‘Such Friends’ Bloomsbury Walk, Part 3: Fitzroy Square

A few months ago, I was thrilled to be asked by the Charleston Farmhouse to lead my walk through Bloomsbury for a group attending their Bloomsbury Revisited event in London. You can download a shorter version from the Voicemap.me website. But, if you’re not able to walk around London listening to me on headphones, I have posted the text of the walk here with photos, so you can follow along from anywhere. There are three parts, Tavistock Square, Gordon Square and Fitzroy Square. Here is Part 3:

  1. Grafton Way near Tottenham Court Road

Welcome back! But for those of you just joining us, I’m Dr. Kathleen Dixon Donnelly and I am your guide for this walk.

My research was about writers and artists who ‘hung out’ together in salons in the early part of the last century, on either side of World War I. The four groups are Irish poet William Butler Yeats and his friends who founded the Abbey Theatre; Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury, of course; Gertrude Stein and the American writers in Paris, and Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table.

Yeats ended his poem, The Municipal Gallery Revisited, with the lines:

Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,

and say my glory was I had such friends.’

so I have used ‘Such Friends’ as the title for all my work about ‘my’ writers and artists.

Here we are in the heart of Bloomsbury, heading towards Fitzroy Square where Virginia lived with her brother Adrian, when they were in their 20s. The Northumberland Arms pub across the street is a great spot for a pint.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Northumberland Arms pub, Grafton Way and Tottenham Court Road

Let’s talk about one of the other Bloomsberries, writer and publisher Leonard Woolf.

After graduating from Cambridge University, Leonard joined the Colonial Service and was assigned to represent the crown in Jaffna, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. He realized the absurdity of a 25-year-old with no experience taking charge of an entire country. Leonard spent seven years there, and, ironically, while Virginia’s brother Thoby Stephen died from a misdiagnosis of typhoid in London, Leonard was successfully treated for it in the jungle.

Leonard was not happy in the post, and in 1911 he applied to come back to England on leave. He had kept in touch with his university friends—many of whom were, like him, members of the Cambridge association, the Apostles.

Although the Apostles were then a ‘secret’ society by invitation only, they became less secret in the 1950s when it was revealed that British spies Guy Burgess and Kim Philby had been members when they were recruited by the Communist Party.

Leonard had met Virginia and Vanessa Stephen years before when they had come to visit Thoby at Cambridge. Later, Leonard wrote of his first impression of the sisters:

Their beauty literally took one’s breath away…One stopped astonished…It was almost impossible for a man not to fall in love with them and I think that I did at once.’

Even in Ceylon, Leonard had corresponded with Cambridge friends, such as Lytton Strachey, who wrote him letters about the lovely evenings he would spend in conversation with Virginia, Vanessa, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell and Maynard Keynes. So when Leonard came home, he couldn’t wait to get back in to the cultural and social life of his friends. He and Virginia became re-acquainted when he came to dinner one summer night at Gordon Square in 1911.

In the Bloomsbury group, I identified Leonard as the ‘Sponsor.’ He might not have been the most witty, or social, or rich, but he served as an administrator with Roger Fry’s art exhibits and, with Virginia’s help, bought the printing press to start Hogarth Press. The Sponsor in each group either had the money or resources—like Edward Martyn, the philanthropist behind the Abbey Theatre and other Irish institutions, or Robert McAlmon, an independent publisher in Paris—or got the money—like Leonard, or Harold Ross the founder of The New Yorker magazine.

Let’s walk down to Fitzroy Square.

  1. Fitzroy Square

Approaching Fitzroy Square, the newer building on your left is the Indian YMCA. This is one of your tips on where to eat cheap in London; they have a lovely cafeteria with great curries.

Indian YMCA Fitzroy Square

Indian YMCA, Fitzroy Square

A few years ago I attended a travel writing workshop here. It was advertised in the Guardian newspaper, and I figured it was a good omen that it was in Bloomsbury.

The writer who taught the daylong session gave us an assignment for our lunch break. When he announced what it was, I couldn’t believe my ears. He wanted us to

write about this neighbourhood.’

Seriously. I had been in training for that assignment for more than twenty years!

Fitzroy Square

Fitzroy Square

Like many sections of Bloomsbury, Fitzroy Square has a colourful history. Lytton’s parents had a house here in the 19th century. In the Edwardian era, Augustus John had a studio in Number 8, where Vanessa and Duncan had studios and parties in the 1920s. Painter Walter Sickert had a studio in Number 19. Vanessa studied with Sickert, and you might have read that American crime writer Patricia Cromwell has fingered him as Jack the Ripper.

Duncan and Maynard lived here together in Number 21, and in World War I, Belgian refugees were held here. None of these have plaques.

We’ll walk over to Number 29, Virginia and her brother Adrian’s house. There’s a bench if you want to sit.

  1. Number 29 Fitzroy Square

Number 29 Fitzroy Square is the one with two plaques. George Bernard Shaw’s Irish family lived here in the late 19th century.

29 Fitzroy Square and me

Your intrepid tour guide at Number 29 Fitzroy Square

In 1907 when Virginia moved in, she was 25 and living with her brother. While her married painter sister decorated Gordon Square with the latest in cubist art, Virginia and Adrian kept their interior simple. Adrian had a study full of books that looked out here onto the square.

To avoid competition, the sisters would alternate the at-homes on Thursday nights between the two locations; sometimes the guests would walk from one to the other, like we just did.

In her own home, hosting her own salons, Virginia’s confidence grew. She and Vanessa slowly realized why their brother’s friends weren’t interested in them as women—most were gay. The evenings were for conversation, and as Virginia wrote later, she would

stumble off to bed feeling that something very important had happened. It had been proved that beauty was—or beauty was not—for I have never been quite sure which—part of a picture.’

Now with

a room of her own,’

she began her first novel, Melymbrosia, eventually published in 1915 as The Voyage Out. She remembered later that she had the luxury of writing

in comparative splendour—[with] a maid, carpet, fires…’

Great parties were also held here, including one where Maynard and a topless Vanessa allegedly copulated on the floor.

But not all the evenings were a success. Virginia remembered that one had ended thus:

Adrian stalked off to his room, I to mine in complete silence.’

By the time Leonard showed up, in 1911, the lease on Fitzroy Square was up, so Virginia and Adrian were planning to move to a more communal arrangement with Duncan, Maynard and others, in Brunswick Square. They asked Leonard to join them.

However, shortly after they set up this friendly commune, Leonard decided that, instead of going back to Ceylon, he would propose to Virginia. After months of persuasion, she accepted. They married in August 1912 and moved to their own flat in Clifford’s Inn.

  1. Number 33 Fitzroy Square, the Omega Workshops

We’ll end our walk with the building to your left, Number 33.

Number 33 Fitzroy Square

Number 33 Fitzroy Square, currently undergoing refurbishment

Here we meet our last Bloomsbury, art critic Roger Fry, the ‘Link,’ where he opened the Omega Workshops.

Fry had had a studio in Fitzroy Square, but didn’t begin socializing with the others until a fateful day in 1910. He’d lost his job with the New York Metropolitan Museum, and had to commit his wife to an asylum. Fry was on the platform of the Cambridge railway station and recognized Vanessa and Clive Bell whom he’d met socially before. They chatted, and by the time they reached London, Roger was in the group!

At 43, Fry was older than the others, because each salon had a ‘Link,’ with better connections, who helped the younger ones become more mainstream. For the Irish, it was Lady Gregory, with the government connections to start a theatre; for the Americans in Paris it was Sherwood Anderson, already a successful novelist; and for the Round Table, FPA was the top New York columnist who publicized the others constantly.

Fry used inherited money to rent this building. In 1912 he opened the Omega Workshops with Vanessa and Duncan. Vanessa suggested having a Bloomsbury party to celebrate:

We should get all our disreputable and some of your aristocratic friends to come, and…there should be decorated furniture, painted walls, etc. There we should all get drunk and dance and kiss, orders would flow in, and the aristocrats would feel they were really in the thick of things.’

During these years, Vanessa and Roger carried on quite a torrid affair, in Bloomsbury and Sussex. At one point Clive asked his wife why Roger was around so often, but beyond that, he didn’t protest. He just got on with his own affairs.

The Omega was successful for five years, but was sold off in June 1919. Despite exhibitions and conferences and parties, the Workshops never covered their costs, and Roger, like all arts supporters, spent a lot of his time fund-raising.

Customers who had bought the fashionable handmade pottery and textiles included Yeats and Shaw, but also Ottoline Morrell, HG Wells, EM Forster, Rupert Brooke, Ezra Pound and Augustus John.

The workmen here tell me that, because this is a listed building, it is being renovated back to its original fittings, to be a private residence. There is a plaque, but it’s covered by the scaffolding now.

omega roger-fry-blue-plaque

Blue plaque on Number 33 Fitzroy Square

And how did the group end?

Let’s go back to Maynard. He went to work in the Treasury department during the early part of ‘The Great War.’ His Bloomsbury friends, who were famously pacifist, were not happy about this job, which eventually contributed to the point I identify as the break-up of the group.

In January of 1915, Keynes celebrated his new role by giving himself a party at the fabulous Café Royal, near Piccadilly Circus. In-between Vanessa and Duncan he sat the infamous editor Edward ‘Bunny’ Garnett, and soon after those three were living together in a boathouse in Sussex.

Around the same time, Virginia and Leonard decided to move to Richmond. On her 33rd birthday, 25th January, 1915, they went for tea and resolved to buy Hogarth House, which they had seen out in Richmond, buy a printing press, and get a bulldog named John. Never got the bulldog.

Once one or more of the key players withdraw, the groups dissipate. Yeats stopped working with the Abbey; Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas stopped inviting people to salons; and Robert Benchley left Dorothy Parker and friends to move to Hollywood to work in the movies.

Although the Bloomsberries still saw each other frequently, the days of wandering in and out of each others’ houses, staying up late drinking whisky and cocoa, were over. As Virginia remembered that time,

Talking, talking, talking,…as if everything could be talked—the soul itself slipped through the lips in thin silver discs which dissolve in young men’s minds like silver, like moonlight.’

Thanks for walking with me and our ‘Such Friends.’

If you missed the first two parts, you can search for ‘Such Friends’ Bloomsbury Walk, Part 1:  Tavistock Square and Part 2:  Gordon Square.

To read about American writers, Manager as Muse explores Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.

Advertisements

‘Such Friends’ Bloomsbury Walk, Part 2: Gordon Square

Recently, I was thrilled to be asked by the Charleston Farmhouse to lead my walk through Bloomsbury for a group attending their Bloomsbury Revisited event in London. You can download a shorter version from the Voicemap.me website. But, if you’re not able to walk around London listening to me on headphones, I have posted the text of the walk here with photos, so you can follow along from anywhere. There are three parts, Tavistock Square, Gordon Square and Fitzroy Square. Here is Part 2:

  1. The corner of Gordon Square

Welcome back! But for those you just joining us, I’m Dr. Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, your guide for this walk.

My research was about writers and artists who ‘hung out’ together in salons in the early part of the last century, on either side of World War I. The four groups are Irish poet William Butler Yeats and his friends who founded the Abbey Theatre; Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury, of course; Gertrude Stein and the American writers in Paris, and Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table.

Yeats ended his poem, The Municipal Gallery Revisited, with the lines:

‘Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,

and say my glory was I had such friends.’

so I have used ‘Such Friends’ as the title for all my work about ‘my’ writers and artists.

When the creative people known as The Bloomsbury Group lived in this area, they spent their days writing and painting, and their evenings in drawing rooms—or salons—where they ate, drank, argued, fell in and out of love, and talked. The group initially lived, worked, and socialised here in Gordon Square when they were just starting out, before Virginia became well-known.

gordon_square,_london_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1169832

Gordon Square

Although now it is quite a posh area of London, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bloomsbury was considered to be really seedy, a cheap place for students and artists to live because the rents were low. Not anymore! According to the estate agents Foxtons, the average recent ‘sold’ price for a house around here is—any guesses?—£1.8m.

But in those days, middle class people didn’t own the homes they lived in—Virginia’s sister, painter Vanessa Bell, never even owned Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex which she is most associated with. The land and buildings were usually the property of the aristocracy, living somewhere else; the inhabitants just rented.

Let’s walk up to Number 46.

  1. Number 46 Gordon Square

46 Gordon Square, Londres, Royaume-Uni

Number 46 Gordon Square

Standing here, you can see most of the buildings that the Bloomsbury group lived in during their years in Gordon Square. Straight ahead, Number 46, with the black door and plaque, is where Vanessa Stephen, then 25, moved with her brothers in October 1904, after their widowed father had died. Vanessa saw this as a release from the dark old house they had been brought up in, just off Hyde Park. Their sister Virginia, 22, didn’t join them until November, because Vanessa had wisely sent her to live with one of their aunts during the whole moving process.

You’ll notice that the plaque here is about just one of the Bloomsberries, economist John Maynard Keynes. There has been a lot of controversy with English Heritage because there are so few plaques with women’s names on them. I recommend that you nominate Vanessa for a plaque by clicking here.

keynes blue plaque

Keynes’ blue plaque

In February of the next year, 1905, Thoby Stephen started having ‘at homes’ on Thursday evenings, when his friends from Cambridge University would know that he would be ‘at home’ for them. His sisters would sit quietly while university men like Lytton Strachey and Clive Bell, also in their 20s, would knowingly discuss ‘the nature of good.’

In the summer of 1906, living here, Virginia wrote her first short story, ‘Phyllis and Rosamond,’ about two young women coming to an evening in Gordon Square. It was not published in her lifetime.

And then, in November of that year, big, strong, athletic, strapping Thoby…died. Aged 26. The Stephen siblings had all been on a disastrous trip to Europe, and everyone had gotten sick. Thoby’s typhoid was misdiagnosed, and in a few days, he was gone. They were all devastated.

Two days after Thoby’s death, his friend Clive proposed—again—to Vanessa. And this time she said ‘yes.’ When they married, in spring 1907, Clive moved in to Number 46, and Virginia and her other brother, Adrian, moved over to Fitzroy Square, which we’ll visit in Part 3 of our walk.

For my research, I had to determine a specific time when each group started and ended. For Bloomsbury, I timed it from Vanessa and Clive’s marriage. The Bells continued to hold salons on Thursday evenings here, but now, after dinner, the party would often move to Virginia and Adrian’s living room, probably walking the same route that we will be walking today.

They were young, they were embarking on creative careers in writing and art, they were able to live on family money and small commissions, and they were enjoying their newfound freedom. Later, Virginia wrote that the whole world changed in one moment in Gordon Square in 1908. Here’s how she described the now infamous ‘semen scene’:

‘It was a spring evening. Vanessa and I were sitting in the drawing room…Suddenly the door opened and the long and sinister figure of Mr. Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress. “Semen?” he said. Can 1 really say it? I thought, and we burst out laughing. With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips. We discussed copulation with the same excitement and openness that we had discussed the nature of good. It is strange to think how reticent, how reserved we had been and for how long.’

After the first world war, the Bloomsbury group played musical chairs with the houses in Gordon Square. Vanessa was mostly out in Sussex with her kids, so their friend Maynard, took over the lease on Number 46. Back in the Victorian era, Keynes’ father had lived in Gordon Square as a university student.

Vanessa’s husband Clive hosted many of his mistresses here. The group gave lots of parties, such as a celebration when the Armistice was announced in 1918—over 100 years ago!—and a soiree for the visiting Russian ballet and Picasso the year after.

But by the time she was planning to move permanently out to Charleston, Vanessa wrote to Lytton,

‘We are so much overcome by the country as compared with London that I doubt if I shall ever return to Gordon Square…no telephone, no crowd to tea.’

Let’s walk down to the end of the block to see two more houses.

  1. Numbers 37 and 41 Gordon Square

In the second half of the 1920s, Vanessa lived in Number 37, with her lover, fellow painter, Duncan Grant, a few years younger than she, and gay.

37 and 41 gordon square

Numbers 37 and 41 Gordon Square

In Number 41, many members of the Strachey family, including Lytton and his mother, made their home here, mostly in the 1920s.

Now we will head back to the street and stop at the corner for the last two Gordon Square addresses.

  1. Numbers 50 and 51 Gordon Square

When the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova and Maynard were carrying on their affair in the early 1920s, she hid out from her husband here. Keynes wrote to Vanessa:

‘If Lydia lived in Number 41, and Duncan and I lived in 46, you and family in 50, and we all had meals in 46, that might not be a bad arrangement…We all want both to have and not have husbands and wives.’

When Clive lived in Number 50 in 1926, Vanessa and Duncan decorated his rooms. A decade later, the farewell party for the Bell’s son Julian was held here, before he went off to fight—and die—in the Spanish Civil War.

50 and 51 gordon square

50 and 51 Gordon Square

Let’s talk a bit about the people who lived in these houses.

In my research I found that in every group there were certain roles:  There was always a ‘Star.’ Not a fiery leader, but the one they all knew was the most talented, like Virginia Woolf, Yeats, Stein and Parker.

Each ‘Star’ had a ‘Hostess,’ like Vanessa, who took care of everyone in the group. She was the Earth Mother, similar to Lady Augusta Gregory, Alice B. Toklas, and…Robert Benchley!

Maynard, as an economist, was the ‘Bridge’ to another field, which, according to my theory, is the role that kept the groups from becoming cults. The Irish group had the politician Douglas Hyde; the Paris group, the painter/photographer Man Ray; and the Algonquin Round Table, the union organizer Heywood Broun.

The Bridge is important because he brings a different point of view. A bunch of writers sitting around talking about writing isn’t very creative. I think it is the presence of someone who looks at the world from another angle that makes these salons so creative. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

51 gordon_sq

51 Gordon Square

Lytton lived here in Number 51 on the ground floor around 1928. Every group had an ‘Irritant’—annoying Irishman George Moore, pugnacious Ernest Hemingway, and flaming peacock Alexander Woollcott. But there was no one more irritating than Lytton. He was a true British eccentric, with his high-pitched voice and long red beard. He drove them all nuts—but they loved having him around. Don’t we all have people like that in our groups of friends?! He had affairs with his cousin, Duncan, and Duncan’s lover, Maynard, and even proposed to Virginia once. But thought better of it the next day.

You can see why the Bloomsbury group has been described as those who

‘loved in triangles and lived in squares.’

If you want to see an excellent depiction of Lytton, I recommend Jonathan Pryce in the film Carrington, about his long-term relationship with the painter Dora Carrington, played by Emma Thompson. That’s your video tip for the week.

Gordon Square continued to be a hub for creative people, even after the 1920s. Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lancaster lived here in the thirties and gave parties with the Bloomsberries. Maynard would hold meetings here and in 1940 land mines were found buried here.

We’ll stop for a minute at the entrance to Gordon Square before heading over to Fitzroy Square for Part 3.

  1. Entrance to Gordon Square

Here is where the National Literary Trust placed the Mrs. Dalloway bench a few years ago. Along with 50 other literary benches around the city, it was auctioned off in 2015.

mrs dalloway bench 1 (2)

The Mrs. Dalloway Bench, entrance to Gordon Square

Let’s take a minute to talk about Duncan. To balance off the Irritant, every group also had an ‘Angel,’ someone who everybody just loved. In the case of Bloomsbury, it was Duncan. They all loved him. Most of them even slept with him. As one of the Fitzroy Square housemaids said,

That Mr. Grant gets in everywhere.’

He was a bit younger than the others, and had a certain innocence about him. Duncan also lived, at Charleston, until he was 93.

Having read numerous biographies of all of my writers, I have a piece of advice for those of you who are lucky enough to be in a group of creative people:  Outlive them. Because biographers have to suck up to the last living members, they get good write ups—artist/poet AE [George Russell] for the Irish and playwright Marc Connelly for the New Yorkers. Unfortunately, the Paris ‘Angel,’ novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, didn’t live long enough. He died at age 44 in 1940, the exception that proves the rule.

gordon square gardens from entrance

Gordon Square Gardens

Go straight ahead through Byng Place, and cross over Gower Street at the pedestrian crossing. Careful! Turn right and walk up to Grafton Way. I’ll tell you about Clive’s role in the group when we get there.

  1. Foundling Hospital, Grafton Way

 

This large hospital ties in nicely with a Bloomsbury story.

Virginia and Vanessa’s relatives were quite scandalized when they found out the young Stephens were moving to this part of town, to live on their own! And have their university friends visit! And stay overnight! Vanessa was so glad to be rid of her other relatives, she told one shocked aunt,

‘It will be all right. And the Foundling Hospital is nearby, in any case.’

This is actually the University College Hospital; the Foundling Hospital was on the other side of Bloomsbury. But the story works well here, don’t you think?

univ coll hospital gower str

University College Hospital, Gower Street and Grafton Way

Back to Clive. Whereas the others would be considered middle class, Clive came from a wealthy family. He became an influential art critic, with his most famous book called Art. A bit pretentious I’ve always thought.

Clive was the ‘Observer’ in this group. All the ‘Observers’ were definitely part of the group, but a bit to one side, watching what was going on. They usually were active in lots of other social circles as well, and this was true of Clive—also playwright John Millington Synge in the Irish group, composer and music critic Virgil Thomson in Paris, and playwright George S Kaufman in New York.

When Vanessa married Clive and started a family, the still single Virginia was a bit jealous. She even started a flirtation with Clive at one point. Virginia described her sister and brother-in-law in a letter to a friend:

‘[They] live…much like your ladies in a French salon; they have all the wits and poets; and ‘Nessa sits among them, like a Goddess.’

After the birth of their two sons, Clive and Vanessa had an ‘open’ marriage and he had many affairs, while still keeping a room of his own at Charleston.

Now we will walk down Grafton Way and cross Tottenham Court Road. Be careful!

You can pick up the walk in the next blog, ‘Such Friends’ Bloomsbury Walk, Part 3:  Fitzroy Square. If you missed the beginning, just search for ‘Such Friends’ Bloomsbury Walk, Part 1:  Tavistock Square.

To read about American writers, Manager as Muse explores Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.

 

‘Such Friends’ Bloomsbury Walk, Part 1: Tavistock Square

Recently, I was thrilled to be asked by the Charleston Farmhouse to lead my walk through Bloomsbury for a group attending their Bloomsbury Revisited event in London. You can download a shorter version from the Voicemap.me website. But, if you’re not able to walk around London listening to me on headphones, I have posted the text of the walk here with photos, so you can follow along from anywhere. There are three parts, Tavistock Square, Gordon Square and Fitzroy Square. Here is Part 1:

  1. Morton Hotel, Russell Square

Welcome to Bloomsbury! I’m Dr. Kathleen Dixon Donnelly and I am your guide for this walk.

My research was about writers and artists who ‘hung out’ together in salons in the early part of the last century, on either side of World War I. The four groups are Irish poet William Butler Yeats and his friends who founded the Abbey Theatre; Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury, of course; Gertrude Stein and the American writers in Paris, and Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table.

Yeats ended his poem, The Municipal Gallery Revisited, with the lines:

Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,

and say my glory was I had such friends.’

so I have used ‘Such Friends’ as the title for all my work about ‘my’ writers and artists.

Today’s walk is about Virginia Woolf and her ‘such friends’ in the Bloomsbury group and their time through the 1920s, 30s and 40s in Tavistock Square.

The Morton Hotel, where we’re starting, has a Bloomsbury theme, and serves a lovely high tea. Virginia Woolf fans who have stayed here assure me that it is a great experience.

Morton Hotel

The Morton Hotel, Russell Square

We’re going to cross over Upper Woburn Place here, turn right, and walk up to the top corner of Tavistock Square.

  1. Upper Woburn Place near Woburn Walk

Many late 19th century Irishmen lived in this area as well. If you look up the street you’ll see a little alley off to the right, Woburn Walk.

Woburn Walk

Woburn Walk

Yeats rented rooms here from the late 1890s to around 1919, overlapping the Bloomsberries down the road in Gordon Square. It’s reported that this is where Yeats lost his virginity [not to Maud Gonne!]. When in London, go midway down Woburn Walk and look up to your left, where there is a plaque. It’s one of those quaint English streets with lots of cafes and shops.

We’ve got lots of plaques around here.

Now we’ll walk through Tavistock Square Gardens, near where the Woolfs lived, and take a look at the bust of Virginia that was put here in 2004.

  1. Tavistock Square Gardens

Va bust Tavistock Sq Gardens

Virginia Woolf bust, Tavistock Square Gardens

This bust is a copy of the one done in 1931 by Stephen Tomlin, which you can see in the National Portrait Gallery.

From 1924 until 1939, Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived on the top two floors of Number 52, which is now the site of the Tavistock Hotel. She lived here longer than in any other of the Bloomsbury homes, and wrote most of her novels here.

Tavistock Hotel

Tavistock Hotel

The Virginia Woolf Society and the hotel chipped in for the blue plaque on the hotel, which was just unveiled earlier this year by the Society’s honorary president Dame Eileen Atkins and Leonard’s nephew, Cecil Woolf. He just turned 91 and is present at many of the Society’s events.

In 1939 Virginia and Leonard moved over to Mecklinburgh Square, farther east. The following year, 1940, their home there was bombed. The Hogarth printing press was inside but they were out at Monk’s House in Sussex at the time, watching German aircraft fly over.

One month later, Tavistock Square was bombed, and the next day the Woolfs drove up to London to see the damage. Here’s what Virginia wrote in her diary:

So to Tavistock Square. With a sigh of relief saw a heap of ruins. Three houses, I should say gone. Basement all rubble. Only relics an old basket chair (bought in Fitzroy Square days) and Penmans board [saying] “To Let.”  Otherwise bricks and wood splinters…I could see a piece of my studio wall standing: otherwise rubble where I wrote so many books. Open air where we sat so many nights, gave so many parties. The hotel not touched.’

They never lived in London again; five months later, Virginia committed suicide out in Sussex. Leonard tried to live in Mecklenburgh Square afterwards, but found it too depressing. He lived the rest of his life—until 1969!—at Monk’s House near Rodmell.

More recently Tavistock Square was the site of a bus bombing during the July 2005 terrorist attack on the Tube. The upper level of the Number 30 bus. from Marble Arch to Hackney Wick, was blown up at 77 Tavistock Square, which is the site of the British Medical Association, so doctors came running out into the street to help the victims.

Tavistock square bus bombing

Tavistock Square, July 2005

We’ll come out of Tavistock Square Gardens and turn right towards Gordon Square, where the Bloomsberries began in happier times.

You can pick up the walk in the next blog, ‘Such Friends’ Bloomsbury Walk, Part 2:  Gordon Square, or jump ahead to Part 3, Fitzroy Square.

To read about American writers, Manager as Muse explores Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.

 

‘Such Friends’:  Vanessa Bell’s Six Rooms of Her Own

Back in 2002, I went to see the fabulous Picasso Portraits exhibit at the Tate Modern. While eating the brownie with ice cream and fudge sauce in the café, I filled out the museum’s feedback card, which asked,

‘What other events would you like to see at the Tate?’

Always seizing the opportunity for shameless self-promotion, I wrote something to the effect:

‘Why don’t you have me give a talk about my early 20th century writers and artists?’

and

‘Why don’t you have an exhibit of Vanessa Bell’s fabulous paintings which are mostly locked away in a Tate Liverpool basement?!’

Still waiting for answer to the first, but the Dulwich Picture Gallery has answered the second. The third question is now, why did it take so long?!

My research into writers’ salons exposed me to creative people I had not been familiar with before, and one of my favorites is Virginia Woolf’s painter-sister, Vanessa Bell. Partly because of the excellent biography by Frances Spalding—Vanessa Bell:  Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist—who discovered her while researching the art critic and Vanessa’s one-time lover, Roger Fry.

So finding my way from Birmingham to Dulwich to see this exhibit has been high on my to-do list this year. As part of our new-found freedom of semi-retirement, My Husband Tony and I set aside last Tuesday for a London jaunt. Road trip!

First, we had to figure out how to get to Dulwich. Not as difficult as we thought. Train to Euston, Victoria Line to Victoria station, train to West Dulwich, lovely well-marked walk from the station thanks to the glorious weather.

How posh! The Dulwich Gallery is one of the few museums which was actually built as an art gallery, to house a private collection back in the early 19th century. It’s not terribly big, but most rooms are fantastically well lit with the skylights built in.

My timed ticket to the exhibit was for 2:15, but we got there early to have lunch in the crowded but excellent café. The woman in the box office said that the ticket timings were ‘very strict.’ Tony planned to have a look at the museum and then head off to explore nearby Dulwich.

The building itself is well worth a look, but we also spent some time in the related free exhibit, Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith. Singer/artist/photographer Patti Smith, 71—who, I confess, I remember most from Gilda Radner’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live—is a big Virginia Woolf fan, and has recorded a video at Vanessa’s Sussex home, Charleston Farmhouse. [Also a must see. Trust me. Go.]

This exhibit juxtaposed Smith’s photos over quite a few years with Bell’s photo albums of her life—a very interesting idea. Smith’s were artistically small, mostly black and white Polaroids, and a bit dark. Unfortunately, the room itself was a bit dark, and we found ourselves squinting quite a lot.

I sent Tony off—What did you think of Dulwich, honey?

‘Beautiful. I want to live there’—

with a reminder to meet up at the Tate Modern so we could take in the exhibit of Sir Elton John’s photography collection, which includes quite a few by Man Ray, from my Paris group. A doubly deductible trip.

This gave me plenty of time to explore the six rooms at Dulwich devoted to Vanessa’s work. All on her own.

Vanessa bell dulwich poster

Poster for Vanessa Bell exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first room, ‘Among Friends’ [missed a trick there, didn’t they?!], showcases her portraits of those in and around the Bloomsbury Group, including her own self-portrait which is the poster for the exhibit. The room has the same attraction as London’s wonderful National Portrait Gallery—all eyes are looking at you.

Here is Vanessa’s take on her friend and lover of her husband Clive Bell, Mary Hutchinson:

bells por of mary hutchinson

Mrs. St. John Hutchinson (1915)

In the ‘Design and Experimentation’ room are some of Vanessa’s early attempts at abstraction, influenced by the Post-Impressionists Fry was championing around the same time. I got the feeling Vanessa wasn’t as comfortable with abstract painting as she was with recreating the feeling of the real world and people around her—her sister, her children, her lovers, her flowers.

This room also includes fantastic examples from the Omega Workshops which Fry and Vanessa directed from 1913 to 1919. As the exhibit’s wall explanation states, the Workshops represented the pre-World War II hopes that were ‘dashed’ on the battlefields of Europe.

Screen by bell and grant

Tents and Figures (1913), painted folding screen

The ‘Still Life’ room has one of my favorites, Iceland Poppies.

iceland poppies

Iceland Poppies (c. 1908-09)

Doesn’t it look like the pattern for a Norwegian ski sweater? [To those in charge of the gift shop—you can have that idea for free. You’re welcome.]

‘At Home’ demonstrates Vanessa at her best, photographing and painting her family in their natural environments.

Angelica reading

Interior with Artist’s Daughter (1935)

Although some of the playful photos of her two sons would probably get her arrested today.

The fifth room, ‘Landscape,’ shows an interesting juxtaposition of her first painting of the pond at Charleston, done in the fall of 1916, when she had first moved there,

pond at charleston 1916

The Pond at Charleston, East Sussex (1916)

and a more chaotic version of the same scene three years later when the communal life had developed its own complications.

view-of-the-pond-at-charleston-1919

Charleston Pond (1919)

The finale, the sixth room, ‘Pictures of Women,’ includes one of my other favorites, A Conversation, which I’ve always thought would make a nice cover for ‘Such Friends.’ Girls night!

A conversation

A Conversation (1913-1916)

And doesn’t this 1913 portrait look like Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars?!

The model 1913

The Model (1913)

In addition to the paintings, one of the other highlights of this room is a letter Vanessa wrote to her daughter-in-law, Anne Olivier Bell, on the birth of her baby girl,

‘How clever of you to produce a daughter…’

After walking back and forth through the six rooms a few times, I headed back to Dulwich train station, back to Victoria, on to Blackfriars, to walk over the bridge to Tate Modern.

Along streets and through Tube stations that Vanessa, her sister and their ‘Such Friends’ would have used over 100 years ago. And probably, some days, the weather was just as good as well.

The exhibit, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until June 4, 2017, and I would have no problem making the journey again if you would like to have your own personal tour guide. And my offer to give a talk is still open…

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.