The Bloomsbury Group article
The Electronic Telegraph
Monday 27 September 1999
The Bloomsbury Workshop
How did Angelica Garnett survive the complicated relationships of the Bloomsbury group? Susannah Herbert meets her
Angelica, now 80. At birth, her father's lover, Bunny Garnett, wrote: 'I think of marrying it. . . will it be scandalous?' He did so when she was 21. 'It was a huge mistake'
The exhibition is sure to rekindle public interest in this century's most complicated cultural soap opera - the lives and loves of a coterie of free-spirited artists and writers who dared to challenge Victorian values in the name of aesthetic and sexual liberation. But for 80-year-old Angelica, an artist herself, the show will be an important test of her strength and self-knowledge.
"I spend quite a lot of time trying to be exactly like my parents," she explains. "And a lot of the rest of the time trying to run away from them, as fast and as hard as I can. In painting, as in everything else."
Her ambivalence might seem surprising, if only because armies of toiling biographers, film-makers and groupies have persuaded us that Bloomsbury is a magic word, investing all it touches with a golden glow.
But this was, after all, her circle: on the walls of the Tate she will find her relatives, her friends, her life.
"How can I describe what was wrong with it all? Why did it all fall so short?" she asks, wondering out loud why Grant never equalled Picasso and Matisse, his contemporaries across the Channel.
"There wasn't any reason he shouldn't have been great. He's so gifted in the early little sketches and so on, it's extraordinary. But then he got stuck in the academic conventions. Painting should be life itself, not just doing pretty things. And I think that's what Vanessa and Duncan forgot.
"They existed in a little ant-heap, an ivory tower. They didn't expose themselves to the more difficult sides of life and they blocked off reality. They just didn't live."
She speaks tentatively - as if aware that the mass of worshippers at the Bloomsbury shrine will find something distasteful in her readiness to pick holes. But surely anyone who made daisy chains with Virginia Woolf, who overheard the table talk of Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey, should know better than to set herself up against these giants?
In truth, Angelica does know better, which is why she now lives in the southern French town of Forcalquier, among people who understand little and care still less about the tangled skein of love affairs and friendships that compose her family history.
'I came to France to get away, to stop living in the past," she says. "It was some years after Duncan died in 1978. I just picked up everything, and it's been a great success."
We meet in her studio, a light-filled space on the top floor of her tiny house, a warren of brightly coloured rooms filled with painted furniture, pictures and books. For all the uneasiness she feels about the past, her Bloomsbury heritage is visible wherever one turns: her tastes in ochres and deep blues echo those favoured by her mother, and her heavy-lidded eyes, fine bones and full lips are instantly familiar to anyone who has ever admired photographs of Virginia Woolf, her aunt.
Her voice - she pronounces "I daresay" as "I dessay" and drags out the "a" in "sadist" - seems to belong on an old gramophone record of pre-war poetry readings. Even Angelica's paintings - luminous still-lifes and abstracts - are unmistakably the work of an eye trained at Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse on the South Downs where her parents painted and held court until their deaths.
Angelica will have no difficulty recognising any of the portraits at the Tate, including the glorious young male nude represented twice in room three. His name is David Garnett - otherwise known as Bunny - and he spent the Great War at Charleston in a remarkably serene ménage ŕ trois with her parents.
When Angelica was born, he admired her day-old beauty and idly wrote to Strachey: "I think of marrying it. When she is 20, I shall be 46 - will it be scandalous?"
In 1939 - just a year behind schedule - Bunny proved as good as his word. He was 47, a skilful lover with a gift for light fiction. His bride was 21 and as ignorant as she was fair. Not for the first time, the collective courage of the Bloomsbury group failed. No one dared tell Angelica the truth about the past.
"It was a huge mistake," says Angelica, her soft voice rising emphatically. "I was too ignorant. I knew nothing whatever about life. Oh, it really was a muddle, a dreadful muddle."
Angelica was born on Christmas Day, 1918, the longed-for consequence of an improbably fruitful affair between Bell, a married mother of two, and Grant, a homosexual who was simultaneously sleeping with Bunny.
The liaison between Duncan and Vanessa was unequal: she idolised him, considering him a far more accomplished artist than herself; while he, in his turn, gladly accepted devotion wherever it was offered. Sexually, their union had no future and it fizzled out after the birth of Angelica, but they continued to live and paint together at Charleston regardless - the oddest of odd couples: she celibate, he promiscuous, but devoted to each other.
By Bloomsbury standards, this was all perfectly normal. All the best of the group's love-affairs broke taboos and the more of them the better, just so long as no one had the poor taste to display the raw emotions: pain, anger, jealousy.
Bunny - the third point of this love-triangle - knew the rules of the game by rote, as his wry summary of the general pattern reveals: "A eating his heart out vainly for B; B breaking hers in vain for C, and so on in interminable interlocking circles of frustration."
So far, so good - or at least, so very modern. There was only one practical problem: explaining away the existence of the newborn Angelica to the outside world. For form's sake, Vanessa took the conventional option, raising the child as the daughter of Clive Bell, her errant but co-operative husband.
Clive, generally absent from Charleston on his own affairs, had no complaints - and nor did the distinctly unpaternal Duncan.
The scheme suited everyone involved and Charleston was big enough for almost any permutation of husbands, lovers and children. As long as the elite understood the need for amused tolerance and civilised irony, nothing serious need ever rock the boat. Or so it seemed.
Angelica, unsurprisingly, sees things rather differently. "As far as intimate friends were concerned," she wrote with undisguised resentment in her 1984 memoirs, Deceived With Kindness, "my birth was an open secret. I was the only one kept successfully in the dark."
She was not told the identity of her father until she was 18 and was raised by her obsessively protective mother to consider herself a child apart - way above the humdrum and bourgeois by virtue of her membership of a "special world". Her lack of a "real" father, she believes, was to determine the whole course of her life, steering her towards the disastrous "father-figure" of Bunny - an immensely forceful personality with a knack for bulldozing resistance.
I wonder how Duncan and Vanessa could be so clever and yet so unaware of the emotional cost of their reticence.
"That's not a question with just one answer. It's to do with the fact that they were painters, I suppose, and they didn't care enormously about human beings. I suppose they didn't make the connection between my knowing about my parenthood and my actual existence. I suppose they did not think it mattered.
"When Vanessa finally told me that Duncan was my father, I hardly reacted at all. From the way she told it, it was just very unreal."
As for Duncan, Angelica felt he was too lost in his own private world to be a "proper" father, a role he never sought to play. "I never felt that he loved me as a daughter should be loved.
"Look at the whole situation, it was all so unreal. None of it really makes any sense at all. Just take Vanessa - I don't see how you can call her relationship with my father a healthy one. He wasn't a woman-lover. Or only partly.
"He couldn't really satisfy her and when he finally said that he didn't want to make love to herú well, the rest of her life was spent without any sex at all, and what is healthy about that?"
Angelica lets her question hang in the air before replying: "It all seems to me so negative, so tragic and so unnecessary."
What over-heated brain would come up with such a contorted, Freudian plot? And who could devise a happy ending for such "a dreadful muddle"?
Angelica smiles."I sometimes feel that I've lived life backwards, really. All the good things are happening to me now and, luckily, I'm still capable of enjoying them."
She certainly took time to build up to her break from Bloomsbury. Although the process began with Vanessa's death in 1961 - which closed a frozen and frustrating relationship - she passed the next five years wishing, but not quite daring, to leave Bunny, the father of her four daughters.
When she did finally jump, it was from one bizarre situation to another. Her new lover, George Bergen, a "fascinating" Russian-Jewish painter from New York, was yet another ex-lover of Duncan's. "Well, obviously it was a repetition - that sort of thing does happen, according to Freud," she says. "I was so ignorant that I didn't know what I was doing."
Ignorant? At 50? She meets my gaze calmly. "I think this idea that wisdom necessarily accompanies age is not right. Of course, you can be ignorant of that kind of thing because it goes so deep."
Unsurprisingly, the liaison was brief and doomed - "I was masochistic and he was sadistic" - but at least it marked a glimpse of life on the far edge of the Bloomsbury hot-house.
The real break came in 1984, three years after Duncan's death, with the publication of Deceived With Kindness, in which she works painfully through the lowest moments of her youth, sparing Vanessa and Bunny nothing in her effort to exorcise the demons of the past.
The book's spiky tone upset the sole remaining member of her immediate family - her half-brother, Quentin - but it marked what she calls her "adolescent rebellion", winning good reviews and a literary prize.
"I didn't dare write the book when anyone close to me, except Quentin, was alive, because it seemed so unthinkable to me that they would understand what I was trying to sayú but then the reviews were good and I won a prize. And I thought, my goodness, I've actually succeeded in communicating something. That was my main thrill, the beginning of all the good things that have happened to me since."
She has returned to sculpting and music-making, while her paintings - exhibited recently in Forcalquier - have proved popular. Best of all, she confides with a shy laugh, she is no longer alone.
"There's a young man I met in Morocco 30 years ago, who was a model of Duncan's. He and I had a terrific love affair and he is actually living now in this house. He went away and then came back. So that's a happy ending, of sorts."
This time, I do not dare pass comment on her Freudian compulsion to repeat relationships with men close to her father - but she fills the gap regardless. "This one was never a lover of Duncan's, though. Duncan asked him but he said no."
She looks triumphant. "So, you see, things do change."