In 1943 Vanessa Bell painted a group portrait of the Memoir Club, an informal gathering in which members of the Bloomsbury Group read papers about aspects of their lives. As David Garnett commented, it provided opportunities for them to indulge in ‘an almost gourmet-like love of the foibles of old and intimate friends’.
The picture, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, depicts the core members of Bloomsbury: Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Maynard Keynes, Lydia Lopokova, Desmond MacCarthy, Molly MacCarthy, Quentin Bell, E.M. Forster, Vanessa Bell and David Garnett. Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry are present as a memento mori, in portraits on the wall. The living members are portrayed in profile or three-quarter profile except for two: Vanessa Bell and David Garnett, both shown with their backs to the viewer. According to the NPG website, ‘Bell’s own depicted presence in the painting suggests this is an imaginative evocation, rather than the depiction of an actual meeting’.
This painting is one of the reasons I became intrigued by David ‘Bunny’ Garnett. If Vanessa Bell’s portrait is an imaginative evocation, had she deliberately chosen to obscure Bunny? Furthermore, I had read Bunny’s three volumes of published memoirs which chart his life from his birth in 1892 up to 1940. Why were there no subsequent volumes covering the remaining forty years of his life? Given that almost every member of Bloomsbury had been the subject of a biography, why was there no biography of Bunny?
Although I celebrated this absence, as I hoped to write the biography myself, I wondered whether some sinister underlying factor would hinder my progress. I had read about Keepers of the Flame who refused to allow biographies to be written. Perhaps this was why Bunny was locked in his own three volumes.
But, studying for a Masters in Life Writing at UEA, I had the most fortuitous piece of luck. I was taught by the biographer Richard Holmes, and when I mentioned my interest in Garnett he introduced me to his colleague Helen Smith, who was writing a biography of Bunny’s father, Edward Garnett. In turn, Helen furnished an introduction to Bunny’s son and literary executor, Richard Garnett, who lived at Hilton Hall, in Cambridgeshire.
Richard warned me that he had already turned away three ‘established’ biographers. Afterwards, I sent him a slightly indignant note, stating that even ‘established’ biographers had to start somewhere. The next time I saw Richard he said, ‘I suppose you’re not going to be daunted’.
And so my research began. Richard was nothing but kind, generous and helpful; he gave me unrestricted access to his father’s papers, shared his formidable knowledge of all things Garnett but never interfered. In the large first floor study, which had been Bunny’s writing room, I sat at Bunny’s writing table and read. One wall was lined with Bunny’s published works; another was dominated by dozens of box files filled with correspondence. Two walk-in cupboards contained filing cabinets stuffed with manuscripts. Bunny seemed to have kept every scrap he had ever written. These riches were supplemented by other treasures in public libraries, academic archives and private collections.
But for some time I continued to ponder Bunny’s back view in Vanessa’s painting. Gradually, as the research material began to join up, like patches on a quilt, Bunny’s life began to take a definable shape. And then I understood: Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were not overly pleased when Bunny married their daughter, Angelica, in 1942. Perhaps this was why, some twelve months later, Vanessa painted Bunny with his back to the viewer, a faceless presence at the centre of Bloomsbury.
Sarah Knights successfully fills that void with this comprehensive, thoughtful and balanced biography. As Sir Michael Holroyd says: “Sarah Knights’ biography is lucidly written and full of new material. Bloomsbury’s Outsider, A Life of David Garnett, is a most original guide to inner Bloomsbury. I strongly recommend it.” We wholeheartedly agree.
Buy Bloomsbury’s Outsider here.