Life in Squares: the Bloomsbury Group’s influence on today’s interiors

The Bloomsbury Group, featuring in a major new TV drama, so romanticised the bohemian look in the early 1900s you can still find it in interiors stores today.
Life in Squares is the BBC’s hotly anticipated new three-part drama about the revolutionary Bloomsbury Group (1904-1939). Among the many plot strands, it explores the complex sibling rivalry between writer Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell.
 
It reminds us how much of a debt we owe to this set of artists, intellectuals and writers — from the clothes we wear to the way we decorate our homes and set our tables.
 
Reacting against the stuffy Victorian, male-dominated society they were born into, they pursued new creative and sexual freedoms. The title of the drama comes from the American writer Dorothy Parker, who is said to have quipped that the Bloomsbury bohemians “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”.
 
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Colourful past: BBC2’s Life in Squares features the writer Virginia Woolf (Lydia Leonard, pictured above left), her sister Vanessa Bell (Pheobe Fox, right) and her lover, the painter Duncan Grant (James Norton, middle)
 
Watching episode one you marvel at just how modern the group were. “They lived through a period where there was huge technological, political and aesthetic change,” says Life in Squares production designer, David Roger. “They were born just before electricity arrived in London, and yet painter Duncan Grant was still alive when the Beatles were in the charts.”
 
When the series opens in 1901, Vanessa and Virginia’s controlling father has died and they have left a gloomy home to move with their two brothers to 46 Gordon Square, then a rather daring, gritty address comparable to today’s Hoxton or Dalston, where the Bloomsbury Group began.
 
Their “Thursday evenings” of conversation and recitals were attended by artists and academics, including Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes and art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell.
 
David Roger says: “They moved to the wrong side of town, they stripped out the furniture, they were painting over the wallpaper, so it became minimalist white, and they threw open the shutters and let the light in.”
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Gritty location: the sisters moved to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. Image: Alamy
  
Today some people dismiss the Bloomsbury set as posh decorators, but Roger insists: “They weren’t this airy-fairy group of people painting for a hobby. They were really serious about their art and their lives.”
 
For some, they have gained a slightly twee reputation. “‘Brand Bloomsbury’ has been around since the days when Laura Ashley bought and copyrighted all the designs,” says Roger. “But they were all first-class painters who chose to take a slightly naïve road. I think they’re terribly important in the course of British art.”

Together with Fry, they introduced to England the whole explosion of French Post-Impressionism — with artists such as Matisse and Picasso — as well as experimental abstract art.
 
Certainly the Bloomsbury Group, a self-elected set of friends and relatives, changed the face of English applied art and design. They wrote, painted, organised exhibitions and had fabulous all-night parties.
 
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Life in Sqaures: later scenes were filmed at Charleston, the East Sussex house shared by Vanessa, her husband Clive Bell and her lover, the painter Duncan Grant
 
Life in Squares was shot on location in London — Langleybury Mansion near Watford doubles as Gordon Square — and it was the first drama allowed to be filmed at Charleston in East Sussex, where Vanessa and her husband, Clive Bell, and Vanessa’s gay lover, Duncan Grant, retreated in 1916 during the First World War. Pioneers of 20th-century art, Bell and Grant created an artistic hub at the farmhouse near Brighton.

Painting and stencilling on the walls and furniture, they filled the interior with textiles, murals and ceramics and works by artists they knew, including Picasso, Renoir and Sickert. The influence of Mediterranean culture is clear in the choice of colours and patterns.
 
Many pieces at Charleston, such as Grant’s Lily Pond Table, were designed for another democratic Bloomsbury experiment — Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops. Omega ran for six years from 1913 as a laboratory of radical design ideas, inspired by contemporary art in Europe.

Artists such as Bell and Fry contributed boldly patterned objects for the home, from rugs and linens to ceramics, furniture and clothing. Designs were anonymous, bearing only the Greek letter “O” (omega) in a square. You can see the influence on The Conran Shop and Habitat today.
 
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Key figure: painter Duncan Grant, in his studio in 1975. He became Vanessa Bell’s lover at Charleston. Image: Rex 
 
At the time there was no other shop like it in London. Virginia Woolf recalled: “There were bright chintzes, painted tables and chairs and Roger Fry escorting rich visitors round the rooms doing his best to persuade them to buy.” At Charleston they were living in poverty with no electricity or running water.
 
The group is still a powerful influence on many contemporary artists. Choreographer Wayne McGregor’s dance triptych Woolf Works, based on three Woolf novels, got rave reviews. Thames & Hudson have brought out The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art by Jans Ondaatje Rolls. And another Bloomsbury drama is in production, Vita & Virginia, based on an original screenplay by Dame Eileen Atkins.
 
“They will influence textile students for evermore,” says Life in Squares costume designer Claire Anderson, “because their beautiful 2D pattern mark-making is how textiles are created today.” 
  • BBC2’s three-part drama, Life in Squares, starts on Monday at 9pm.
 
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£180: hand-painted spindle-back chair by Madeleine Bradbury, Bloomsbury Interiors

Get the look
  • Liberty: its Bloomsbury Gardens fabric collection consists of five diverse colour palettes and 11 prints. 
  • Potter Sophie MacCarthy makes huge jugs and bowls with bold, abstract strokes of colour. Her grandfather, Desmond MacCarthy, jointly organised the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London with Roger Fry. 
  • Bloomsbury Interiors: inspired by the spirit of Bloomsbury and the Omega Workshops, Madeleine Bradbury hand-paints lamp shades, fabrics and furniture, like this spindle-back chair (above, £180) and fabrics. 
  • Cressida Bell, granddaughter of Vanessa, designs and prints silk scarves and cushions. 
  • Bloomsbury Workshop sells drawings, lithographs and watercolours by Dora Carrington, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

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