The short life and many loves of Stephen Tomlin
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Virginia Woolf had mixed feelings about Stephen “Tommy” Tomlin. The writer seems to have been one of the few Bloomsbury luminaries who didn’t fall for the much younger sculptor, who apparently managed to have dalliances with Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, David Garnett, Sylvia Townsend Warner and dozens of others in his short life. In 1926, writing to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf conceded that he was “the devastation of all hearts”, and “sprightly as an elf”, but those were the limits of the seduction. He was also, she told Vita, “misshapen as a woodpecker”.
This month, an exhibition at Philip Mould & Co shines a rare light on Tomlin’s talents. Centred around Mould’s acquisitions from Tomlin’s descendants, it privileges the busts that argue his place as an intriguing footnote of British art history, despite his death in 1937 aged only 35 (he also later worked in ceramics): his portraits of Strachey, Grant or indeed Woolf, whose looming likeness – the only statue made of Woolf from life – now sits in Tavistock Square, opposite the site where she once lived.
Luke Edward Hall has provided designs for the exhibition. He first heard of Tomlin after reading a biography, titled Bloomsbury Stud like the show, by Susan Fox and Michael Bloch. “I was fascinated, I suppose, because so many of his contemporaries seemed to have been in love with him,” says Hall. “He was described as the most charming, the most interesting, the most beautiful, the favourite guest… He basically seduced everyone.”
“Not many people resisted, from what one reads,” confirms Bloch. “His wife would describe how he’d seduce everybody at a party – and she doesn’t mean ‘seduce’ in a platonic way.” The diminutive Tomlin (5ft 6in tall) apparently overpowered people with an athletic physique and mesmerising conversation; also, a whiff of danger. “He was an unusual person, a man of contrasts,” says Bloch. “But Susan and I agreed that had we known him, we’d have fallen for him like a tonne of bricks!”
Born into the Kent gentry (his father was a judge, eventually a Lord), Tomlin was sent to Harrow, where he dazzled with his promise. He settled on becoming a sculptor, and soon became friends and lovers with David “Bunny” Garnett, the novelist better known as the lover of Duncan Grant and the husband of Grant’s daughter, Angelica Bell. It would be the start of Tomlin’s deep enmeshment with Bloomsbury, although he had friends and contacts beyond it; he spent a lot of time at Ham Spray with Lytton Strachey and Carrington, eventually marrying Lytton’s niece Julia. But he struggled to stick at anything for long and clearly had what we would now call mental health issues (both Bloch and Fox think he may have had bipolar disorder). He went rapidly downhill in his 30s, essentially drinking himself to death. Woolf, in a small tribute after his death, said that he had “deserted the respectable”.
“He’s the typical story of a tortured artist who dies before they’re able to blossom,” says Fox, who spent more than a decade scouring the archives at Tate, Cambridge University and New York for the particularly elusive Tomlin, who left few letters or notes. “And yet I think he didn’t have the discipline to focus on, say, his sculpture. But he had such an enormous talent that what he produced is impressive.”
Hall agrees. “Charming as he may have been, I also very much enjoy Tomlin’s work. His bust of Duncan Grant, a beautiful piece, speaks to me in particular.”
Most of the work for sale in Mould’s show is on offer between £25,000 and £50,000. Fox believes relationships brought out the best in Tomlin’s work: “When you look at his most successful pieces, they’re the images of people he cared about.” It is hard to say, though, that this will mark a revival in the market for Tomlin as there is so little of his work: one catalogue raisonné puts it at 42. It’s more feasible to ask whether this might herald the review of other smaller Bloomsbury reputations. Mould thinks Simon Bussy is one candidate ripe for reappraisal; Edward Wolfe too.
“Definitely Dora Carrington,” says Fox, pointing out that the painter is due to have a big survey at Pallant House in Chichester next year. “She and Tommy were similar,” she says. “She, too, painted for those she loved, and didn’t produce a lot. She wasn’t disciplined in the way that she could have been. But she lived such a wonderful life.” People tend to look at Carrington (who died by suicide shortly after Strachey’s death) or Tomlin as “tragic figures”, and they shouldn’t, says Fox. “I don’t want them to be victims.”
It’s tempting to ask whether Tomlin’s top achievement was, in fact, his sex life. “No!” replies Fox, a little horrified. She thinks it was “friendship”, and reminds me of Tomlin’s enthralling conversation. But the traces of those gifts are far away now, leaving just his sculptures, which seem intense, exacting, loving – made with a slightly scary force.
The Bloomsbury Stud: The Art of Stephen Tomlin is at Philip Mould & Company from 5 June to 11 August; Bloomsbury Stud: The Life of Stephen “Tommy” Tomlin by Michael Bloch and Susan Fox can be bought at bloomsburystud.net
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