A beautiful book, but a fairly orthodox biography of the Hon. Stephen “Tommy” Tomlin

Bloomsbury Stud: The Life of Stephen “Tommy” Tomlin by Michael Bloch and Susan Fox M.A.B., £40.00

Despite its pornography–promising title, Bloomsbury Stud is a fairly orthodox biography of the Hon. Stephen “Tommy” Tomlin (1901-37), best known as a sculptor for his masterful portrait busts of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey. This particularly beautiful book features a cover with an inlaid reproduction of the 1926 John Banting portrait of a bare-chested “Tommy”, heavy paper, superb and generous illustrations, and endpapers with an autograph poem by its subject.

As for the eye-catching title — while waiting for him to turn up, one of his paramours began writing on the wall of his studio a list of his lovers of both sexes, over which Tomlin later painted a tactful fig leaf. Promiscuity is the more usual word for his behaviour, but the co-authors, researcher Susan Fox, and writer, Michael Bloch, well-known as the editor and biographer of James Lees-Milne, Jeremy Thorpe, and assistant to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum, are surely entitled to spice things up a bit.

The “Bloomsbury” part of the title is perhaps more contentious as, like Frances Partridge (1900-2004), Tomlin was only second generation and, like Mrs Partridge, married into Bloomsbury, as the husband of Lytton Strachey’s niece, Julia. His family was from Kentish gentry, his father, Thomas James Chesshyre, was a brilliant KC, high court judge and law lord. His mother was Marion Waterfield, whose father “had governed the wild North-West Frontier of British India”.

Tommy’s background, then, was very like that of the Stracheys, part of the ante-Bloomsbury ruling classes, which included Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen. Like Virginia, Tommy suffered from depression so severe, leading to or followed by manic episodes, that the friends and families of both suspected a genetic component (his elder brother Garrow also had “black depressions”).

Fit and compact, Tomlin stood about 5ft6ins. Frances Partridge said, “He had the striking profile of a Roman emperor on a coin, fair straight hair brushed back from a fine forehead, a pale face and grey eyes.” His sexual attractions are revealed in a nude photograph of him and Garrow taken by John Banting. He was bisexual, though “when it came to sexual relations with men,” the authors write, “buggery was his preferred modus operandi.”

Leaving Harrow at 17, he “vanished” (to Chaldon Herring, Dorset) without leave from New College Oxford, where he was reading history. He left having made a single close friend/lover, Roy Harrod (1900-78).

Obsessed with the Shelley Memorial at Univ, by autumn 1920 he went to train as a sculptor with Frank Dobson (1886-1963) at his Fulham studio, and they became great friends, visiting Paris, meeting Wyndham Lewis and James Joyce, seeing work by Picasso and Bonnard, a show of African sculpture at the Trocadéro, and being introduced to opium and cocaine.

Following a year’s training with Dobson, Tomlin moved to Chaldon Herring, staying in touch with his old acquaintance Sylvia Townsend Warner and meeting Theodore Francis Powys, brother of John Cowper and Llewllyn. During a London visit “Tommy” encountered David “Bunny” Garnett (1892-1981), who became his best friend, lover, and entrée to Bloomsbury. After the War, Garnett joined Francis (“Frankie”) Birrell in running the Tavistock Street, Bloomsbury bookshop, which bore their names; it was there that Tommy met Bunny (who was married at the time to Frances Partridge’s sister) and a romance was sparked.

In early 1923, Tommy took a studio in Fulham, and began carving a bust of Bunny – his normal practice was modelling in clay. Bunny was having success with his novel, Lady into Fox, and borrowed his former lover, Duncan Grant’s studio in Fitzroy Street to give a party for his thirtieth birthday. The guest list included Clive and Vanessa Bell; Leonard and Virginia Woolf; Lytton Strachey and Carrington; and Maynard Keynes and his future wife, the ballerina, Lydia Lopokova.

Promiscuity is the more usual word for his behaviour, but the co-authors are surely entitled to spice things up a bit

Here Tommy was taken up by the very self-aware Bloomsbury Group. It’s a familiar story told well. Duncan Grant had slept with most of the male guests, and Vanessa; perhaps Bunny had done as well. In any case, Vanessa and Duncan had a five-year-old daughter, Angelica, and Bunny, present at the birth, wrote to Lytton that he would one day marry the baby. And so he did. It was this sexy world that Tommy was slipping into.

But it was also a principled, serious set of people, dedicated to art, left-wing, and conscientious objectors in the Great War. Another another guest at Bunny’s party was “the tall and comely American heiress Henrietta Bingham”, born in Kentucky, in January 1901. Her father, known as “Judge Bingham”, later became US Ambassador to the Court of St James. Henrietta was at Bunny’s party with her rich, Jewish lesbian lover, Mina Kerstein. Tommy, though now intermittently sleeping with Duncan, began a passionate affair with Henrietta, who was the love of his life. She returned to America in May 1925, leaving only his enigmatic bust of her to console him.

Tommy was now in the thick of Bloomsbury life. Carrington had a pash on Henrietta, but in 1921 had agreed to marry Ralph Partridge to cement the ménage à trois with Lytton; they finally moved into Ham Spray together in autumn 1925. Tommy was frequent guest. In 1926 Ralph and Frances (Marshall) Partridge began their life-long relationship and marriage, and Ralph moved to London to be with her during the week, returning to Ham Spray for the weekend.

Before his unexpected death in 1932, Lytton was so fond of Tommy, that it became obvious that he viewed him as a potential replacement for Ralph in their domestic arrangements, and Tommy spent most of his time there between May and September 1926 (Fox and Bloch think Tommy and Carrington had a sexual liaison, and that he gave the delicately sado-masochistic Lytton “assistance in sexual matters”. Years ago, in print, I described their graceful free-floating sex lives as “the Bloomsbury gavotte”; since then, having met several of them at the ends of their lives, the conceit still strikes me as apt.)

Then, in July 1927, Tommy married Julia Strachey (1901-79), Frances Partridge’s oldest friend, daughter of Oliver Strachey (1874-1960), one of Lytton’s brothers, best known as a champion cryptographer in both wars. Julia herself was a successful novelist (Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, 1932), but though they were at least content for a couple of years, Julia was uninterested in sex, which resulted in Tommy reassuming his habits, including drink and drugs.

The real problem, Frances thought, was that Tommy (despite early psychoanalysis) had a wicked side, and was a wrecker as well as a seducer, out to destroy any happy relationship he chanced upon. The kindest thing one can say about the self-destructive Tomlin is that he will be remembered by the few magnificent portrait busts in our National collections.

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic.