‘The Influence of Furniture on Love’: Charleston and the Embodiment of Bloomsbury Modernism

by charlestonattic

Following on from Dorian Knight’s talk, ‘Excavating Bloomsbury, curatorial trainee Alice Purkiss presented her research paper on the Angelica Garnett Gift at Charleston last week. Drawing upon examples uncovered in the Gift and items from Charleston’s collection, Alice explored the unique breed of modernism conceived by the Bloomsbury artists and embodied by Charleston; by its rooms, its inhabitants, and its contents.

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John Maynard Keynes, essay, ‘Can We Consume Our Surplus? or The Influence of Furniture on Love’, JMK/UA/34, © King’s College, Cambridge.

The talk borrowed its title from a short, unpublished essay by John Maynard Keynes, titled ‘The Influence of Furniture on Love’. In the essay Keynes discusses the rooms we live in and the objects of our daily lives, and the influence these have upon our own emotions. He asks:

Does it really make a great difference to us in what rooms we live, whether we clothe them with chintz or with velvet, whether they are hard or padded? That it makes a difference in some ways, is obvious. These things affect our pleasure and our convenience. But do they do more than this? Do they suggest to us thoughts and feelings and occupations?

It is believed that Keynes wrote the paper in 1909 for presentation to The Apostles rather than for academic assessment or professional publication. This was a secret society of students at Cambridge University who met weekly to discuss and debate a whole host of topics, often with much humour and  joviality. A number of other Bloomsbury group members were also Apostles, including Desmond MacCarthy, Leonard Woolf, Lytton and James Strachey, and E.M. Forster.

Light hearted, amusing and at times risqué, it is not hard to picture Keynes presenting this unusually titled essay to the assembled students over coffee and ‘whales’ – the group’s name for sardines on toast. However, despite its apparent silliness, Keynes does raise a number of interesting questions in the essay that are relevant to a consideration of Charleston; a place where the author himself would become a regular and welcome visitor.

CB studyClive Bell’s Study at Charleston. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Focussed upon three chairs in Clive Bell’s study at Charleston, Alice’s talk explored Keynes’ idea of ‘thoughts and feelings and occupations’ both influencing and being embodied by creative activity at Charleston.  As hybrid objects combining old furniture with modern fabrics designed by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, the three chairs can be seen to embody Bloomsbury modernism; a progressive creative expression which reinvented and revised existing objects, sources and ideas, rather than enacting a complete break from the past as promoted by other modern artists and groups in the early twentieth century.  Discussing the influence of Bell and Grant’s Victorian upbringings, their working methods and domestic life at Charleston, Alice offered an alternative insight into Bloomsbury art and life that is exemplified even by the furniture which fills the artists’ home.

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The three chairs in Clive Bell’s Study. From left to right: CHA-F-126, CHA-F-22, CHA-F-21. Photographs © The Charleston Trust