Halifax artist Karen Kulyk interprets the Bloomsbury Group through Vanessa Bell’s garden.
Her charming, colourful goauche portraits of Vanessa, her famous sister Virginia Woolf, her lover Duncan Grant, her husband Clive Bell and her children are interpretations of people and relationships as flowers in ceramic vases created by the group’s design enterprise, Omega Workshops Ltd.
The garden, also the basis for Kulyk’s glorious large landscapes and dense, sinewy black and white drawings, is Kulyk’s way inside a story that has fascinated her since the 1970s.
Over a period of two springs, she sketched in the restored garden at Charleston, the East Sussex farmhouse which Bell and Grant, who were both visual artists, moved to in 1916 when Grant, as a conscientious objector, was employed as a fruit farmer.
Bell painted the interior of Charleston but she never painted her garden. “A long time ago I went to Mont Sainte-Victoire and I couldn’t paint it,” says Kulyk. “Cezanne had said everything that could be said.
“But with this garden I felt confident that someone had not captured it and solved all the issues.”
Kulyk sits in the living room of her historic Halifax house, originally built by Samuel Cunard. On her living room table is a stack of books about the Bloomsbury Group and Charleston.
“Learning about these people has been wonderful. The history is massive!”
Duncan Grant was still alive in Charleston in the early 1970s when Kulyk lived in England in East Sussex with her sister, writer Janice Kulyk Keefer, who’d won a Commonwealth Scholarship to study Virginia Woolf.
Kulyk, given Quentin Bell’s 1972 biography of Woolf by her sister, fell in love with the story of the two sisters, an artist and a writer, just like herself and Janice.
The Bloomsbury Group of cutting-edge artists, writers, thinkers and critics grew out of a meeting of male minds at Cambridge University attended by Vanessa and Virginia’s brothers.
The group of friends and relatives, active in the first half of the 20th century, had a huge impact on the arts, criticism and economics, and on attitudes to feminism, pacifism and sexuality.
“I really wish I’d met them,” says Kulyk. “Duncan Grant was still alive then in 1972 and you couldn’t go near the place. I used to say to Janice, ‘Let’s go over and knock on his door, bring him some soup.’”
Kulyk didn’t get to Charleston until the spring of 2016 when it was open to the public and its garden, designed by Bloomsbury art critic Roger Fry, had been restored. “I was surprised to find the garden, I wasn’t expecting it.”
The first spring she went it was stormy and the garden slow to start. “The second time spring was early. There were all kinds of apple trees and euphorbia — those lovely yellow flowers,” she says, waving to a large, riotous painting of flowers that includes tulips, daffodils and grape hyacinths.
“I was blown away by the colour. It was really vibrating and the garden, for me, reflected all of their creative energy.
“It’s there in the soil and the gardens grow and change all the time, like them, like us.”
Everyone loved Duncan Grant, says Kulyk, displaying a photograph of Grant’s brooding, chiselled face. “Look at that! Apparently he had smokey eyes. He was an incredible man. He was very affable.”
The Bloomsbury Group’s love lives were complex and their personal lives often tragic.
Vanessa, a painter, was married to English art critic Clive Bell, with whom she had two sons, Quentin, and Julian, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War.
While she and Clive never divorced, he lived in London and had many liaisons. Late in life, he came to live at Charleston and put in central heating.
Grant, also a painter, was gay, though he and Bell had a daughter, Angelica. After Grant refused to sleep with Vanessa “they continued to live together but he always had other partners, including Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes, the economist, and she had to learn to live as a threesome,” says Kulyk. “We never get exactly what we want.”
Grant lived at Charleston after Vanessa’s death in the 1950s. “There is a wonderful picture of him sitting on her bed with her sun hat on and he’s drawing her garden from the bedroom. It’s so poignant. He was devastated when she died.”
Kulyk’s floral gouache portrait of Vanessa and Duncan refers to one wonderful day in Vanessa’s life. While Duncan was off travelling in Morocco with a male lover, he sent a bouquet of lemons to Vanessa, which so delighted her she painted Oranges and Lemons 1914.
“Her painting of the lemons I used as a starting point because it was so important to her. She was a wonderful painter.”
Kulyk’s painting represents Vanessa as the lemon bouquet in an Omega vase and Duncan as a bowl of purplish figs. “It’s a little erotic.”
The painting of Vanessa’s relationship with her daughter Angelica is done in happy pink, orange and yellow flowers, as Kulyk goes back in time before Angelica, at 18, was told of her true parentage and became very upset.
She paints Virginia Woolf, who died of suicide in 1941, as a white lily in a glass vase and Vanessa in robust pinks. “Virgina was more gaunt and Vanessa was more feminine.”
Kulyk, who moved to Halifax from Toronto, has been painting professionally since the 1970s. Her subject matter has been dictated by experiences like hiking the Himalayas, visiting Catalonia, studying blue skies, and walking in the Nova Scotia woods at Trout Point Lodge.
She is currently working on a series about Italian gardens.
“I started off painting gardens in the 1970s but I didn’t want to get labelled the flower painter,” she says.
Kulyk has always loved “the idea of a garden as a source of colour and it gives me the freedom to change colour.
“I use colour to get at my love of the subject, to give you an idea of how I felt coming upon this garden.”
A Bloomsbury Garden: Karen Kulyk is at Studio 21, 1273 Hollis St., Halifax, Friday through Dec. 22, along with Halifax Explosion, a show marking the 100th anniversary of the Explosion with new work by Jane Reagh, Janice Leonard, Charley Young and Richard Mueller.