A Splendour Of Miscellaneous Spirits: Bloomsbury And Venice

From Shakespeare to Byron and Henry James, Venice has long been a muse for writers and artists alike. By the early twentieth century, Venice had become a highly popular tourist destination, and, as Evangeline Holland has pointed out in her guide to Edwardian England, the British upper and upper-middle classes, particularly those with artistic leanings, flocked there in their droves.

Above: A silent film about Venice (1920s) 

The Bloomsbury group were far from immune to the allure of Venice and drew similarities between the watery city and Cambridge, where St. John’s had its very own Bridge of Sighs and the punts glided over the river Cam as gondolas did through the narrow canals of Venice.

Virginia Woolf was to visit Venice on three occasions. The first one was with her family in 1904, shortly after the death of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen and her move to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury with her brother Thoby and sister Vanessa. Virginia had been quite overwhelmed by Venice, initially, writing to her friend Violet Dickinson in April 1904 that, ‘There was never such an amusing and beautiful place.’ However, the city was experiencing significant overcrowding; she began to find this oppressive, and, as Jane Dunn has claimed, Virginia started to feel as if she were a caged bird by the end of their trip. Thoby Stephen, however, (who would later contract typhoid and tragically die on another family holiday to Greece in 1906) was captivated by the aesthetic charms of Venice, writing to Clive Bell (whom Vanessa would eventually marry in 1907), ‘Until a man has been there he has no more right to speak of painting than a man who has read neither Sophocles or Shakespeare to criticize literature.’

Vanessa too found Venice to be a source of great artistic inspiration for her paintings, and it was there that she first encountered the work of Tintoretto, whose work she deeply admired, and who would remain one of her favourite painters. Indeed, it is not hard to see why the Bloomsbury artists, including Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, were so drawn to and frequently painted scenes of Venice, as for them, the city itself was a living and breathing work of art. The influence of Venetian culture can also be seen at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, where Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and David Garnett, along with Vanessa and Clive Bell’s sons, Julian and Quentin, moved to in 1916, and which remained Vanessa’s home for the rest of her life. The house’s interior is covered in artworks by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and paintings and their rich colours reflect the murals and colourful displays found inside many traditional Venetian homes.  Continue reading

Hungerheart: The Loves Of Christopher St. John

Christopher St. John, or Christabel Marshall as she was known until her conversion to Catholicism in 1912, should be more widely recognised that she in fact is. Although best remembered for her association with the renowned stage actress Dame Ellen Terry (after Terry’s death in 1928, she edited Terry’s correspondence with George Bernard-Shaw in 1931, and her Memoirs in 1933), St. John was much more besides. Not only a writer of some talent, she also openly embraced her sexuality, and refused to succumb to external pressures to lead a more orthodox life as many other lesbian women did at that time. By all accounts, St. John revelled in her love for her own sex and believed it should be celebrated.

Above: A sound recording of Ellen Terry in Romeo and Juliet (1911)

The daughter of the prolific children’s author, Emma Marshall, St. John was born in Exeter in 1871. Academically gifted from an early age, St. John read History at Somerville College, Oxford, before taking up a position as Secretary to Lady Randolph Churchill and less frequently, to her son Winston.  It was through her keen interest in drama that she made her association with Ellen Terry, also becoming her sometime secretary. In addition, St. John’s involvement with Terry was to lead to the most significant meeting of her life. In 1896, she met Edith Craig, Terry’s illegitimate daughter by the architect Edward William Godwin. For St. John the attraction was instant and overwhelming. Craig, who apparently considered herself bisexual, readily reciprocated; and the two made no attempt to hide the true nature of their relationship. By 1899 they had already been living together in Smith Square in Westminster, before a decision, presumably based on Craig’s closeness to her actress mother and her own career as a theatre director and producer with the Lyceum Theatre Company prompted a move to the more convenient Covent Garden.

In 1903, the relationship between the two women was severely shaken. Craig, who still claimed to also be interested in men, had accepted a marriage proposal from the composer Martin Shaw. Craig had met Shaw through her brother, the theatre director and actor Edward Gordon Craig, with whom Shaw had co-founded the Purcell Operatic Society. Upon learning of Craig’s acceptance of the proposal, St. John was devastated. No union ever took place though, after Ellen Terry, who was supportive of Craig and St. John’s relationship, managed to persuade her daughter against the marriage.  St. John would later fictionalise the incident with Shaw, in her novel, Hungerheart: The Story of a Soul. The novel’s main protagonist is Joanna Montolivet, an androgynous girl known within the story as John-Baptist, who falls in love with a character called Sally; their relationship being of a kind in which it was hard to determine, ‘which was the husband and which was the wife in the ménage!!’ John-Baptist is shattered when Sally later embarks upon a relationship with a man, describing the pain of Sally’s betrayal as a, ‘bomb hurtling through the serene air of my Paradise.’ Continue reading