‘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.

 

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‘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.