One of the most engaging subjects for anyone interested in 20th century English social history is the Bloomsbury Group and their impact on England’s social, artistic and political life. The “Bloomsbury Group” as it’s come to be known was a group of writers, artists, intellectuals and even the economist, John Maynard Keynes, who shared fascinating conversations and friendship for nearly 50 years. Including Keynes, the key members of the group were Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard; Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell and her husband Clive Bell; the artists Duncan Grant and Roger Fry; E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey.
Charleston Farmhouse from the Back
While many viewed the group with skepticism, the key to their public fascination was their creativity, originality and eccentricity. They rebelled against Victorian institutions and mores. Many of them were advocates for feminism, pacifism and atheism.
But, they were also business savvy. The Omega Workshop, founded by Fry and others, provided a vehicle for Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to sell their paintings. Working with Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press, Virginia Woolf, the Bells and others could print and publish their books. Bell and Grant cleverly parlayed their artwork into a cottage business that included books, pottery, dishes, etc.
Plaque on One of the Townhouses on Gordon Square. Several Bloomsbury members lived here.
Advocates For Free Love
Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia also had complicated romantic lives. Long before the term “free love” was coined, the Bloomsbury Group’s members were practitioners. Vanessa though married to Clive Bell was in love with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant at various times in her life. Duncan Grant was in love with Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes at various times in his life. All this aside, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell lived together – in mostly platonic fashion – for over 40 years and had a daughter together, Angelica. And Virginia Woolf – though married to Leonard Woolf – had an affair with the writer and prominent garden designer, Vita Sackville-West.
Fortunately a trip to England to see Bloomsbury in all its glory is still possible even though the last of its members has been gone for nearly 40 years. The last, Duncan Grant, died in 1978.
Robin in Front of Charleston Farmhouse
Charleston Farmhouse – East Sussex
The best place to get a sense of the Bloomsbury Group is Charleston Farmhouse, a charming abode located a few miles outside Lewes (pronounced Louis) in East Sussex. This house, where Grant and Bell spent much of their lives, is filled with their art. Art in fact is everywhere including paintings on the furniture. Adjacent to Vanessa Bell’s former bedroom is a studio overlooking the garden where she and Grant would often sit side-by-side painting and critiquing each other’s work. Their art, at times whimsical, shows a mischievous sense of humor. Though serious artists they didn’t take themselves too seriously.
Describing Charleston Farmhouse, Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry, ‘Anyhow it’s mostly lovely, very solid and simple, with flat walls in that lovely mixture of brick and flint that they use about here and perfectly flat windows in the walls and wonderfully tiled roofs. The pond is most beautiful with a willow at one side and a stone or flint wall edging it all around the garden part… Inside the house the rooms are very large…’
Because of its location and space, there were frequent guests at Charleston. John Maynard Keynes visited so often that Bell made sure to give him his own designated bedroom.
Pulpit at Berwick Painted by Duncan Grant
On a recent trip to London, a friend and I toured the Farmhouse, which has been restored to much of its original look and character. We were fortunate to have as our guide, a woman named “Angie” who beautifully captured the spirit of the Bloomsbury Group, their milieu and their aesthetic. To get to Charleston Farmhouse take the train from London’s Victoria Station to Lewes. The train takes about an hour and runs frequently. You’ll need a car or taxi to take you to Charleston Farmhouse. And, after a visit there take a short drive (about a mile from Charleston Farmhouse) to Berwick Church. Here, Bell and Grant painted a series of murals, including one on the church pulpit and a nativity scene with Grant painting himself, in the mural, as one of the shepherds!
The Entrance to Gordon Square in London
Gordon Square — London
But Lewes isn’t the only place in England to get a sense of Bloomsbury and its members. In London, take a walking tour of Gordon Square and several of the townhouses nearby where many in the Bloomsbury Group lived. The houses are clearly marked by plaques, noting its famous, former occupants.
The View from The Blue Hayes Hotel in St. Ives
St. Ives — Cornwall
And, if you want to go further afield, take the train from London’s Paddington Station to St. Ives in Cornwall. The train takes approximately five hours. In St. Ives, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf spent their childhood. Their childhood home, Talland House, still stands and is now available for rent as vacation apartments.
The Beach at St. Ives. At the far end is Talland House, where Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell summered as children .
It is widely believed that the lighthouse on Godrevy Bay, across the bay in St. Ives, was the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. If you’re looking for a lovely place to stay in St. Ives, check out the Blue Hayes Private Hotel on Trelyon Avenue and for dinner sample the fresh fish at the Porthminster Café on Porthminster Beach. There are other attractions in St. Ives including the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Museum and Garden and the Bernie Leach Pottery Studio. The Tate also has a branch in St. Ives. (Note: I found the collection at the Tate disappointing.)
Bloomsbury is about a group that reveled in art, literature, gardening, and politics, but also in friendship and love – often outside a traditional family structure. There’s no better way to get a sense of its members than a visit to the places where they lived and loved.
Photos by Robin Weaver
To learn more about the Bloomsbury Group, read Frances Spalding’s, Vanessa Bell: Portrait of The Bloomsbury Artist.
Top photo: The Garden behind Charleston Farmhouse