Street Haunting


Another trip with work for to London for a couple of days this week. After my final meeting on Wednesday, late afternoon, I had three hours to kill before I could catch the train back home (I refuse to pay out just over £300 for a two hour journey which would allow me to take an earlier train – even if it’s not my own money!) but there’s always something to do in London. So as Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set have been on my horizon for the last few weeks – since I visited the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery I’ve been following up with some reading – and as it was a nice, warm, sunny afternoon, I decided to have a stroll around the streets of Bloomsbury.

Walking through the streets of her neighbourhood and other parts of the city was something Virginia Woolf herself was fond of. She even wrote a short piece, Street Haunting, about one such walk one evening from her home in Bloomsbury to the Strand to buy a pencil. And walking through the streets of London is very much central to her novel, Mrs Dalloway.


I didn’t attempt to follow VW’s route but took a fairly random course trough the old Georgian Streets and Squares, diverting to look at some favourite buildings


I ended up by the British Museum. It was heaving with tourists – it was August and the height of the tourist season, after all. As there was less than an hour before it closed, and I couldn’t have faced the crush inside, a visit wasn’t on the cards. Instead I turned into Bury Place and wandered into the London Review Bookshop.


I spent a little time browsing their shelves and then found myself a seat in their rather excellent cafe (as recommended by Barbara of Milady’s Boudoir) where I had a pot of tea and a cake (to bring up my blood sugar level ready for the walk back to Euston afterwards)


Feeling reinvigorated, I treated myself to a book for the journey back home and then set off back into the streets of Bloomsbury. I took a bit of a circuitous route, towards Queen’s Square, passing the house where Bertrand Russell used to live



I passed this building with it’s interesting Bauhaus style lettering


past some more traditional Georgian period houses


and into Queen’s Square itself


After tha I decided I’d go and have a look at Gordon Square where Virginia and Leonard Woolf and various members of the Bloomsbury Se, including Vanessa and Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey all lived for a while.


A very pleasant garden in the centre, accessible to the public these days, it would have been private and reserved for residents when the square was first built, But there were plenty of people enjoying the warm sunshine.


The “Bloomsbury’s” lived in the terrace of houses on the east side of the square


Virginia, Leonard, Vanessa and Clive all lived at No. 50



While Lytton Strachey lived next door at No. 51



Today, like much of the surrounding area, the houses are owned by the University of London.

The few hours had passed quickly so it was time to head past yet more typical Georgian houses back to Euston, only a few minutes walk away, to catch my train home.


Art, Life and Vision

On Thursday I was back down in London on business. I resent paying over £300 for a two hour train journey so left mid morning on an off-peak ticket, but that did mean I would have to hang around for a few hours after my last meeting of the day. That didn’t bother me at all as it gave me the opportunity to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition on Virginia Woolf, that had only opened that day. The NPG is open till late on a Thursday so I was able to finish my meeting on the Strand, walk across a busy Trafalgar Square to the gallery and spend some time there before taking the tube back to Euston to catch the train at half past seven, which meant I was back home for ten.

The exhibition covered the life of Virginia Woolf  from her childhood right up to her death. There were over 100 items on display including lots of photographs,paintings of Virginia as well as her family and her circle of friends, and other items too including letter, diaries and first editions (I assume) of her books – most of the latter with covers designed by her sister, Vanessa Bell  They even had her walking stick which was found after she had committed suicide by drowning in the River Ouse.

It’s a little ironic that the NPG is holding the exhibition as, according to the Guardian, she

took against the NPG when her father, a trustee, took her round it as a young woman

and later, when she was famous,

(refused) to sit for a drawing that she assumed would be put in a drawer and never seen.

There were several paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and also by other artists, some very good. I particularly like this portrait of her by Duncan Grant, on loan to the exhibition.

Virginia Woolf

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Duncan Grant (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

And here’s another by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

A number of the photographs in the early part of the exhibition illustrating the Stephens family life and their circle were taken by Virginia’s great aunt on her mother’s side, Julia Margaret Cameron, who was a noted portrait photographer which she took up in her late 40’s. This can’t have been easy for a woman during Victorian times so she was clearly strong minded, determined and forceful. This is a photograph she took of  her niece, Julia Prinsep Jackson, later Julia Stephen, Virginia’s mother.

The Bloomsbury Set were in many fields, particularly art, literature and aesthetics, but also politics and, via one of their circle, John Maynard Keynes, economics. Their attitudes to women’s issues and sexuality were radical, to say the least. The following painting from 1943 by Vanessa Bell, which was included in the exhibition, depicts a number of the Bloomsburys – Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, David Garnett, Maynard and Lydia Keynes, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, Quentin Bell and E.M. Forster. The paintings shown on the wall behind the are of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, both by Duncan Grant,  and of Roger Fry by Vanessa Bell. All three were dead when the picture was painted.

The Memoir Club, by Vanessa Bell (née Stephen), circa 1943 - NPG 6718 - © estate of Vanessa Bell courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I have mixed feelings about the Bloomsburys. I admire their radicalism in both the arts and in their politics and am rather envious of their lifestyle. I would love to be able to spend time mixing with a group of like-minded people, enjoying stimulating conversation about literature, art, politics and other things just as they did. And have the chance to live both in a busy metropolis where there was lots going on yet also being able to spend time in more peaceful surroundings in the countryside. But they could only do that of course, because they came from privileged backgrounds and had money.

One of Virginia’s most well known works is “A Room of One’s Own” where she argues that women were held back as writers because they did not have space – the room in question – where they could send time to concentrate, think and write. I’d certainly agree with that, and that was something most women didn’t have at the time when she was alive. But that was even more true for working class women and men who not only didn’t have physical space of their own – with large families living in cramped dwellings – but also with little leisure time to think and write having to work 6 long days a week to survive. If I had lived at that time I’d have been working in a mill or something similar. I wouldn’t even have had the opportunity to go to University and certainly couldn’t have indulged in the intellectual pursuits that the Bloomsburys were fortunate enough to be able to do. Fortunately things have changed since then, and radical Middle Class intellectuals such as the Bloomsbury’s have played a role in that (a number of them, including Roger Fry, were socialists and most of them, including Virginia were supporters of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War) – although there is still much that needs to be done to achieve a more equal society.

Virginia herself was able to lead a life where she could find the space to write, and played a major role in the development of Modernist writing with her novels. But no-one can be completely insulated from the society in which they live and, at the risk of playing an amateur psychiatrist, this no doubt contributed to her state of mind that ultimately led to her suicide.

I got my money’s worth, spending over an hour looking around and revisiting paintings and other exhibits that I particularly liked or found interesting. I found it enlightening, educational and enjoyable and it has given me a thirst to read some more of Virginia’s works.

In the shadow of Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

The Bloomsbury Group of bohemian artists, writers and intellectuals from the first half of the 20th Century, were so named after the area of London where they used to live and work. One of the leading members of the group was the writer Virginia Woolf.
I’ve been enjoying reading about Milady’s jaunt with her Swiss friends following in the footsteps of the Bloomsbury Group in Sussex. But I’ve also been in close contact with the area most closely associated with the group today.
Bloomsbury is one of my favourite parts of London with it’s Georgian architecture, pleasant squares and Plane trees. I guess it’s partly because it’s the first part of London I encountered walking south from Euston station during my first visits to London many years ago. Despite the hustle and bustle and heavy traffic, it still has something of a bohemian air to it – or am I just imagining it? I’ve been there again this evening as I’m down in London on business and staying in an expensive Premier Inn (£180 without breakfast!) on the edge of the district.
Tavistock Square is a short walk from my hotel. It’s where Virginia and her husband Leonard lived between 1924 and 1939 and it was here, at No. 52, where she wrote most of her mature work, including include Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) Orlando (1928), and her feminist classic, A Room of One’s Own (1929). Unfortunately their house was destroyed during the 2nd World War and the site is now occupied by the Tavistock Hotel.
Today, In the corner of the pleasant garden in the middle of the square there’s a memorial to Virginia, a bronze bust.

The Square has another literary claim to fame. Tavistock House on the east side is the site of Charles Dickens home from 1851-60, where he wrote Bleak House (1853), Hard Times(1854) and A Tale Of Two Cities(1861).



Orlando at the Royal Exchange


Last Saturday we went out to see the latest production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The play is based on Orlando, a novel by Virginia Woolf, a gender bending time travel story, adapted by the American playwright, Sarah Ruhl. I read the novel many many years ago,so I was particularly interested to see how they handled the story as the book is not exactly a straight forward narrative.

At the beginning of the story Orlando is a 16 year old nobleman in Elizabethan times who is whisked off to court by Queen Elizabeth herself. He falls in love with a Russian princess and after an unhappy conclusion to their affair and being pursued by the unlovely the Archduchess Harrie, runs off to Constantinople to act as the English Ambassador. It is here that he is transformed into a woman. A series of adventures follows, racing through the Centuries until “the present day” while our hero/heroine only ages slowly.

The story is based on the life of Vita Sackville-West, a bisexual with whom Woolf had a passionate relationship, and who often adopted a male personna in her liaisons with women.

The lead character was played by Suranne Jones who was very good in an androgynous role. She made a convincing boy in the first half and an even more convincing woman in the second.

Sasha, the Princess (Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch) was played by Molly Gromadzki. I wasn’t quite convinced by her accent but she exhibited excellent acrobatic skills, flying above and around Orlando, spinning and whirling around the stage on a wire. She had an androgynous aspect to her character too. Feminine but something masculine about the way she moved and dressed.

Other roles were played by a “chorus” of three male actors who took on a number of roles as the story advanced through the centuries – including a very unflattering Queen Elizabeth.

It wasn’t a straightforward play with dialogue between characters. More a narration by several voices with a little conventional acting. Even the principal character mainly narrated what he/she was doing and thinking in the third person. Very modernist, and well done I thought.

Although Orlando has been described as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” it raises questions about the role and position of women in society throughout the ages. A particularly poignant point was made when Orlando returning to England after his/her transformation attempts to regain his property but is told that it’s not possible for someone who is dead or for a woman (“which amounts to the same thing”)

Here’s an interview with Sarah Ruhl about the play (although not the RE’s production).