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Slumming in Sussex

I had a splendid day last Wednesday (16 June 2010) popping my proletarian nose into the houses and lives of the Bloomsbury Group. A fascinating programme of visits started at Berwick Church to see the Murals, then to Charleston, and on to Monk’s House. The outing was organised by the Friends of the Women’s Library. If you don’t know about the Women’s Library you are missing a national treasure. Situated in Old Castle Street, London E1 and now part of London Metropolitan University, it is a marvellous resource for women’s history. And – mark this all you university libraries whose mission seems to be to keep out as many people as possible – it is open to all. It’s an art gallery too and puts on some wonderful displays, including the most memorable exhibition Art for Vote’s Sake in 2003 which featured some of the beautiful embroidered banners used in women’s marches.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell’s work but I enjoyed the Berwick murals. The tradition of painting Biblical scenes in one’s own time and place is a time-honoured one, and it was fascinating to see Christ in Sussex. Naturally, the artists’ friends and family posed for the figures. The murals were done in war time and include figures of a soldier, airman, and sailor kneeling before Bishop Bell, who commissioned the murals, which rather depressingly reflect the link between church, state, and war. I thought it very forgiving of the church to turn to Grant, whose private life was not exactly orthodox, to do the work.

Charleston is a lovely house and, again, while I don’t have much feeling for the art I love the idea of it, the way that art and house are inextricably linked. This is a philosophy I associate with William Morris, who I love as artist and poet, and admire for his political commitment. It’s intriguing to see how the Bloomsbury artists used and re-used objects: an old beer crate, painted, becomes a box for logs, old blouses become lampshade covers. I must add that a most important aspect of any successful day out was provided for by the cafĂ© which serves great lunches and wonderful cakes.

I suppose these houses are remarkable because of their art, but I suspect that many visitors go because of the people who once lived in them. It’s very odd, this rummaging around the lives of others. A friend of mine once remarked, when we were discussing the Pre-Raphaelites, that we know almost too much about them. I think the same could be said of the Woolfs and Bells. All those books by and about them, paintings by and of them, letters to and from them, the diaries written in the unshakable faith that their least thought or action is of infinite interest. I think of Leonard Woolf noting the gramophone records he and Virginia listened to after supper. Is dancing around the kitchen to the Four Tops worthy of such solemn commemoration I wonder?

How seriously they took themselves! How sure they were, too, of their privileges. We are told they lived a frugal life at Charleston, and of the discomforts of Monk’s House - guests complain of the cold. But it is the cold of the Big House, the frugality of wealth. I find this effort to underplay their privilege baffling. By what stretch of the imagination do country retreats, servants, and belonging to the society of lords and ladies, not count as privilege? I imagine what it must be like being able to get up in the morning and go straight to your desk, your easel. It is not only that your time and your energy are reserved for your art; it is the spiritual, the psychological, effect of knowing that art is your business. Let charladies and miners scrub and delve: you have your book to write, your painting to paint. You may struggle with your art, but you never doubt its seriousness. And this is part of their privilege too.

While the Woolfs were sitting in their sitting room at Monk’s House diligently recording their listening pleasures, Robert Lyon was putting paintbrushes into the hands of a group of Newcastle miners who were to become known as The Pitman Painters. Like Leonard Woolf, these men made records of their lives. They painted racing pigeons, their mates down the mines, their allotments, their wives making bread. But not for them getting up in the morning and going straight to desk or easel. They were working men with livings to make.

Now, I do not say that one mode of living is morally or artistically superior to the other. My personal preference would be for the life the Woolfs led: it sounds like heaven on earth, and like all earthly heavens it costs money. There are, on the other hand, artists who are happy to combine paid employment and art; for some of us this has not only practical benefits (we can afford to buy bread and roses) but artistic ones too (it feeds into our art; it gives us a break from our work; by concentrating on other tasks that mysterious creative bit of our brains is free to get on with having ideas).

There may have been Pitmen Painters who dreamed of devoting their lives to art. Others may have wanted to stay rooted in the lives they already had. There may have been people in the Bloomsbury Set who struggled to make ends meet: so-called genteel poverty (so movingly described by George Gissing in his novels, particularly The Odd Women) was a dreadful thing. Life - any life – is not easily reduced to a question of money or not money. It doesn’t matter whether someone is privileged or not, whether she’s Rosamund Lehmann or Ellen Wilkinson, Edith Wharton or Agnes Smedley. It isn’t being either rich or poor that makes an artist - which is not to say that being rich or poor doesn’t shape one’s art, and either state can stunt an artist’s growth. But I can see no point in pretending that one or the other condition does not exist - though in my experience it’s usually privilege that is downplayed. I really cannot listen with a straight face to talk of the Woolfs’ frugality!

For information on Bloomsbury in Sussex see

For Berwick Church Murals see

For the Women’s Library see

For Votes for Art’s Sake see

For the Pitman Painters see


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