Among the Bohemians : Experiments in Living 1900-1939, Paperback Book

Among the Bohemians : Experiments in Living 1900-1939 Paperback

4 out of 5 (1 rating)


Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians is a portrait of England's artistic community in the first half of the twentieth century, engaged in a grand experiment.Subversive, eccentric and flamboyant - the Bohemians ate garlic and didn't always wash; they painted and danced and didn't care what people thought.

They sent their children to co-ed schools; explored homosexuality and Free Love.

They were often drunk, broke and hungry but they were rebels.In this fascinating book Virginia Nicholson examines the way the Bohemians refashioned the way we live our lives.'Interesting, gorgeous, wonderful.... this book displays the best of bohemia itself - playful, dazzling, original' Julie Burchill, Spectator'Racy, vivacious, warm-hearted.

Offers an illuminating and well-researched portrait of life among the artists, a century ago' TLSVirginia Nicholson was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

She has worked as a documentary researcher for BBC Television and her first book, Charleston - A Bloomsbury House and Garden (written in collaboration with her father, Quentin Bell), was an account of the Sussex home of her grandmother, the painter Vanessa Bell.

Her second book, Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939, was published by Penguin in 2002.

She lives in Sussex.


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Nicholson, the grand-daughter of Vanessa Bell, makes it clear that her intention in this book is not to write a scholarly book about that slippery artistic country known as Bohemia, but rather to hold "a magnifying glass over the habits and domestic lives of artists and writers in this country [i.e. Britain] for the forty-odd years before the Second World war".Many of the people who feature in the book are well known (Augustus John, Dylan Thomas, Robert Graves, etc). Many others suffered for their art without making much of a mark on posterity. Some of them were financially well off, but many others were poor. Roy Campbell and his wife Mary moved to Wales. We are told that 'They had no earnings at all', but in fact Roy's father eventually provided the couple with a minimal allowance. I like the fact that, in spite of their very real poverty, 'books accounted for half of [their monthly] budget'.Many artists and writers gravitated to France, not just because it seemed like a romantic, arty place to live, but also simply because "with the post-war exchange rate at its most favourable for years, the exodus to the Mediterranean was irresistible, because you could live in the sunshine for half what it cost to live in England". It has always been tempting to conjure up the image of the artist starving in a garret, but in practice it was no fun at all, as painter Mark Gertler wrote to Lytton Strachey: "To paint good pictures one must have a comfortable studio and good food...Let no person come and tell me that poverty is good for an artist!"Nicholson then moves from poverty to sex. Clearly one mark of Bohemianism was the non-nuclear nature of the families and relationships they established. Primitive new forms of contraception took some of the practical worry out of non-marital sex, and the ideal of 'truthful loving' was a commendable ideal, even if it didn't work out quite as ideally in practice. I do feel, however, that Nicholson entirely glosses over the question of Eric Gill's incestuous relationships with his daughters, to a degree that makes me very uncomfortable. Her conclusion that Gill was "guiltlessly in love with the sheer wonder and beauty of sex and the human body" sits badly with me. This was a man who, as a Catholic, condemned birth control and homosexuality, yet "indulged in incest, troilism - and bestiality"!Nicholson then turns her attention to the offspring of Bohemian parents such as Augustus John (who seems to have impregnated just about every woman he ever met). Many Bohemians had high ideals regarding the education (or non-education) of their children, but of course, as every parent knows, whatever you do will probably be wrong. Whether the children were educated at progressive boarding schools, at home, or a mixture, it's the girls who come off worst. Nicolette Macnamara's father, like many, didn't believe in educating girls, whose job its was to look beautiful and take care of their menfolk. As a result, she didn't learn to read until she was twelve, and remained bitter about her lack of formal education: "The wastage of time for a person ignorant of the methods of learning is quite appalling". There are interesting chapters on Bohemian interior decor, clothing, and attitudes to food (in a nutshell, they rebelled against boring and bland British stodge, but often found themselves living off boiled eggs due to lack of money).Nicholson also gives the reader an insight into the domestic arrangements of Bohemian women. Even into the early 20th century, most middle-class woman would employ at least one servant. Because servants were paid a pittance, you had to be very poor indeed not to be able to afford staff. Many Bohemians, however, rebelled against the stuffy bourgeois manner of running a house. Many of them decided that housework was a waste of painting time and were quite content to live in squalor. Others, particularly girls from conservative middle-class backgrounds who were used to a different way of doing things - or whose male partners expected a certain level of housewifely devotion - soon found themselves unequal to the battle of reconciling back-breaking housework with their own artistic ambitions. Inevitably, it was art that suffered. As Stella Bowen (living with novelist Ford Madox Ford) noted, 'Pursuing an art is not just a matter of finding the time - it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.' As Nicholson notes, this is an issue that 'is still relevant, still unresolved'.The book ends on a melancholy note as, one by one, these larger-than-life characters succumb to alcoholism, suicide, or simply - but arguably, perhaps, worst of all - boring old age. The legacy of these artists who defied convention is still with us, in our more relaxed attitudes towards appearance, behaviour, sex, art itself. Nevertheless, the message seems to be that Bohemianism is for the young. Only the young, after all, believe they are immortal. [July 2006]

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