Tommy in the Sky with Pain

The Stephen Tomlin Story

What is it about the Bloomsbury Set that keeps us so enthralled? Beats me. But there is an ever-growing, insatiable interest.

Stephen Tomlin, with wife Julia Strachey.

It’s like an adolescent crush. The problem is Bloomsbury is an old-fashioned deck chair in a gone-to-seed country garden.

Yes, Virginia Woolf is a world-class writer, and John Maynard Keynes is the economists’ economist who changed the way we perceived the dismal science.

But what about the other members? Aren’t they just basking in the reflected light and glory of their much more noteworthy friends?

Take the heartfelt pilgrimages to Charleston farmhouse in deepest darkest Sussex, where you used to be able to kit yourself up in a Virginia Woolf loose linen outfit – requisite stains optional – for under one hundred pounds.

Once appropriately suited and booted, you could take part in their annual Follies show that had a decided whiff of the amateur about it – just the way the Bloomsberries liked it, as their bitchy comments about Keynes’ professional Russian ballerina wife Lydia Lopokova attest to.

Or sit up reading the seemingly endless supply of books devoted to them and their lives with their incessant sexual permutations that left one feeling that maybe it was better to be celibate but sane.

Dorothy Parker once described them as “living in squares, painting in circles and loving in triangles”.

Full disclosure: I plead guilty to somewhere between the Pre-Raphaelites and Chardin having a major flirtation with all things Bloomsbury.

At university, I even co-chaired a society devoted to getting the existing children of the exalted ones to come and tell us all about their august forefathers.

Nigel Nicholson shared a few choice secrets about Virginia and his mama Vita. His comments on how amusing her views were on the working classes were a little lost on us all.

Angelica Garnett told us about her complicated parentage in a very high-pitched voice with her eyes firmly shut and strings of amber beads knocking against her rather prominent ribs.

Her brother Quentin Bell talked about his mother, Vanessa Bell, intelligently. His wife Anne Olivier Bell talked equally insightfully to me for the BBC about being taught by Anthony Blunt before almost finishing me off with a legendary Bloomsbury Gin and French. Or was it a Gin and It?

Whatever it was, it took me more than a few days to recover from it.

So with some degree of trepidation I approached Bloomsbury Stud – the latest exhibition at the Philip Mould Gallery in London.

The show is named after the biography of Stephen ’Tommy’ Tomlin by Michael Bloch and Susan Fox and is the first show ever of Tomlin’s sculptures.

The artist has been largely forgotten and consigned very much to the footnotes section of the Bloomsbury Set books, usually for his sexual escapades more than his artworks, of which few remain.

If he is known for anything other than his prodigious sexual appetite, it is the bust of Virginia Woolf in Tavistock Square and the one of Lytton Strachey at Tate Britain. But that is about it.

Tomlin on Virginia Woolf.


The Philip Mould Gallery is redressing the balance in this thoughtful and scholarly show, mainly comprised of unseen works belonging to the heirs of the artist’s widow.

Stephen ‘Tommy’ Tomlin was born into an upper-class high Edwardian family in London in 1901. His father was to become a high court judge and a peer of the realm.

Although he was only the third son, great things were expected of Tomlin as he was undoubtedly the smartest and most outgoing. Like his father and brothers, he went to Harrow and Oxford.

Tomlin was popular there and noted not just for his great conversational skills and quick wit but also for his seemingly insatiable promiscuity with both men and women.

The bon vivant claimed to be a natural bisexual and, given that homosexuality was illegal in the UK at the time, was surprisingly open about it. From early on, he had a near-desperate need for affirmation and affection.

Oxford oppressed Tomlin – the solid gothic architecture and the grim prospect of an academic career. He wanted to work with his hands, not with his mind and left after his second term.

A chance meeting with the sculptor Frank Dobson made Tomlin decide that he wanted to be a sculptor. This is the most incredible and surprising thing about him.

Here was this young man who never showed any real interest in painting or art who suddenly decided that he would become a sculptor and was, on the basis of this exhibition, a rather good one.

Stephen Tomlin was as promiscuous in his artistic life as in his private life. He changed his sculpting style according to his various sitters, from primitive to High Victorian.

The Mould exhibition displays busts of his parents and older sister Joan, which show that he could sculpt in a time-honoured manner, complete with military braiding and lace collars.

There are impressive likenesses of respectable people, as are the more human busts of Duncan Grant and Eddie Sackville West, who were both in love with Tomlin.

The vie boheme suited the artist perhaps a little too well. He was soon taken up by David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, who introduced him to the Bloomsberries and their wider circle.

There is an extraordinary stone statue of Bunny in the show that has been rescued from the garden at Charleston. He looks like an Easter Island godhead in a Saville Row suit.

Stephen Tomlin became emotionally and physically intimate with not only Bunny but Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, Eddie Sackville West, Duncan Grant, Keynes and almost anyone else who crossed his path.

In a photograph of Tomlin taken at the time, there is a fig leaf painted on his studio wall that covers up the list of people he had recently been sleeping with. It was a big leaf.

Only two people could not abide him: Carrington’s husband, Ralph Partridge and Virginia Woolf.

Woolf never saw “the physical charm of the little woodpecker man”, probably due to his stocky, short body and large head. She had to accept that he was responsible for “the devastation of all hearts” around him.

When the painter was persuaded in 1931 to sit for him, she allowed four short sittings partly because she loathed his cold, rat-infested studio and partly because she could not stand his ‘‘penetrating, ugly, obscene, impertinent’’ gaze.

Yet those who knew Woolf, including her nephew Quentin Bell, say that Tomlin caught her better than anyone else…‘‘It has a force, a life, truth … far more than any of the photographs.”

In 1925 Lytton Strachey wrote rapturously: ‘‘I sit all day to Tommy who is creating what appears to me a highly impressive, repulsive and sinister object – perhaps it is pure truth.’’

The bust of Lytton was launched at a sherry party in Gordon Square and is now seen as his other great masterpiece. Strachey was his friend, lover, replacement father figure and mentor.

Strachey later wrote of it: “ The general impression is so superb, that I am beginning to be afraid that I shall find it rather difficult to live up to.’’

In 1923, Stephen Tomlin had the good sense to fall in love with an American woman called Henrietta Bingham.

There is a charming plaster head of her in the exhibition that slants to one side and is made with such tenderness.

She was not only very wealthy but a confirmed bisexual as well.

Stephen Tomlin with Dora Carrington, Julia Strachey and Barbara Bragnel.


During their romance, he continued to sleep with Bunny and Duncan Grant, and she with her long-term girlfriend and former tutor, Mina Kirstein.

Tomlin had never met anyone like her and fell totally under her spell, but that did not stop him from seducing Mina’s 16-year-old brother Lincoln.

Bingham broke his heart first by sleeping with Carrington and then by ultimately choosing her father’s money over him.

Lincoln Kirstein was besotted by Tomlin all his life but had the honesty to write of him “No one ever took him very seriously as a sculptor nor did he I think.’’

Quite often, Stephen Tomlin’s work would crumble or collapse, which led to a great deal of amusement from his friends. It also accounts for why so little of it remains.

Very little of Tomlin remains. He rarely wrote letters, and what papers there were went up in flames when his mother’s house was destroyed in the Blitz.

What does remain is a collection of photographs and an amateur film shot in 1929 of Tomlin and his friends at Ham Spray, the house owned by Lytton, Carrington and Ralph Partridge.

Rather tellingly, Tomlin acts the artist in the film – all loose velvet jacket and long floppy hair. He appears with his then-wife and her father, accompanied by Carrington.

Settling down to paint, he is kissed clumsily by his wife and starts in earnest. A few seconds later, he downs tools, goes for a smoke and spies a life-size doll that he decides to seduce.

There is a close-up of his animated but lost face. It is a haunting moment – a mask more than a face. Tomlin makes up to the doll but is caught by the trio, and a fight ensues.

Was this prowling, predatory and dissolute character the real Stephen Tomlin? Was this the man that everyone fell in love with?

His wife was Lytton’s niece, Julia Strachey. Like Tomlin and, indeed, Henrietta Bingham, she had a miserable and lonely childhood.

Tomlin’s heartbreaker, Henrietta Bingham.


In a memoir published after her death, she writes very perceptively about Tomlin and what she calls “his dread aloneness” and how she often saw him waiting “in a doorway – his stocky unmoving body and long, tragic clever face”.

Strachey knew he was contemplating “collecting scalps… feeling cursed and guilty himself, he determined that the rest of the world should feel the same way”.

In the end, it was not the frequent betrayals that she objected to. Strachey was not that keen on sex but rather his self-recriminations and melancholy afterwards.

She could have coped with a serial philanderer but not with the neurotic depressive.

Julia Strachey felt that “his muse, his dark evil warlock and Tommy were in a menage a trois’’. His overwhelming “sense of doom’’ and his “bitterness and destructive intent’’ destroyed everyone around him and their marriage.

She left him after only four long years.

In the exhibition, there is a ceramic bust of Strachey made during their first year of marriage. It is more forbidding and far less tender than the bust of Bingham.

As their life together disintegrated, so did Tomlin. His dependence on drugs, alcohol and sex became increasingly out of control.

In 1931, he met a hotel porter known as H or Humble Williams, who became a cross between his lover and manservant. H was devoted to Tomlin and stayed with him until the end.

Stephen Tomlin’s final works were ceramic figures for the society potter Phyllis Keyes who got him to design the figures.

Keyes then cast them, and finally, Duncan Grant decorated them.  The figures are very much of their time with a vague, if trite, nod to the 18th century.

Tomlin was undone by the successive deaths of his brother, Lytton and Harrington. He sought solace and oblivion in alcohol and drugs.

His once beautiful face became swollen and puffy as he unravelled. At the age of 35, he died of blood poisoning in a nursing home near Bournemouth.

As always with the Bloomsbury Set, one writes more about life than work. Stephen Tomlin’s life was a tragic and hopeless one.

He belongs to that select club of people who died young and whom the rest of us feel that had they but known them, they could have saved them from themselves.

This is, of course, mere folly and fantasy. There is nothing romantic about Stephen ‘Tommy’ Tomlin. But there are moments of true talent in his work, and that is perhaps something.

Photographs courtesy of Philip Mould & Company. All rights reserved.