


"Wissett seems to lull asleep all ambition. Don't you think they have discovered the secret of life?" So said Virginia Woolf after the Bloomsbury artists and aesthetes spent a few months of 1916 in this glorious little Suffolk village; it remains much as it was then.

With the recent broadcast of BBC Two’s Life in Squares, a drama based on the relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, we thought it only fitting to research the chapter of their lives spent in Wissett, Suffolk.  When, in early 1916, conscription of men without independents resulted in conscientious objectors starting a quest for work of "national importance" in the countryside, pacifists among the Bloomsbury Group joined in, with painter Duncan Grant moving to Wissett Lodge.

At Wissett Lodge, Duncan Grant and writer David Garett aimed to cultivate the overgrown land recently owned by his aunt. Their "amateur efforts" to tame the "unkempt orchards and sickly blackcurrant bushes" met with "local disdain, and neighbours were outraged when, as a defence against theft, the pair painted the tails of their white leghorn chickens blue", as Ian Collins records. Not long after, Vanessa Bell arrived with her sons, a nursemaid and cook in tow.

Grant and Bell were in Wissett "at the height of their painterly powers". As Collins explains, they had in "looking to Paris, and revering Cezanne [...] become leading English proponents of ‘modernism’. Their palettes were never richer, nor their brush strokes more lively, as they set about creating form from pure colour". As prominent figures in Roger Fry's Omega Workshops, Grant and Bell "had become adept at vivacious decoration - covering walls, artefacts and furniture with vivid hues". The walls of Wissett Lodge became their canvas - they were "drenched in blue distemper, and then adorned with a riot of figures and forms (murals echoing Fra Angelico graced one bedroom)". Unfortunately they can no longer be seen; these "frescoes" were removed on their departure.

Bell spent each day in her Suffolk studio, painting the view from her window (as pictured) - the farm pond with an Omega jug in the foreground on the sill. Such a view - a garden or landscape as seen from a window - "became a recurring motif in her work, satisfying, as it did, a modernist desire for a flattened picture plane and private, domestic concerns". Here, Bell "created an atmosphere of warmth and well-being which lulled the restless talents that converged around her". Virginia Woolf came to visit and afterwards wrote: "I’ve seldom enjoyed myself more than I did with you, and I can’t  make out exactly how you manage. One seems to get into such a contented state of mind. I heard from Lytton [Strachey] who feels the same, and says he would like to live with you forever". And it was not long after her Suffolk sojourn that she devised the plot for her novel Night and Day, one of the characters based on her elder sister.

Their Suffolk retreat, however, could not last: "Grant and Garnett were called before Blything Tribunal and, even though their advocates included the economist Maynard Keynes, the panel of farmers were unmoved. An Appeal Tribunal in Ipswich proved more sympathetic, and exemption from military service was granted; but the Central Tribunal later ruled that although the two men could engage in farm work, they could not be self-employed". And it was with this that the Bloomsbury household moved from Suffolk to Sussex, at Charleston. Yet Wissett remains still much as it was at this time - a darling village, close to the magical north Suffolk coastline.

Come and stay nearby at Rose Glen in Wenhaston, a delightful traditional self-catering cottage for four.

For more information on the Bloomsbury Group in Suffolk, see Ian Collins' A Broad Canvas: Art in East Anglia since 1880 (Black Dog Books, 1999).

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