The author Virginia Nicolson is perfectly placed to write a book about the lives of Bohemian artists and writers before the Second World War - daughter of Quentin Bell and granddaughter of Vanessa Bell - she presents a sympathetic and engrossing portrait of this time, and those people, who tried to 'live for art' and rejected many of the rules society tried to impose. In this book she discusses what a bohemian actually was, the romance (or squalor) of poverty, free love, the children born to these unconventional families, the arts and crafts movement, fashion, food , domesticity, travel and friendship.
Of course, living outside of the social mores of society was liberating for many but, for those who had little choice in the matter, such as the children, it was often disorderly or neglectful. Caspar John, one of Augustus John's many sons, joined the navy after a life of no restrictions. It was his way of rebelling and looking for structure and he became very successful, becoming the Admiral of the Fleet and eventually being knighted and a member of the establishment in a way that would have outraged his parents.
Much of this book seems to recount behaviour which is self indulgent and often thoughtless, other parts make you applaud the tolerance and acceptance of those outside of the norm. However, often the ideal is not perfect in reality. Free Love sounds wonderful, but jealousy could rear it's head and, for women especially, having a child outside of marriage was not acceptable in those times. As always, it was women who suffered the consequences of bringing up the children and looking after the house with men often rejecting such domesticity as beneath them. Neglect of the home and children often seemed easier than the hard work involved in doing tasks most of society employed servants for and poverty more crushing than romantic. Overall, though, the author presents an interesting and enlightening portrait of those times and of the positive aspects of a group of people who lived to create art and literature and who tried to be true to their belief in a new way of doing things.
on 19 November 2008
I picked this up from one of those 'XXX recommends" from Waterstones and I'm so glad I did. This is a wonderful, fresh and very readable look at bohemia at the turn of the century. It's fascinating how much of the way we live now was influenced by handful of brave people who were prepared to try another way of living in the face of severe disapproval from the stuffy Victorians and Edwardians. I was particularly taken by the bravery of the women, who had so much to lose by not getting married, eschewing the status quo and so on - whilst still being treated in a very paternalistic manner (ie it may have been a new way of living but the women were still expected to do the cooking, cleaning and to be the ones to give up their art for the sake of a family). But it does seem to have been hard on the kids, and I do echo the previous reviewers comments about Eric Gill: Ms Nicholson suggests that having their father have sex with them didn't do the children any harm... Hmm, a little too wide-eyed about her subject methinks.
When I say it's very readable I really mean it: I'm quite lazy when it comes to books, probably reading two 'easy books' (like chick-lit) to one of 'literature', and in terms of pleasure this falls into 'easy' even though it's actually quite intellectual. Win-win!
on 11 December 2002
Dare I talk about breeding in a book that deals with Bohemians? Sure, why not! The author's father was Quentin Bell- writer, artist and academic...and the biographer of his aunt, Virginia Woolf. Her grandmother was the artist Vanessa Bell, who was Virginia Woolf's sister. With bloodlines like that, you'd expect Virginia Nicholson to finish "in the money" with this subject...and she doesn't disappoint. I think the family connection has helped her to be more charitable and sympathetic than a dispassionate observer might be concerning the behavior of the Bohemians. Where some people might only find childishness, selfishness and irresponsibility (and Ms. Nicholson can see these traits as well), the author can see nobler things. She can see the ability to think independently, to believe that Art and Truth and Beauty are worth devoting your life to.....and to have the courage of your convictions by doing just that- no matter what the cost. Many of the people described in this book did not possess first-class talent, but they still gave it their best shot. They had little money, they often were hungry and cold, and they spent their lifetimes being rejected by the mainstream. They didn't have to live that way...they chose a way of life that had those consequences. Ms. Nicholson's achievement is to get you to respect, if not to admire, these people...rather than to laugh at them or think them foolish. The book has been put together in a very creative fashion. Rather than just make the book a collection of anecdotes, Ms. Nicholson has come up with an interesting theme for each chapter. For example, one chapter deals with the nuts-and-bolts of living in poverty, another deals with how the Bohemians raised their children, and still others deal with love and marriage, interior decoration, clothing, cooking, cleanliness, the importance of travel, etc. The book is an intriguing mixture of the philosophical and the down-to-earth. On one page the author will be asking "Can a person be wealthy and still be a Bohemian?" and on another page she will describe how the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was so filthy that when the writer Ford Madox Ford was forced to sit next to him one warm summer day, Ford was so overwhelmed by the stench that he had to leave. But, Ms. Nicholson adds, "...as the weather cooled Gaudier was promoted to the guest list for Ford's At Homes, and Ford even went so far as to install the artist's phallic statue of Ezra Pound in his front garden". Another funny story concerned the painter Augustus John losing his temper when he found out he had been charged 43 pounds for lunch at the "Eiffel Tower" restaurant in London. The proprietor explained the bill wasn't just for lunch. It turns out that Dylan Thomas had been eating there for 2 weeks and had told the owner not to worry about the money, Augustus John would take care of it! (And he did.) On the sociological side, the author describes how many of the Bohemians, Augustus John for one, didn't so much raise their children as just let them raise themselves....giving them what amounted to almost total freedom. Some of this was a belief, a la Rousseau, that children would turn out best if brought up "in a state of nature". A lot of it was also humbug disguised as philosophy...it was a lot easier to let the kids do what they wanted while mom and dad got back to the really important stuff...like writing and painting! Interestingly, a good many of the children not only enjoyed this way of life but turned out quite nicely- they became creative, self-sufficient, well-adjusted adults. Others resented being ignored and the lack of structure....and turned out insecure, with a craving for order. Ms. Nicholson is also quite good in describing the price creative women often paid when they got into relationships with creative men. It seems Bohemian men were no more enlightened than their more conventional brethren- the fairer sex was still expected to clean the house and cook the meals and make the afternoon tea, etc. Many of these women were so tired they had very little time or energy to devote to their artistic pursuits. The women, understandably, resented this state of affairs.....but, at great cost to their own careers, usually tolerated it. I really enjoyed this book. It is well-written, well-organized, thought provoking and also just plain fun to read.
on 15 July 2011
One of my all time favourites. I have been interested in the Bohemian movement and the Bloomsbury group for some time and this book epitomized the two subjects perfectly. The settings are great, the writing is beautiful and it's just impossible to put down. Great for a real insight into how people in that movement lived. In all the squalor and the penniless Bohemian years!
on 11 January 2014
(Apologies for the corny title). A friend of mine picked this up in a charity shop in Marin County, California. I was with her at the time and when we were comparing the various treasures we'd discovered, I had a quick flick through this wonderful book and immediately insisted on borrowing it to read first. Being largely occupied with last-minute arrangements for her wedding she hastily - rather rashly, it would transpire - agreed to this. For the next week, I found myself seeking her out every ten minutes to read her the next captivating passage - and the next. What's more, she began to look forward to the next instalment!
Being a tad on the Bohemian side ourselves, virtually every quote, anecdote or observation struck such perfect chords of authenticity, recognition, humour or delight, I couldn't wait to share the next.
It went everywhere with me for months. It really is that sort of book that you'll want to dip into to re-read favourite passages and to read out to chums down the pub or at a friends' Bohemianesque 'at home' gathering f'rinstance.
You may well find it fills up with underlinings and apposite postcards of a Bohemian nature as bookmarks and generally Graingerise the hell out of it. (DON'T get the 'Kindle' version!)
It soon became quite obvious that she was never going to get back the scuffed, creased, dog-eared and ever so slightly bulging much-loved volume, so I gladly bought her a replacement copy right here on Amazon (!) and she loves it just as much as I do and I believe has recommended it extensively to like-minded pals and given it as a gift.
If you have the slightest interest in the folk who, in the first half of the last century lived, loved and dressed in ways that were still outraging the 'Squares' in the 1960s - and even today - this is the only book purporting to cover the subject that has the width, the depth and the wit to satisfy even the most demanding Neo-Boho (every generation produces it's crop!) - just one criticism - I think the US edition has a more stylish cover - (these things *are* important, right?) - but any Bohemian worth their salt can always cover it in some William Morris wallpaper or something.
I'm off now to re-read my favourite chapters of this truly inspirational work - do get yourselves a copy - just don't lend it out - not even to your best friend - just *buy* them one!
An absolutely wonderful chronicle of artistic life in London among the 'bohemians' (everyone from the Bloomsbury set to Dylan Thomas) from 1900 to 1939. All aspects of bohemian, artistic society are examined: attitudes to love, children (the descriptions of the education of Augustus John's children is particularly good), travel, food, furnishings, and bohemian socialising. Nicholson spreads her net wide, embracing all sorts of artists and writers, from her own grandmother Vanessa Bell, and other 'Bloomsbury' members including Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, David Garnett, Carrington and Lytton Strachey, to Augustus John and his vast family, to the philosopher Edward Carpenter, the sculptor Eric Gill, Dylan and Caitlin Thomas and many less famous but still very interesting people, including Kathleen Hale (author of the 'Orlando the Marmalade Cat' book series, which I grew up with!), the poetess and one-time musician Anna Wickham, the writer Gerald Brenan, Lawrence's one-time lover Rosalind Thornycroft Bayes, and lots more. This is a book that makes you want to read on and on about some of the people mentioned, and I ended up buying several biographies of artists discussed by Nicholson. Nicholson also talks very intelligently about art, music and fiction at the time, and gives interesting accounts of various novels and travel books written during the early 20th century. The writing style is superb: full of fascinating information, but never dry or overly erudite. A superb guide to artistic life in England for the first 30 or so years of the 20th century. I'm looking forward to reading Nicholson's next book, 'Singled Out', and her husband William Nicholson's novels next.
on 26 February 2004
This is an interesting book about a group of people who have more fame that is really justified. Ms Nicholson does a good job of explaining why we're still interested in the Bloomsbury crowd: their way of life remains influential even though their art wasn't so hot.
Being a relative helps. One gets a level of insight that is often facinating. But - and it's a bit of a big but - she can be too sympathetic. Too much is forgiven or brushed aside.
Her comments about Eric Gill is a case in point. Eric Gill, though a talented artist, had sex with children, including his own. If the book was judging artists for the quality of their art, there would be no problem. But Ms Nicholson investigates their lifestyles and such actions cannot be glossed over. A more critical approach would have made this a better book.
on 22 December 2012
I found this fascinating and well put together. The author does not only tell the story of the talented and successful Bohemians, she also includes those whom talent passed by but who sought a different way of living. It is easy to forget how bound up in rules, laws and customs this generation was and I can only admire those who tried to push the boundaries. Sometimes they could go to far and the author does recognise to an extent the affects on the children and partners of some especially irresponsible individuals. However like another reviewer I feel that she lets Eric Gill off the hook rather easily, true he had an amazing talent, but also a repellant private life. The Bohmians rightly looked for sexual freedom for homosexuals and for women and men outside marriage, but child abuse is never excusable and I felt that having mentioned it she should have given more space and time to Gill's family and how he let them down.
on 24 November 2012
This is the second book that I have read by the Virginia Nicholson. She is just so intelligent - she makes such interesting and insightful comments and observations. She also gives different view points without seeming to be biased (eg for the benefits and drawbacks of the Bohemian no-rules system of education.) I also appreciate the dry sense of humour.
on 3 February 2011
Virginia Nicholson describes the citizens, customs, and traditions of a country that doesn't exist, but which is instantly recognisable: Bohemia. Using the lead metaphor of a virtual country of which Bohemians of the early 20th century were the inhabitants, she gives us a very detailed and colourful account of what life was like in that virtual place and real time.
Nicholson is, of course, supremely qualified to serve as Bohemia's ambassador to the modern world, as she descends from a family of Bohemian celebrities. She's not called Virginia for nothing: Virginia Woolf was her great-aunt, Woolf's biographer Quentin Bell her father, and Woolf's sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, her grandmother. (Oh, and Julian Bell, whose adventures in China inspired Hong Ying's book "K: The Art of Love", was Quentin's brother. What a family.)
Considering these family connections, it would have been easy for her to explore the faraway realm of Bohemia through the eyes of its best-known citizens. Instead, she turned her attention to the lives and times of the less successful artists and writers, to those for whom the move from "normal" England to Bohemia often meant a descent into real hardship.
Like an anthropologist describing the customs of a remote pacific island population, Nicholson studies the minute details of everyday life in Bohemia and devotes separate chapters to elementary aspects of the lives of the natives, including money, love life, education, interior decoration, clothes, food, housework, travel, and partying. Being an anarchistic place by definition there is no section on hierarchy or power.
These chapters are populated with a swirling cast of painters, models, and writers ranging from the almost famous to the long-forgotten, so the "Dramatis Personae" in the appendix becomes the most valuable part of the book, as one gradually learns to navigate the social networks of 1920s Bohemia. There have been many memoirs and biographies of the people involved, so there is no shortage of brilliant quotes to liven up the proceedings. My favourite one has to be the (unattributed) geometric description of the Bloomsbury set as a circle of friends who lived in squares and loved in triangles.
As additional material to make the sheer visual wealth of Bohemia more palpable, I recommend to consult the book "Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Gardens" (Frances Lincoln 2004) as well, which Nicholson wrote together with her father, and which contains many wonderful photos by Alen Macweeney of the country house where Vanessa Bell and various associates lived. Additional visualisation help is provided by the movie Carrington [DVD]  (about the various love triangles involving the painter Dora Carrington and the writer Lytton Strachey), which is available on DVD.
In all of this, the very endearing Bohemian philosophy of life shines through, which essentially implies that for each individual their art, love, and friendships are infinitely more important than the ten million rules and regulations that Victorian society imposed on its members. Living in a society which in many ways is closer to Bohemia's jurisdiction than to Victoria's, we are bound to find the Bohemian rule-breaking and mischief-making amusing, even in instances which contemporaries must have considered truly shocking.
Therefore, the whole makes for a highly entertaining read, but it also provides food for thought and self-questioning. Many of Bohemia's battles against Victorian norms have been won by now - for instance, women can wear their hair short, and men theirs long without shocking anybody. And yet, people with any kind of creative inclination still face the age-old dilemma whether they can afford to put their art (in the widest sense) first, or whether they have to make bourgeois compromises to ensure they can pay their bills. Today, there isn't a separate country called Bohemia any more. On the sliding scale between Bohemian and Bourgeois, everybody has to find their own place.