'The Dunciad' by Quentin Bell and Virginia Woolf


The Charleston Bulletin was a handwritten, illustrated family newspaper created by Quentin and Julian Bell in the summer of 1923, when the siblings were teenagers. Quentin and Julian were the sons of artist Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) and art critic Clive Bell. The Bulletin was produced daily, typed up each morning and presented to the family at breakfast. It chronicled daily events and adventures at Charleston, the family’s Sussex farmhouse. The boys were consciously continuing a family tradition: the Charleston Bulletin was modelled on Hyde Park Gate News, the newspaper produced by Virginia, Vanessa and Thoby Stephen when they were children.

‘The Dunciad’, shown here, was one in a series of Charleston Bulletin ‘Supplements’. Over five years Quentin Bell collaborated on these special issues with his aunt, Virginia Woolf, as she simultaneously wrote her major novels such as Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Sharing a mischievous sense of humour, Woolf wrote the text and Bell supplied the illustrations for their lively, irreverent faux-biographies of the Bloomsbury Group that poke fun at the circle’s eccentricities and mishaps. They are full of family jokes, fantastical tales, and ironic literary allusions. Common targets were Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell and Duncan Grant. Bell and Woolf intended to tease and amuse the adults, who were both their subjects and readers.

Who and what is ‘The Dunciad’ about?

Written and drawn at Christmas 1924 in ink, pencil and crayon, ‘The Dunciad’ portrays episodes in the life of the artist Duncan Grant. Grant lived with the family at Charleston and, although gay, was the life-long companion and sometime lover of Vanessa Bell. Portraying him as charming and odd, clumsy and accident-prone, Bell and Woolf transform Grant’s life into the form of a mock-epic where he is cast in the role of a prophet. He courses through a series of domestic calamities that Bell and Woolf cast in apocalyptic dimensions. The work’s title and satirical flourishes are inspired by Alexander’s Pope’s The Dunciad, one of the great 18th-century works of satire.

Episodes depict Grant being sick after stealing lemon curd, his nervous dislike for public speaking, or setting the Charleston pond on fire after trying to kill the weed. One episode, ‘The Fate of Duncans [sic] coats’, simply lists all the railway stations at which the article of clothing has been lost.

Like ‘The Messiah’, Bell and Woolf take aim at the Bloomsbury group’s pursuit of art as a way of life, and the subsequent clashes between the everyday and the artistic. In ‘Paints Melon’, Bell and Woolf depict Grant taking possession of a melon, meant for the family dinner, to use as a still life subject. It is kept for six weeks, rots and makes the room in their holiday home uninhabitable.

Full title:
Charleston Bulletin. Vol. xi. ‘The Dunciad’ by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Quentin Bell; [1924]. With the ‘imprint’: ‘The New Bulletin Publishing Co (Xmas season)’. A satire on Duncan Grant, with text by and in the hand of Virginia Woolf and the illustrations and their captions by and in the hand of Quentin Bell
estimated 1924, Charleston, Firle, Lewes, East Sussex
Manuscript / Periodical / Ephemera / Drawing / Illustration / Image
Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf
Usage terms

Quentin Bell: © The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Quentin Bell. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Virginia Woolf: © The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

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