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 Messiah’, 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 Messiah’ about?
‘The Messiah’ was produced in ink, pencil and watercolour at Christmas 1925, and in it Bell and Woolf lampoon Clive Bell. The title mockingly alludes to Jesus and to Handel’s famous choral work. The authors send up Clive’s aristocratic upbringing, beginning with ‘“The Nativity’”’ in which they depict his birth announced by a dove and angels (see the front cover). They substitute the humble barn for the Bells’ ‘old manorial Hall’, and real animals for stuffed and mounted hunting trophies. In ‘The Meet’, an account of Clive fox-hunting while still in the nursery, they wickedly allude to his premature hair loss and promiscuity by suggesting that he has provided too many locks of his hair to admiring ladies.
Moving to his career as an art critic, an episode called ‘First artistic protest’ portrays the six-year-old Clive tearing down his nurse’s cheerful display of Christmas cards. Moving on to Gordon Square, Clive’s first home with Vanessa, the co-conspirators observe that ‘Every single object in the house was chosen rather for beauty than use’. ‘Hiding the Match Box’, which portrays Clive in a rage that a common match box spoils a room’s aesthetic, shows Bell and Woolf at their satirical best. Drawing on a real event which they recognise to be inherently comic and ridiculous, they layer exaggeration upon exaggeration to heighten the comedy further. The match box gets thrown into the fireplace, ‘hence an explosion: a fire; a desolation unspeakable, in which a cat perished, & it is said, a pair of old women’s legs’.
In ‘Arrival at Cambridge’ and ‘A dinner party at 46’ Bell and Woolf parody others in the Bloomsbury group including Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, who are depicted as silent and monosyllabic.