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The Bloomsbury Cookbook: You are what you eat

Vanessa Bell, The Kitchen, 1943. (Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett)

Vanessa Bell, The Kitchen, 1943. (Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett)

A new book reveals the eating and drinking habits of the famous artists and writers in the Bloomsbury Set. Lindsay Baker finds out more.

Truman Capote’s favourite food was Italian summer pudding, Jack Kerouac’s was apple pie, Colette’s was truffles. Somehow these writers feel more human to us knowing that − there’s something visceral about food that helps connect us to others, even people we’ve never met. And drink too − it feels appropriate that F Scott Fitzgerald’s preferred tipple was a Gin Rickey and William Faulkner’s was a Mint Julep. The peculiarly intimate detail of what a person eats and drinks is a powerful thing, bringing them closer, revealing their day-to-day life and real personality.

The Bloomsbury Cookbook,  a compendium full of recipes, food-related paintings and biographical anecdotes does just that. It captures in a new way the lives and characters of the Bloomsbury set, the bohemian group of British artists, writers and thinkers of the first half of the 20th Century. Among them were author Virginia Woolf, artist Vanessa Bell, critic Clive Bell, artist and critic Roger Fry and economist John Maynard Keynes. “Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares and loves in triangles,” was how Dorothy Parker described the group.

Mythology and assumptions surround the set. They were talented pioneers who were considered outrageous in their time. But there is also a certain aura of gloom that has hung over the group – in part due to some early deaths, two by suicide, and also because of how they have been represented (remember glum Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in the 2002 film The Hours?). By focusing on food, though, the cookbook casts them in a new light and brings them to life.

“A good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own – and food was central to the Bloomsbury Set. Their life revolved around homes in London and the English countryside, with communal “painting lunches”, tea and cakes in the afternoon, and endless group dinners − often made with fresh fruit and vegetable fresh from country gardens.

Food for thought

It was on a visit to Charleston, the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, that The Bloomsbury Cookbook’s author Jans Ondaatje Rolls had the idea, she tells BBC Culture. “The creative energy of the place was something I’d never experienced before, it still has a pulse,” she recalls. “And when I walked into the kitchen at Charleston with its clutter and recipe books and hand-decorated cupboards, it felt very human. I thought, ‘This is the way I want to get to know them.’”

Chaleston

Charleston House in East Sussex was the Bloomsbury Set's country meeting place (Thames & Hudson)

“They weren’t aristocratic, they were mostly middle-class or upper-middle-class,” says the author. “And at that time even middle-class people had servants to shop and cook.” The most famous of the Bloomsbury cooks was Grace Higgins, who studied French cooking on the group’s many visits to France. But when war broke out, like the rest of the country, the group lived on strict rations, and cooked for themselves while their servants were occupied with the war effort.

Virginia Woolf particularly showed a keen interest in cooking, and from the salmon in Mrs Dalloway to the boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse food is everywhere in her fiction. She was a keen baker of bread – her sister Vanessa Bell started baking also to keep up − and in wartime when food was scarce, Woolf sent a food parcel to her sister who had young children at the time, even though she had hardly anything herself. It’s a detail that suggests a surprising warmth. “There’s a lot of evidence that she was in fact funny, good fun and joyous,” says Ondaatje Rolls. “She saw life in Technicolor. She captured the moment and enhanced it, and she was very perceptive and absorbed so much. She had her dips, but she was 90 % positive.”

Dora Carrington, Picking Vegetables, 1912. (Photo permission of Ashridge Business School)

Dora Carrington, Picking Vegetables, 1912. (Photo permission of Ashridge Business School)

What emerges from the book is not only a sense of fun but also an affection and loyalty. The painter Dora Carrington loved cooking for her friends, and particularly enjoyed caring for writer and critic Lytton Strachey, who she treated “like a god”, as Ondaatje Rolls puts it. His preferred dish was rice pudding, which he ate every day without exception. “Dora Carrington put her art on hold to care for him,” says the author. Vulnerabilities and weak spots are revealed too. Clive Bell had a weakness for chocolate and would frequently walk across country to the village shop just for a small chocolate bar. He got fatter and fatter in middle age, and one evening his waistcoat button popped off and flew across the room at a society piano recital. His humiliation, as Woolf put it, “brushed him only slightly”.

The Keyneses were well-known among the group for being stingy with their food, and once served three grouse to feed 11 guests, which Vanessa Bell found amusing, “as the bones went round”. Later when Bell threw a dinner for guests including the poet TS Eliot, she served two or three times more than the amount of grouse needed. In fact, Vanessa Bell emerges as a generous figure, the matriarch of the set, who had about her “the pungency of crushed sage”. Poignantly, when she was dying and the doctor came to tend to her, she told him to help himself to some sherry from the sideboard.

Eat, drink and be merry

Elsewhere, Frances Partridge’s Tipsy Chicken is described – it involved marinating the fowl in gin − and Leonard Woolf’s love of a pub pie is explored. “The book presents not their professional selves but themselves as friends,” says its author. “Within their group you could be you, say what you thought and go with it – it felt liberating for me to get to know them.”

Duncan Grant, Quentin Bell and Angelica Bell

Duncan Grant, Quentin Bell and Angelica Bell bowling on the lawn (Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Cressida Bell, the book’s illustrator, is the granddaughter of Vanessa and Clive Bell. The book chimes with her own recollections of summer stays at Charleston and conveys the atmosphere there. “Food adds humanity,” she tells BBC Culture. “Eating is a human function, we all need to do it. It brings people to a human level.”

Bell has vivid childhood memories of food at Charleston, from helping to stuff  vine leaves  to decorating cakes with her father. Children were not permitted in the artists’ studio, so she spent many hours in the warm, bustling kitchen with Grace Higgins. “I remember the adults emerging noisily from the studio at lunchtime with their pre-lunch drinks, usually Bloody Marys” she says.

Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter in 1925: “Where they [Bloomsbury] seem to me to triumph is in having worked out a view of life... which still holds, & keeps them dining together, & staying together, after 20 years, & no amount of quarrelling or success, or failure has altered this. Now I do think this rather creditable.” And it’s true that while the group’s love affairs were renowned, ultimately this was never as important or enduring as the lasting friendship that they shared. They loved eating, drinking and laughing together – just like the rest of us.

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