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Art & artists

Bloomsberry pie

— December 2014

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Dora Carrington, Eggs on a Table, Tidmarsh Mill, c. 1924. Oil on board; 53.3 x 76.8cm Private Collection. Photo The Bloomsbury Workshop

The Bloomsbury Group took their pleasures seriously - and certainly enjoyed a good meal

The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art by Jans Ondaatje Rolls

The Bloomsbury Group – Virginia Woolf and her highly cultured, fun-loving chums such as Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, Vita Sackville-West, E.M. Forster et al. – lived in tune with the ideas of their presiding philosopher, G.E. Moore, who argued that with the old Victorian-style religious and moral certainties having evaporated, ‘personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest, goods we can imagine’. Taking friendship and pleasure seriously, the Bloomsburies enjoyed eating together, and they make a perfect subject for a culinary book.

In fact, given the Bloomsbury industry and the current vogue for novelty cookbooks, there is a certain inevitability about this production (at least seen through the ‘retrospectoscope’, down which everything tends to make sense). What is more surprising is how good it is. It is thoroughly researched and contains 200 or so recipes involving 20 or so Bloomsburies, along with numerous photographs and over 80 paintings by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington, Clive Bell, Mark Gertler and others, reproduced directly on to the book’s matt cream paper. It stretches over several decades, and along the way we encounter Roger Fry’s recipe for marmalade, a sardine savoury by Francis Partridge, mutton stew by Bloomsbury ballet dancer Lydia Lopokova, and a Cambridge college recipe (circa 1900 and pegged to G.E. Moore) for a tasty-sounding anchovy and mushroom concoction on fried bread.

It seems churlish to complain that this book is better – more serious, anyway – than it needed to be, but it is good to be clear about what it does and doesn’t do. What it primarily isn’t, and shouldn’t be mistaken for, is a light-hearted and practical collection of recipes prepared by Virginia Woolf and a handful of other major Bloomsburies. Instead it is more like a group biography through the medium of food. Recipes tend to be taken from similar contemporary examples, or from more minor figures in the milieu such as Helen Anrep and Angelica Garnett, or invented by the author herself.

The close relationship between Virginia and her sister Vanessa Bell extended to a shared love of bread-making, so a recipe is provided from a contemporary newspaper clipping; their brother Thoby had a cake on his twelfth birthday (as recorded by the young Virginia in her home-made newspaper, Hyde Park Gate News) so a possibly comparable cake is provided from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. It is often about what they ate rather than what they cooked, and this includes Forster having curry in India, and Leonard Woolf having fried fish on a visit to Lancashire in 1917, after which the author gives a recipe for fish and chips.

Seven chronological chapters run from ‘Before Bloomsbury’, and the household of Virginia’s parents (1890s–1904) through to ‘Bloomsbury in Eclipse’ (1930-41) and ‘Bloomsbury’s Offspring’ (1940s onwards). ‘Bloomsbury in Eclipse’ is a sad chapter, with this privileged little world smashed by the Second World War. A contemporary recipe for tripe and onions is provided from The Stork Wartime Cookery Book, but hardly distracts us from the central tragedy of Virginia and Leonard, with their Mecklenburgh Square flat blitzed, their fears that civilization was ending, and Virginia’s farewell note on 28 March 1941 (‘I do not think two people could have been any happier than we have been’) before she weighted herself with stones and waded into a river. She had realized she was going mad again. Her last journal entry, a few days earlier, records the need to keep her mind occupied, in this case by cooking, and that ‘I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down’. Almost inevitably (inescapably, forgivably) the author then has to give a recipe for sausage and haddock – although the effect, in the circumstances, is more than a fraction kitschy.

This is a beautifully produced book and a prime example of the fashion for literary-intellectual cookbooks, which has recently included Dining with Proust, and even Fictitious Dishes (photographs of meals recreated from their description in novels). There is an undeniable pleasure in the whole genre, and the public appetite for it seems testimony to some underlying phantasy about the way we consume culture.

The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art  by Jans Ondaatje Rolls is published by  Thames and Hudson. 384pp. Fully illustrated in colour and mono, £24.95. ISBN 978-0-500-51730-7



Phil Baker

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