Photographs of the Bloomsbury Set

Another small display at the National Portrait Gallery is ‘The Bloomsbury Poet and the Cambridge Photographer: Julian Bell and Lettice Ramsey’. Julian Bell, the son of Vanessa and Clive Bell, formed a relationship at Cambridge with Lettice Ramsey, whose firm Ramsey and Muspratt’s photographs make up this exhibition. This exhibition features photographs of many of the Bloomsbury set, remarkable people including Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, as well as Angelica, Quentin and Julian Bell, and some of the Cambridge Apostles, many of whom went on to have illustrious careers: John Maynard Keynes, G.E. Moore, George Rylands and Donald MacLean, for example. The display is full of intense studio portraits in which you sense the sitter’s self-importance, and casual snapshots which are in many ways much more appealing, giving access to a private side of a figure.

At the end of the display is a beautiful bust of Vanessa Bell by Marcel Gimond, which depicts Bell, calm and Madonna-like – which is appropriate given her remarkably close relationship with her son (who died fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War). The bust, with its heavy-lidded eyes and stern expression, looks almost sorrowful. Exhibitions like this are always fascinating, I think, for the insight they give into the characters of significant historical or literary figures, as well as flagging up the relationships between them.

The display coincides with the publication of Julian Bell: from Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War, by Peter Stansky and Williams Abrahams.