The Bloomsbury Group, LondonIn the intellectual history of England there has rarely if ever been such an influential company of writers, artists and thinkers as The Bloomsbury Group. Nor such an annoying, self-obsessed and snobbish company as The Bloomsbury Set. The same people from a different viewpoint.
Love or lambaste the Bloomsberries as member Mary MacCarthy dubbed them, they included some of the finest minds to be found in Britain in the first half of the 20th century: novelists Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster ; economist John Maynard Keynes ; Lytton Strachey, author of Eminent Victorians; art critic Roger Fry; the great orientalist Arthur Waley; and arguably poet T.S. Eliot and mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell . ‘Arguably’ as devotees and students, like the members themselves, debate interminably the membership of the group. Or set.
What is not disputed is the significance of their close relationships: close emotionally, sexually (it is difficult remembering who was doing what with whom – and whom’s partner too very often), and spatially, many of their number living in close proximity in that rather elegant and well-heeled area which takes its name from the oldest square built there – Bloomsbury Square, dating back to the Restoration period. Bloomsbury like its eponymous group defies precise and agreed definition, but can best be summarized as that area of London W1 with Piccadilly Circus to the south, Kings Cross to the North, and Gower Street, Gray’s Inn Road and High Holborn at various edges.
As may be expected, Bloomsbury remains a rather bookish place, with various specialist booksellers to be found where bibliophiles can browse – one of the Bloomsberries, David Garnett , ran a bookshop himself near the British Library . Books were indeed the lifeblood of the group, and Bloomsbury at their time was a hub of the British publishing industry, with elements still to be seen there: T.S Elliot worked for Faber and Faber at 24 Russell Square; the Hogarth Press run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, publishing much of their set’s output, was on Mecklenburgh Square at the eastern edge of Bloomsbury.
Two key reasons can be suggested for the emergence of the group in Bloomsbury. The first was the twin attractions of the British Museum Reading Room and the British Library. The Reading Room was immortalised by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, and much used for research or just quiet contemplation by others of the circle. It has since been relocated elsewhere, but the Museum remains at the district’s southeast corner, diametrically opposite the British Library on the northwest tip.
The second reason is that the Stephen family – Virginia Woolf’s tribe – had its home at 46 Gordon Square for several years from 1904, and later Virginia’s sister lived there with husband Clive Bell. The Bloomsbury Group originally coalesced around Thoby Stephen and his Cambridge friends, most notably Keynes, Strachey and Leonard Woolf. Gordon Square at various times also housed Strachey at no. 51 and Vanessa Stephen/Bell at no. 50 and subsequently at no. 37.
Mainly from the professional upper middle classes, the Bloomsberries endlessly discussed liberty and in politics and the spirit, and human worth, but were uncomfortable with those of humbler birth like Keynes’s wife Lydia Lopokova, mixing far more easily with the likes of peripheral member Ottoline Morrell, a society hostess who lived at 44 Bedford Square and then 10 Gower Street , hosting an intellectual salon at both addresses.
A feel for the world of the Bloomsbury Group can be developed just by strolling around the green squares, browsing in the bookshops , and breathing in the atmosphere and architecture. There are few squares where there won’t be some association with the set: famously Fitzroy Square was the artistic focal point, with Duncan Grant’s studio at no. 22, Roger Fry’s at no. 21, and the Omega Workshops where Fry tried to break the barriers between fine art and decor at no. 33. Virginia Woolf resided at no. 29 for a period, but she also made her home at 38 Brunswick Square, and 52 Tavistock Square, now incorporated in the Tavistock Hotel .
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