Bloomsbury and The Bloomsbury Group

Bloomsbury is a district of Central London between Holborn and Euston. It is home to the British Museum, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, several hospitals and University of London faculties. The area was developed by landowners such as the Earl of Southampton and the Russell family, the Dukes of Bedford. Building began in the 17th century although the Bloomsbury of today dates largely from the 19th century. This is an area noted for its squares containing small  parks, some of which remain gated for the exclusive use of the residents who are provided with keys. The streets are typically lined with fashionable georgian town houses although the southern parts are more institutional and commercial.

This part of London has long been associated with the Bloomsbury Group, a loose association of influential artists, writers and intellectuals who from 1904 regularly met at the 46 Gordon Square home of the Stephen Family. They only lived at this house for two years before moving to Sussex but they had already made their mark. Thoby Stephen introduced many of the friends that he had made at Cambridge and they too, often settled in the locality. There is a bust of Thoby’s sister, Virginia Woolf in nearby Tavistock Square Gardens. The Bloomsbury Group apart, this district has long associations with the arts and literature. Charles Dickens, J. M. Barrie, Vera Brittain and William Butler Yeats are just a few of the famous residents. Bloomsbury abounds with blue plaques.

John Everett Millais had a studio at the Gower Street home of his parents. Here in 1848, Millais, Hunt and Rosetti founded the Pre-
Raphaelite Brotherhood; a group of artists who advocated a return to the quality of 15th century Italian art.

Publisher Faber and Faber had its offices at Tavistock Square, the editor being poet T. S. Eliot.

There are three important churches in Bloomsbury. St George’s built in 1731, the gothic Christ the King of 1853 and St. Pancras New Church of 1822.

Coram’s Fields on the site of a foundling hospital is home to a small flock of sheep, unusual residents for Central London. Adults may not enter this park unless accompanied by children. Each year there is the Bloomsbury Festival in Russell Square which includes an arts and crafts fair, dance workshops and food stalls. Bloomsbury has numerous hotels, restaurants, pubs and a good selection of interesting shopping.


 Thoby The Goth


Julian Thoby Stephen was the eldest son of Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Stephen and brother to Adrian, Vanessa and Virginia, all of whom were to feature prominently in the Bloomsbury Group. Being over six feet tall and of heavy build, Thoby was known as "The Goth".

Thoby was educated at Clifton College and Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he met Lytton Strachey who fell in love with him describing him as being hewn out of living rock.

It was Thoby Stephen who started a thursday evening discussion group involving writers Clive Bell, David Garnett, E. M. Forster and artist Duncan Grant. This was to eventually become the Bloomsbury Group.

Thoby was called to the bar in 1906 but later the same year, whilst on holiday in Greece, he contracted typhoid. He died shortly after returning to England.  He was just 26 years of age.   


Adrian, The Hoaxer.

Adrian was the youngest of the four Stephen children who together,
on the death of their parents, had moved to Bloomsbury, then
unfashionable, yet a more bohemian environment than the opressive Hyde Park Gate. Adrian was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge. Initially he trained in law but gave this up in the hope of a career on the stage.

His first affair was with the artist Duncan Grant which gave an introduction to Adrian's sister Vanessa leading to their lifelong but
unconventional relationship. Adrian met philosophy graduate Karin Costelloe whom he married in 1914. She was an expert on the work of French philosopher and Nobel laureate Henri Bergson.

In common with many Bloomsbury members, Adrian Stephen was a conscientious objector during the First World War and together with his wife spent the duration doing farm work. With the return of peace, Adrian and Karin took an interest in psychoanalysis becoming medically qualified in 1920. Through the Bloomsbury Group, they met another branch of the Strachey family James and his wife Alix who were noted for the translation of Freud's writings into English. The Strachey's were the first to practice psychoanalysis in England and clearly influenced Adrian and Karin. Adrian Stephen did however serve in the Second World War when he was aged 60, volunteering as a medical officer.

Whilst at Cambridge, Adrian and fellow student Horace de Vere Cole had carried out a number of minor hoaxes and decided upon something more ambitious. Stephen proposed commanding a platoon of German troops to cross the French border to create an international incident but Cole's suggestion was more practicable. At the time, the Sultan of Zanzibar was visiting England and the Mayor of Cambridge received a telegram announcing a state visit. Cole, Stephen and some fellow students, dressed in robes and turbans, were met at the railway staion by the Town Clerk and conducted to a mayoral reception at the Guildhall. A charity bazaar followed and they then toured the City before returning to the station. When the hoax was revealed by the Daily Mail, the Mayor wanted the students "sent down" but was persuaded against this to avoid further embarassment.

Cole was to stage another embarassing stunt in 1910 when a delegation of Abyssinian royalty was given a tour by the Royal Navy of the battleship, H.M.S.Dreadnought. Cole and Bloomsbury Group members again donned robes and turbans.Virginia Woolf is convincingly pictured wearing a beard. Adrian took the role of "interpreter" to the royal party who spoke in a gibberish mix of latin and greek. In the ensuing scandal there were calls for arrests but it was found that no laws had been broken.

Adrian died in 1948 after which his wife committed suicide.
                                            The Emperor of Abyssinia and his suite

                                                                  Sultan of Zanzibar


Leonard Woolf, writer and publisher
Leonard Woolf is perhaps overshadowed by his wife Virginia yet he had a notable life in his own right.

Born in 1880, he was one of ten children of Sidney and Marie Woolf. His father was a QC with a home in Kensington, London. He was educated at St.Paul's School and Trinity College, Cambridge where joining the Apostles Society he met the future members of the Bloomsbury Group.

On leaving University, he followed a Civil Service career in Ceylon returning to England in 1911. He married Virginia the following year and began a career as a writer. Woolf became involved in politics, joining the Labour Party, writing for and editing a number of socialist journals. Together with his wife Virginia, he founded the Hogarth Press. For several years their titles were printed by hand in their home in Richmond. He devoted much of his time in caring for his wife especially during her bouts of mental illness.

After Virginia's suicide, he met and fell in love with artist and book illustrator, Trekkie Parsons. She was 20 years his junior and married. Her husband Ian was a publisher and later chairman of Chatto and Windus. She had a long term relationship with Leonard Woolf spending weekdays with him at Monk's House in Sussex and weekends with her husband. He died in 1969 and his ashes were buried alongside Virginia's in the garden of their Sussex home, Monk's House.
E. M. Forster

Edward Morgan Forster, an associate of the Bloomsbury Group was a writer who found fame with such novels as "A Room With A View"; "Howard's End" and "Maurice". He was a friend of Benjamin Britten for whom he wrote the libretto of "Billy Budd". Forster was also close to Christopher Isherwood and Siegfried Sassoon and had a long relationship with married policeman Bob Buckingham.

His father, an architect, died before his second bithday so he was raised by his mother. He was educated at Tonbridge School and at King's College, Cambridge where he felt liberated and able to formulate his own views. It was at university that he developed his friendships with those who were to form the Bloomsbury Group although his was never a close association.

An inheritance of £8000 from his great aunt allowed him to live comfortably while developing his career as a writer. He lived for much of his life with his mother at her Surrey home although he was for a time in India employed as private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas. It was on his return to England that he wrote "A Passage To India". Forster was a frequent radio broadcaster and in 1946 was elected a fellow of King's College, Cambridge where he lived after the death of his mother. He died in 1970, aged 91.

Many of his stories have been dramatised for television for cinema, the productions by Merchant Ivory being particularly popular.

John Maynard Keynes

John Maynard Keynes was the most influential economist of the 20th Century guiding the financial policies of countries worldwide.

He was born in Cambridge in 1883 and his grandmother once wrote to him saying that as he had been born in that city, people would expect him to be clever. His father, also an economist was a lecturer, and his mother a social reformer. He was educated locally until in 1897, he won a scholarship to Eton.

On leaving Eton he studied mathematics at King's College
Cambridge and became closely involved with college life. He joined the Apostles society and here met many of the future Bloomsbury Group members. Keynes was also interested in philosophy which he studied at Cambridge along with economics.

Keynes working life began with the Civil Service taking up a post at the India Office. He shortly returned to Cambridge being supported at first by two academics and later earning a living as lecturer and tutor.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 the govenment sought Keynes' guidance before he took up a Treasury post. For his war work he was awarded the Order of the Bath (CB). He represented the Treasury at the Versailles conference, shaping economic policy for the future. His economic advice during the Great Depression was mainly directed towards Britain and America but did not receive universal acclaim. He was appointed in 1941 to the board of the Bank of England and in 1942 made a hereditary peer Baron Keynes of Tilton. He took his seat in the House of Lords as a Liberal Party member. As war came to an end he led the British delegation in negotiating terms for rebuilding the economy and addressing accumulated debts.

Keynes was closely involved with the Bloomsbury Group through friendships formed at Eton and Cambridge. The Stephens family had moved to 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury in 1904. After the First World War this became the home of Keynes who continued to live there until his death in 1946. He had a country home, a farmhouse at Tilton in East Sussex.

In common with many Bloomsbury Group member, Keynes was relaxed about his sexuality and recorded his many encounters in a diary. Whilst at Eton he had his first affair with Dan Macmillan whose brother was Harold, future Prime Minister. Dan Macmillan later became a publisher and handled Keynes early work. His early affairs were exclusively with men until in 1906 he starteed dating women, firstly Ray Costelloe and in 1921 he fell in love with Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, although at first he still
continued an affair with a young man. He married in 1925.

Keynes had a particular interest in the arts and supported the Cambridge Arts Theatre, the Royal Opera House and Sadlers Wells. He was the first chairman of the Arts Council which he had helped to establish.

Keynes had suffered a heart attack in 1937 and although recovering, his health was weakened. He returned to Sussex following financial negotiations in the United States. He had another heart attack in April 1946 from which he died.


 Society Hostess Lady Ottoline

Lady Ottoline Morrell although not strictly a member of the Bloomsbury Group was a close friend and associate of the circle.

She was from an aristocratic background, descended from the Duke of Wellington. Her half brother succeeded to the title of Duke of Portland in 1879 and the family moved to Welbeck Abbey near Worksop. Born at East Court, Hampshire in 1873 she was educated at home and at Somerville College.  Whilst at Oxford she met the young solicitor Philip Morrell and in February 1902 they married. He was elected Liberal Party MP for Henley in 1906 and they afterwards set up home in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury. They also rented Peppard Cottage, a rather substantial home near Henley.  The house  in more recent times was the location for the film “Howard’s End” coincidentally written by Bloomsbury member
 E. M. Forster.

Lady Ottoline had a very wide circle of friends especially in the fields of art and literature. She supported a number of painters and writers such as Stanley Spencer, Jacob Epstein and Henry Lamb, D.H.Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, often buying their works or aiding them financially. She often became their lovers, for the Morrells had an open relationship. She had many affairs with both men and women.

When war broke out the Morrells helped form the Union of Democratic Control, an anti war organisation the grew to 300,000 members and included such notable figures as Bertrand Russell and Ramsay MacDonald. The Daily Express incited their readers to break up its meetings leading to some riotous incidents.

They then purchased Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire. Members of the Bloomsbury Group frequently met there and when conscription was introduced they often gave refuge to conscientious objectors. A number of the Bloomsbury set worked on the Garsington farm in lieu of military service. 

Ottoline Morrell was a great society hostess noted for her hospitality. Financial problems arose however and in 1927  Garsington was sold in order that they might maintain their lifestyle. She continued to entertain generously at the Bloomsbury town house.  She was shortly to suffer from cancer  requiring removal of her lower jaw. She disguised her resulting disfigurement with elaborately flowing scarves.  In 1937 she had a stroke and was treated at a clinic in Turnbridge Wells. Prescribed an experimental drug, she deteriorated and died in April 1938 from its side effects leading her doctor to commit suicide.

Since her death she has been the inspiration for a large number of literary characters and has been portrayed in two different films. Her portrait has been painted many times by artists including Henry Lamb and Augustus John.

Lytton Strachey, writer

Whilst still at Primary school, Lytton Strachey admitted to his mother that he enjoyed dressing in girl's clothes, especially in acting roles. He was one of thirteen children. His father Sir Richard Strachey, a Lieutenant General and his mother a leading suffragette. His godfather The Earl of Lytton had been Viceroy of India. Strachey at 17 was to attend Liverpool University before being admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he made some close friendships with other students and together they were to form The Midnight Society which later was to become the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group. Among his Cambridge associates were Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Stephen (later Woolfe). He began writing poetry and some was published. After Cambridge he returned to the family home where he occupied a bed-sitting room. From the age of 30 he rented a number of rural cottages supporting himself writing reviews for The Spectator. He was also to become a notable writer of biographies of characters such as Thomas Arnold, Florence Nightingale, General Gordon and Queen Victoria. Strachey seems to have been particularly proud of his red beard; not ginger but a strong reddish brown; it was perhaps his most distinguishing feature.

Lytton Strachey was openly homosexual having had a relationship with John Maynard Keynes. He lived for his last 15 years with artist Dora Carrington who loved him but he was more interested in her husband Ralph Partridge as well as a number of other men including Roger Senhouse.

Strachey contracted stomach cancer and died at his Wiltshire home in 1932. He was only 51.


Roger Senhouse, publisher


Roger Senhouse was a publisher and became joint owner of Secker and Warburg when he and Fredric Warburg rescued the ailing business of Martin Secker from receivership. The firm was to publish works by George Orwell, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Angus Wilson and many other authors. Senhouse was himself a translator of the works of Colette.

He had been educated at Eton where he was a close friend of Michael Llewelyn Davies, adopted son of J.M.Barrie and the boy on whom Peter Pan was based, and at Oxford. Robert, later Lord Boothby was also close at this time. Davies incidentally, drowned, together with his lover Rupert Buxton when nearly 21, under suspicious circumstances.

Senhouse was the last lover of fellow Bloomsbury Group member Lytton Strachey with whom he had a sadomasochistic relationship. A letter from Strachey commented on a mock crucifixion that they had engaged in. Strachey wrote that the cut has quite healed, only hurting when touched but a little numbness remained in his hands.


 Virginia Woolfe


The best known member of the Bloomsbury Group was Virginia Woolf. She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 at the Hyde Park Gate home of Sir Leslie and Julia Prinsep Stephen. Virginia was the third of their four children.

Leslie had a child by a previous marriage to Harriet Thackeray, the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray. Their child was mentally disabled but lived at Hyde Park Gate until being taken to an institution in 1891. Julia had been married to Herbert Duckworth and their three children George, Gerald and Stella were part of the household.

Together with her elder sister Vanessa, she was educated at home, being taught English literature and the classics. 22 Hyde Park Gate had an extensive library. Through their parents interests and their brother's Cambridge aquaintanceships, the two girls were introduced to a wide circle of influential people including writers, painters and polititians.

The family spent many summers at their seasonal home at St.Ives in Cornwall. The environment was to influence much of her later writing.

Her mother died when she was 13 as did Stella Duckworth two years later. It was thought that these events brought about the mental illness which she suffered from all of her life.

Virginia and her sister were able to enrol at the Ladies Department of King's College in London studying languages and history at degree level. Here she took an interest in women's educational reform, meeting some of its early advocates who were known as "The Steamboat Ladies". This was the means of travel to Dublin where Trinity College would confer the degrees which English universities refused to give to their female students.

Her father died in 1904 and she suffered a mental collapse which required hospital treatment. It has been suggested that the depression which she suffered may in part have been brought about by sexual abuse by her half brothers.

She moved in 1904, with her sister and brothers to 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. This was a Georgian house on five floors. It was later to be occupied by John Maynard Keynes. Here her brother Thoby initiated the Thursday evening meetings which were to lead to foundation of the Bloomsbury Group. Its members included writer Leonard Woolf whom she married in 1912. Whilst engaged, she referred to him as "a penniless jew". His father was a barrister but he was not personally wealthy. Despite her other liaisons, they had a close and lasting relationship.

Together the Woolf's founded the Hogarth Press in 1917. They bought a hand press to further their hobby of printing. It was set up in their home Hogarth House in Richmond and they published their first book which included a story by each of them. As the business grew, they used commercial printers and at its peak in1927 Hogarth Press published 42 titles. Hogarth published Virginia's own books as well as titles by T.S.Eliot, Laurens van der Post. Freud and Dostoyevsky, the latter translated by Virginia herself. The business was sold to Chatto and Windus in 1946, now part of the Random House Group.

She started writing in 1900 with an article for the Times Literary Supplement. Her first novel was "The Voyage Out" published in 1915. Woolf's writing was often experimental and not always easy to appreciate, yet she is regarded as a notable author. She is best known for titles such as "Mrs Dalloway", "To The Lighthouse" and

In 1922 she met Vita Sackville West a fellow writer who was married to Harold Nicholson, both of whom were from aristocratic backgrounds. Vita was born at Knole near Sevenoaks a house of 365 rooms, which dates back to the 15th century. Their home at Sissinghurst in Kent is where they created one of the finest gardens in England. Virginia and Vita continued an intimate relationship that continued into the early 1930's. They were to remain close friends until Virginia's death.

By March 1941 she had completed her final book. Her London home had been bombed and a recent biography had been poorly received. She descended into another period of depression and was unable to work. In the farewell letter to her husband she felt as if she would not recover. She dressed in an overcoat, filling the pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near her Sussex Home, Monks House. Her body was not found until discovered by some schoolboys three weeks later.


 A Downland Retreat

Firle is only a small village, its population little more than 300. Four miles to the east of Lewes in the direction of Eastbourne it is quite close to Glyndebourne Opera House. Virginia Woolf visited Lewes in 1910 and chose to rent a house at Firle re-naming it Little Talland House after the Cornish home "Talland" where she spent her childhood summers. She did much of the furnishing, making the curtains herself but only lived here for 12 months.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf returned to Sussex in 1919 buying Monk's House in nearby Rodmell. It was a small weatherboarded cottage, outdated and much in need of improvement. Over the years the home was modernised and extended. In the garden was a summer house where Virginia wrote many of her books. Monk's house was eventually bequeathed to the National Trust and is today oen to the public.

Vanessa and Clive Bell came to Firle in 1916 where Charleston Farmhouse became their home. Duncan Grant and his partner came too. Vanessa and Duncan, both artists, decorated the house and laid out the gardens. They painted walls, doors, fire surrounds, furniture, all in their own style. The house was a regular meeting place for the Bloomsbury set and is now owned by a charitable trust and is open to the public. An annual literary festival is held in the grounds attracting writers of international acclaim.

In 1925 John Maynard Keynes bought a country home in Firle as a weekend retreat. He travelled from London by car and lavishly modernised the house installing central heating, electric light and other conveniences. Tilton Farm made a profit for Keynes who used the land to rear pigs.

Writer Katherine Mansfield lived briefly at Firle, her landlord being Keynes.

Less than 4 miles from Firle is the village of Berwick. The church here dates from the 12th century although later alterations have been made. In 1941 Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell decorated the church following a pre-reformation practice. This was at the behest of the Bishop of Chichester who wished to foster an association between the Church and the arts. The walls are beautifully painted with murals depicting biblical scenes. The figures were based upon local people. 

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