The writers and artists who collectively called themselves the Bloomsbury Group have become synonymous with that particular area of London. These days you can’t think about Bloomsbury without paying reference to the group, such was their impact and even now the area is full of clues to their past lives.
First meeting in 1905 there were two groups, the artists and the writers, both sets gathering at different times. The writers on Thursday and the artists on Fridays. These meetings would be held at 46 Gordon Square. A house which is still there today and which was the home of Vanessa Stephen and Virginia Stephen (later they would be better known as the artist Vanessa Bell and the author Virginia Woolf) and their brothers Thoby and Adrian. Later, when Vanessa got married in 1907, the house would be occupied by her and her new husband Clive Bell and then afterwards by another member of the bloomsbury group, economist John Maynard Keynes from 1916 to 1946.
Thinkers and Innovators
Thoby, who would die of typhoid a year later following a visit to Greece, had set up the writers group. This was full of his contemporaries from university and included the likes of Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes and Leonard Woolf. Vanessa meanwhile had set up the group with the artists Duncan Grant, John Nash, Henry Lamb and Edward Wadsworth. Roger Fry would join later in 1910 after a chance meeting with Bell and he would become an important influence on the group.
According to the Tate, ‘many of the members of the Bloomsbury circle were important thinkers and innovators and they made a significant contribution to the development of modern art, design and literature.’ Meanwhile the group were also known for their friendships, their intellect and their relationships. The American writer Dorothy Parker said that they “lived in squares…and loved in triangles”.
Many of the group did indeed have complex relationships with what even today would be seen as a very liberal attitude to love, sex and life. Marriages between members of the group would turn into affairs with others from inside the group and outside. Sexuality was explored with a number of group members moving from monogamous to open relationships and with many often uninhibited as to whether those relationships would be with men or women. Ex lovers would often still be maintained as part of the close circle of friends so intertwined where they with each other.
And so the dynamics of the Bloomsbury Group is a complicated one but there is no doubt that the group had a great influence on art and literature. So for this post we thought we’d take a look around the area and see where some of the key locations associated with the Bloomsbury Group were.
Gordon Square – Where the group began
We’ve already noted that the first meetings of both the writers and artists would take place at number 46, a building which is now part of the school of arts at Birkbeck University of London. This was at the heart of the group’s activities and it’s rooms would have played host to debate and intellectual discussion around the thoughts of the day as well as literature and art. There were though a number of other houses which look onto the square and where members of the group lived.
The writer Lytton Strachey lived in number 51 from 1909-24 and his brother James Strachey lived at number 41 from 1919-56. Lytton was the author of ‘Eminent Victorians‘. Published in 1918 it helped to build his reputation as one of the foremost biographers of his generation. Prior to his major success in 1909 Lytton proposed to Virginia Stephen. The engagement lasted a mere day before he retracted with Virginia apparently very understanding. After that he was known, in later years, to have a complicated romantic relationship with the painter Dora Carrington and her husband Ralph Partridge.
Vanessa Bell meanwhile moved into number 50 in 1920 and then into number 37 from 1922-29 essentially swapping with her estranged husband Clive Bell who then moved into number 50. The two had a complicated relationship, getting married in 1907 and then having two children prior to the two separating. Vanessa would go on to have a fleeting relationship with Roger Fry and then a much more substantive one with Duncan Grant with whom she had another child.
Tavistock Square – Where Virginia Woolf once lived
Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard lived at number 52 Tavistock Square from 1924-39 in a house which sadly no longer survives. It was bombed in 1940 and then replaced by the Tavistock Hotel in 1951. This now overlooks the square. It was here where Woolf would have published ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and ‘To the Lighthouse’, inspired by walks around the area. She had moved back to Bloomsbury following a long period away when she had been living with her husband Leonard Woolf in Richmond. The two of them had formed the publishing company the Hogarth Press. There is a memorial statue to Virginia Woolf in Tavistock Square itself.
The square also contains a memorial commemorating “men and women conscientious objectors all over the world and in every age” which was installed in 1994 by Hugh Count. A number of the Bloomsbury Group were pacifists and were conscientious objectors throughout the first world would war.
Mecklenburgh Square – Last London Home of the Woolfs
The Woolfs moved into an address at 37 Mecklenburgh Square in 1939. Only lasting a year, the property was bombed during 1940. Their previous property in Tavistock Square was also bombed and destroyed in the same year. It was following this event that Virginia and Leonard moved down full time to live in their country home at Monks House in Sussex. Virginia would die of suicide a year later in 1941.
Fitzroy Square – The location of the Omega Workshops
A popular location, Fitzroy Square would be where a number of the Bloomsbury Group would live and work. George Bernard Shaw lived in the square at number 29 from 1887 to 1898 whilst Virginia and Vanessa Stephen and their brother Adrian would move from Gordon Square into the same building in 1907. Vanessa moved out in 1908 following her marriage to Clive Bell. Virginia would move out with Adrian to Brunswick Square 1911. Number 29 would become an important place for the Bloomsbury Group to meet following the move from Gordon Square.
The painter Duncan Grant moved into number 21 in 1909. He also had studios at number 8 and number 22. It was here that Grant first met and struck up friendships with Adrian and Virginia which would introduce him to the Bloomsbury group circle of friends. Later Grant would form a long term relationship with Vanessa Bell and the two would move to Charleston in Sussex. That home would become a key country retreat for the group away from the city.
Roger Fry, who lived nearby in Bernard Street also had a studio at number 21. In addition he set up the Omega Workshop at number 33. This lasted from 1913 to 1919. The workshop had been established through bequests from people including George Bernard Shaw. Fry then invited Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to join him as co-directors.
The workshop gained its name on account of the fact that instead of individually signing works created at the workshops, each piece would be marked with an omega. The idea was that items were purchased on the strength of the quality of the work as opposed to the reputation of the artist. The workshops made and sold furniture, fabrics and household accessories with artists and designers paid a standard fee for their work. Fry was inspired by the idea of taking the art outside of the frame and into people’s homes essentially blurring the boundaries and making art a part of the fabric of the home.
Brunswick Square – Where Virginia Woolf’s life was saved
For a while the 38 Brunswick Square would become the next central location of the group. Adrian and Virginia had moved here from 29 Fitzroy Square in 1911 and would share with Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf and John Maynard Keynes. Grant and Keynes had already lived together in Fitzroy Square and would share the ground floor. Virginia would occupy the second floor and her soon to be husband, Leonard, would be in rooms on the third. The two would eventually be engaged and married in 1912. It is presumed that Adrian lived on the first floor. In 1913 Geoffrey Maynard Keynes, John’s brother, moved into the rooms on the third floor which had been previously occupied by Leonard Woolf.
There was some controversy over Virginia’s ‘scandalous’ decision at the time to share a house with four men. Her dismissive response at the time being that if anything went wrong, ‘the foundling hospital was on the doorstep‘. During her time here Virginia experienced bouts of depression and in 1913 took an overdose. Her life was saved after Leonard and Geoffrey raced though London to Barts Hospital in a taxi cab where Geoffrey was actually working as a house surgeon. There, they would acquire stomach pumping equipment. This would then be administered by Geoffrey and another physician Sir Henry Head who had been summoned in the intervening period. Reflecting on the event in his memoirs Geoffrey wrote“…in retrospect, the realisation that this took place before before she had written any of her novels. We can now know what literature would never have existed had our efforts failed.“
Bedford Square – Where the real Lady Chatterley would host parties
The area around Bedford Square was where the society hostess Lady Otterline Morrell lived. At different points in houses both at number 44 Bedford Square and around the corner at 10 Gower Street. Lady Otterline was well known for her hospitality and would have hosted members of the Bloomsbury Group on many an occasion as well as many others from the great and good of artistic and literary society. She was very well connected as the first cousin of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, the future Queen Mum.
Married to the MP Phillip Morrell, they had an open relationship and both had many other romantic encounters with others. The Lady Otterline had a long affair with Bertrand Russell and also for a time saw Roger Fry, Augustus John and the artist Dora Carrington. Known for her pacifist views Lady Otterline also supported conscientious objectors during the first World War. The likes of Duncan Grant, Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey were able to take refuge at her country house in Garsington. All members of the Bloomsbury Group and all vehemently opposed to the war, which was not a popular position at the time.
Lady Otterline also appeared in a number of novels, or at least caricatures of her did. She befriended many writers and it is believed that DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley is based on her although at the time she is not thought to have been pleased by the portrayal. Lawrence also used her as the inspiration for Hermione Roddice in his novel ‘Women In Love’ and she also appeared in novel’s from Aldous Huxley, Grahame Greene and Alan Bennett.
48 Bernard Street – The home of influential group member Roger Fry
The artist and influential member of the Bloomsbury Group Roger Fry lived at 48 Bernard Street opposite the entrance to the Russell Square tube station from 1926 until his death in 1934. The house is no longer there having suffered damage in the second world war and the site is now at Pret a Manger.
Fry joined the Bloomsbury Group in 1910. This, after a chance meeting with Clive and Vanessa Bell in a railway carriage. Inviting him to give a lecture at the Friday club at 46 Gordon Square. He would go on to found the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square in 1913. Fry also organised two exhibitions focusing on impressionism. The first called ‘Manet and the Post Impressionists‘ was in late 1910 and the second called the ‘Second Post Impressionist Exhibition‘. Both would be held at the Grafton Galleries located at 8 Grafton Street. The shows became key moments in the history of modern art and after the second show in 1912, ended up introducing term ‘bloomsbury‘ to the wider public.
Fry would be seen as a leading proponent of modern art, championing the importance of form over content and focusing on the colour and composition of a piece rather than how realistic the image was. He was a supporter of the work of Cézanne, van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Gauguin who he brought over as part of his exhibitions effectively introducing post-impressionist art to Britain.
The Fitzroy Tavern, Charlotte Street – After which Fitzrovia is named and where writers and artists would drink
There are not many pubs with as much of a connection to the artists and writers of literary London than the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street. This is a pub, that the group would have known well and which the group members would certainly have visited with its reputation as a hangout for artists, writers and musicians.
Named after Charles Fitzroy, the 2nd Duke of Grafton. It was he who first started to develop the area and who also gave his name to Fitzroy Square to the north. His father Henry, the 1st Duke, had been one of five illegitimate children that Charles II had with his mistress Barbara Villiers, the duchess of Cleveland.
Beginning life in 1883 as the Fitzroy coffee shop, it was converted into a tavern in 1887 and became known as the ‘hundred marks’ before becoming the Fitzroy Tavern in 1919. The area around the tavern was notable for its association with creatives. Attracted by its cosmopolitan nature on with its cheap rents and French, German and Italian immigrants. It was on account of it’s location at the centre of things, a place where everyone gathered that William Hickey of the Daily Express first coined the name ‘Fitzrovia’ which the area around it is now known.
Today, the tavern’s walls are full of photos and artworks remembering the literary and artistic geniuses who would drink and socialise there. Literary figures such as Dylan Thomas, Augustus John and George Orwell would drink there as would indeed members of the Bloomsbury Group who would spend time in the pub and a number of their portraits and examples of their work can be seen hanging in the corridors. Augustus John, one of the regular patrons, said in 1927 “If you haven’t visited the Fitzroy you haven’t visited London.”
Boulestin, Southampton Street (now closed) – The restaurant of the first celebrity chef
In 1925 the then editor of Vogue, Dorothy Todd, invited Virginia Woolf to a small lunch at the private flat of Marcel Boulestin, a French chef who had made his reputation on the back of a series of popular French cookery books. At the end of the lunch, so legend has it, finance had been secured for a Boulestin restaurant and this opened at 23 Southampton Street in 1927.
The restaurant became a success and became a popular hangout for members of the Bloomsbury Group. In particular Virginia Woolf not only because of her links to its founding but also because she liked it’s intimate atmosphere. Well known as she was for hating busy, crowded restaurants. It is commonly believed that she references the Boeuf en Daube one of Boulestin’s signature dishes in, ‘To The Lighthouse’. Her cook Mabel also used to attend the restaurant for cookery classes.
The restaurant closed in 1994, giving way to a Pizza Hut although the name if not the location was revived some years later in 2013 at 5 St James Place by Joel Kissan, the co-founder of Conrad restaurants. Joel said that his intention was to re-imagine the original as opposed to emulating it and a number of the dishes are inspired by the Boulestin cook books.
The places of the Bloomsbury Group have been researched during October and November 2017 and further in December 2019. This post is the second in a series of posts featuring the work of the Bloomsbury Group. The first is this free walking tour of Bloomsbury and Holborn.