How it all went wrong for Stephen Tomlin
- July 20, 2023
- Lucy Thynne
- Themes: Art
Talented and doomed, the artist Stephen Tomlin glittered briefly in the Bloomsbury Set but is now largely forgotten. A new exhibition puts his work in the spotlight.
In 1924, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: ‘There is a little thrush-like creature called Tomlin who wants to sculpt me.’ It would be another six years before the writer agreed to sit for Stephen ‘Tommy’ Tomlin and, even then, she was a difficult subject. She disliked being ‘peered at’ and was deeply critical of the artist, calling him the ‘devastation of all hearts’. ‘I waste afternoon after afternoon perching in his rat-ridden and draught-riddled studio: can’t escape!’ she wrote in her diary. Escape she did, though, when she refused to attend the final sittings. Tomlin was forced to abandon the project, unfinished. But the bust is, ironically, Tomlin’s best work, and still stands in Tavistock Square today.
Woolf seems to be unique in her dislike of Tomlin. As a new exhibition at the Philip Mould Gallery in London suggests, Tomlin’s contemporaries were, at the least, charmed by the artist, more often in love with him. His lovers included Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, Sylvia Townsend-Warner, and Duncan Grant, to name just a few. Despite the fame of these names, Tomlin himself has largely slipped under history’s radar. He produced relatively little art in his lifetime, dying aged only 35 from alcohol abuse. What remains, as this exhibition proves, is luminous.
It’s tricky to know where to start with Tomlin’s life. If Woolf was a difficult sitter, Tomlin is a biographer’s headache (Michael Bloch and Susan Fox have managed well recently). The artist left no diaries and wrote few letters. Evidence must be plucked, collage-like, from the archives of his family and friends. What emerges is a complicated portrait — he was the ‘most interesting young person’ Cyril Connolly ever met. The artist Vanessa Bell gossiped to Woolf, her sister, that ‘Eddie [Sackville-West] is desperately in love with Tommy like everyone else’. But the writer Frances Partridge catches something darker behind Tomlin’s ‘Roman emperor’ looks. There were ‘two sides of his personality’: one ‘charming’, one deviously ‘destructive’, Partridge writes. ‘He couldn’t see two people happy together without being impelled to take one away.’
Partridge would know. Or her husband Ralph would know, having reluctantly watched his previous wife, the artist Dora Carrington, fall for Tomlin’s charms. Ralph did not mind that Dora had other affairs at their house in Wiltshire, Ham Spray — most notoriously with their other housemate, Lytton Strachey, with whom Ralph was also involved. But Tomlin posed a different kind of threat to the polyamorous Bloomsbury ways; he was, in Ralph’s eyes, ‘someone more likely to destroy than to create happiness’. Strachey had already fallen for him, named him his ‘dearest Tom cat’. Whether Ralph liked it or not, Tomlin had a grip on Ham Spray. Throughout the 1920s, he would become an increasingly frequent guest.
If school reputations are anything to go by, Tomlin’s charms started early. He was popular at Harrow; played for every sports team; was intelligent, artistic, and loved. A two-term stint at New College, Oxford, came to an end when Tomlin decided that he wanted to sculpt, and seeing no reason to wait, left for Cornwall. It was an exciting time to be in sculpture: Tomlin’s tutor, Frank Dobson, was leading a transition from nineteenth-century works — think Rodin — to a new, daring, school that would include the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Seeing potential in Tomlin, Dobson whisked him off to Paris where they could see post-Impressionist masterpieces in the flesh. Soon, in 1922, Tomlin had his first dalliance with the Bloomsbury Group — with novelist David ‘Bunny’ Garnett — and was tipped by Vogue as one of ‘the most promising sculptors of the younger generation’.
Where, then, did it all go wrong? For one, Tomlin’s time in Paris was more than just a cultural city break: he discovered an opium and cocaine habit that he would never be able to kick. Mental health problems meant that his art came in fits and spurts — art historians think that Tomlin had bipolar disorder. And though Tomlin was more often the heartbreaker, a tumultuous affair with an American Broadway star, Henrietta Bingham, left him spiralling. It was the first time he had truly fallen in love and her beauty drove him ‘nearly mad’. Tomlin’s bust of Bingham — painted orange, with smoothed over, Modigliani eyes — had impressed her father so much that he commissioned Tomlin to design part of their family estate. But Bingham returned to the States not long afterwards, breaking Tomlin’s heart. He sent the bust to Dora Carrington (also a lover of Bingham’s), declaring that to be around it was unbearable.
It would be reductive to suggest — as the exhibition’s title, ‘Bloomsbury Stud’, tempts — that Tomlin’s main claim to rediscovery is his sex life. It is undoubtedly part of that claim. More glaringly, Tomlin’s achievement is that his work was daringly experimental at a time of artistic upheaval. His busts of Lytton Strachey and Woolf reject smooth marble for skin and instead favour an impasto texture, giving each what Quentin Bell called ‘a force, a life, a truth’. Equally, Tomlin’s dabbling in ceramics at the end of his life shows real promise. But Tomlin’s work shines because there is intimacy in every piece of it. Even to a clueless onlooker, the deep bonds with his sitters are obvious. We also have Tomlin to thank for the only known busts of Woolf and artist Duncan Grant — so there’s something to be said for charming someone into sitting for you. Such a legacy should not be underestimated. If you’re trying to understand a historical figure, having a three-dimensional likeness of them is invaluable.
And isn’t definition via lovers and friends what Bloomsbury was all about? Their overlapping love lives fed directly into their art, which was bolstered by a community that prized acceptance above all else. Among them, Tomlin could be openly bisexual. His last lover, H, was a working-class porter at a cinema who Tomlin introduced to all of them. And aside from Ralph Partridge, his lovers mainly delighted in sharing Tomlin. When Tomlin married Lytton Strachey’s niece, Julia — another of Carrington’s lovers — Carrington was overjoyed to ‘have another lovesick bird to sing duets with on the loveliness of my Julia’. When Tomlin wrote to Julia, ‘I seem to be in love with you, damn you’, it was on Lytton’s writing paper — and with Carrington’s pen.
The last years of Tomlin’s life were sad ones. He was able to console Carrington over Lytton Strachey’s death in 1932, ‘endless conversations’ which Carrington said made the whole thing ‘bearable, which nobody else could have done’. Not long afterwards, Carrington killed herself, and Tomlin wrote an epic of grief, The Sluggard’s Quadrille, which was published anonymously in the New Statesman. Julia became tired of Tomlin’s party trick to ‘seduce all the guests’, leaving him in 1934. After a final Christmas at the house of Augustus John, another alcoholic artist, Tomlin died in 1937. Of his death, doctors said that ‘heavy drinking had weakened his resistance’.
It’s a shame that Woolf and Tomlin didn’t get on. Both experienced mental health struggles but created great, tender work in spite of it. The pity of Tomlin’s life, like Woolf’s, is that it was cut far too short. But, as his biographer Susan Fox argues, his talent was ‘enormous’.
Bloomsbury Stud: the Art of Stephen Tomlin runs until 11 August at Philip Mould, 18-19 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5 LU