This pastel, along with Grant's Still Life with Irises (AC 2011.08) and Vanessa Bell's In the Garden (AC 2011.07), represents Amherst's first foray into the art of the Bloomsbury Group, an informal association of friends and relatives named for the London neighborhood in which the group gathered during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Its members, including writers Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forester, economist John Maynard Keynes, biographer Lytton Stratchey, and critic and artist Roger Fry, would later be recognized as preeminent intellectuals, whose ideas spurred the transition from Victorian to Modern world views. Linked more by friendship than by any particular creed, the members shared a willingness to challenge conventions in their avant-garde art and writings, in their leftist, often pacifist political views, and in their progressive feminist, sexually liberated social mores.
The watercolors shown nearby were created by Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf's sister) and Duncan Grant (Bell's sometime lover and companion). The rich colors, broken brushstrokes, and bold pattern of In the Garden--in which the seated figure reading a newspaper is all but subsumed within the larger design--characterize the artist's mature style. Grant's Still Life with Irises reveals similar interests, in which the real flowers are rendered in the same loose manner as the floral decorations on the carpet and vase. The pastel Still Life with Sugar Bowl is attributed to Grant, who created similar imagery throughout his life, and whose depictions of nudes with expressive poses and swelling contours resemble the study depicted in the background of this composition.
These three works came to the Mead from the collection of Mary Louise Townsend Heath, Mount Holyoke College Class of 1952, and William Webster Heath, Amherst College Class of 1951. Mel and Bill, as they were known, returned to the Pioneer Valley in 1956, when Bill accepted a professorship of English at Amherst College. In the years before his death in 1993, he would become a well-known scholar of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Elizabeth Bowen. Mel, who received her doctorate in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1986, played an equally active role in our region's literary culture, making her career at the Massachusetts Review, where she worked for nearly four decades in various positions, including as managing editor. Like the Bloomsbury Group thinkers she so admired, Mel memorably opened her home to fellow feminist thinkers and activists in the late 1960s.