Clive Bell and the Making of Modernism: A Biography
Bloomsbury Publishing, 30 [pounds sterling]
Who was Clive Bell? In the early decades of the 20th century, this was a question hotly debated in the drawing rooms, artist studios and college bedrooms of Cambridge, London and Paris. Thoby Stephen, who encountered Bell at Trinity College, told his sister Virginia that Bell was 'a sort of mixture between Shelley and a sporting country squire'. Lytton Strachey, who never warmed to him, found himself unable to disentangle Bell's various facets: 'the country gentleman layer [...] the Paris decadent layer [...] the eighteenth-century layer [...] the layer of stupidity'. Virginia Woolf, exasperated at her brother-in-law's never-ending stream of affairs, wrote scornfully in her diary that Clive mistakenly considered himself a 'Don Juan of Bloomsbury'. To his son Julian, he was an embarrassment: 'insane about females' and barely present in his children's lives. But to his biographer, Mark Hussey, Bell 'was "the right man in the right place" at a momentous time in the history of art', who 'played an important part in influencing a profound transformation of aesthetic sensibility in England'.
In most accounts of the Bloomsbury group, Hussey argues, Bell is 'a sort of stock character', rarely taken seriously as a personality or an intellect. The group is so collectively well chronicled that anyone writing about Bloomsbury must adopt, to some degree, a myth-busting approach, 'clearing away the accumulated layers of received opinion' to allow their subject to be seen in the round. Hussey sets out to rehabilitate Bell: not to elide the unattractive aspects of his behaviour which led to his chequered reputation, but to challenge...