The Bloomsbury Stud: The Art of Stephen Tomlin

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The Bloomsbury Stud: The Art of Stephen Tomlin
Stephen Tomlin working with ceramicist Phyllis Keyes and painter Duncan Grant.
Stephen Tomlin, Phyllis Keyes and Duncan Grant, Male Reclining Figure and Female Reclining Figure. Philip Mould & Company.

LONDON.- He is, arguably, the Bloomsbury group’s least well-known member. Yet Stephen Tomlin (1901-1937), with his glossy mop of hair, disarming charisma and undeniable talent, deserves to be just as renowned as his contemporaries Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. Now the first major exhibition of his work at Philip Mould & Company (5 June – 11 August 2023) is aiming to return Tomlin to the artistic spotlight where he belongs.

During his all too brief life and career, Tomlin established himself as the Bloomsbury group’s primary sculptor, immortalising the faces of his friends and fellow artists through a series of compelling busts, realised in a variety of materials and notable for their realism and stylised simplicity. The exhibition will include a captivating bust of Bloomsbury’s doyen, Lytton Strachey: ‘The general impression is so superb, that I am beginning to be afraid that I shall find it rather difficult to live up to.' - Lytton Strachey, 1929.

The youngest son of five children born to Lord Tomlin of Ash and Marion Waterfield, Stephen briefly studied at New College, Oxford but left after just two terms. A young man possessed of artistic sensibilities, Tomlin was a gifted poet, actor and musician, but found his metier as a sculptor, developing his skills with the celebrated artist Frank Dobson (1888-1963).

Although he was a highly complex individual, ‘Tommy’ – as he was known to his friends – used his seductive charm, brilliant conversation and obvious ability as an artist to ensure that he was much in demand. References to him pepper countless biographies of 20th-century figures and his Bloomsbury counterparts were beguiled. Virginia Woolf described him as ‘the devastation of all hearts’, while the literary critic and writer Cyril Connolly commented that Tomlin was ‘the most interesting young person I have met’. Among his many female admirers Lady Diana Mitford, wife of Bryan Guinness, remembered him as ‘the best talker among the clever Bloomsberries I knew’. The novelist Rosamond Lehmann confided to fellow writer Frances Partridge that she had fallen ‘completely under the spell of his charm’.

Tomlin was a fabled seducer, having affairs regardless of age or sex. Marriage to Julia Strachey, niece of one of his sculptural subjects, Lytton Strachey, provided a very brief interlude before his amorous and somewhat scandalous liaisons resumed. Among his numerous lovers, including his wife’s uncle, fellow Bloomsbury members Duncan Grant and Dora Carrington, Tomlin could also count the writer David Garnett, aesthete Eddy Sackville-West and photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer.

Despite his popularity, Tomlin was a secretive character, with a depressive nature and an increasing reliance on alcohol in his later life, all of which contributed to an early and lonely death at the age of 35. This is where his reputation and his story would largely have remained until the 2020 publication of Bloomsbury Stud: The Art of Stephen Tomlin by Michael Bloch and Susan Fox and the corresponding exhibition at the Philip Mould Gallery.

The exhibition seeks to explore an alternative view of the Bloomsbury group, through the eyes of Tomlin, including busts of Lytton Strachey (1929), Duncan Grant (1925, on loan from the Charleston Trust) and Virginia Woolf (1931, on loan from the Charleston Trust).

The display also features a magnificent pair of reclining ceramics, painted by Duncan Grant, that embody the success of Bloomsbury’s collaborative artistic mindset. Male Figure (mid-1930s) and Female Figure (mid-1930s) combine the anatomically congruous qualities of a sculptor, the technical brilliance of a ceramicist, and the painterly intuition of an artist.

Displayed nearby will be John Banting’s 1925 Portrait of Stephen Tomlin (courtesy of The Radev Collection) showing the sculptor shirtless and with an impressively muscular physique.

Philip Mould says: “Although he died tragically young, at the age of just 35, Stephen Tomlin’s legacy speaks to a life lived intensely and ferociously. Drawing upon the transformative research undertaken by Michael Bloch and Susan Fox, this exhibition will reveal the life of ‘Tommy’ and re-present his era-defining sculptural images.”

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