On The Trail Of The Bloomsbury Group In Wessex | South Central MediaScene
On The Trail Of The Bloomsbury Group In Wessex

BBC2’s 2015 drama Life In Squares prompted a tourist rush on the trail of the Bloomsbury Group. Though this pursuit seems limited to the Sussex farm where some of the circle lived, the group also frequented our area. This also inspired a Purbeck-set sequence in BBC'-TVs recent 4-part drama Howards End, from the EM Forster novel.


The press have reported that BBC2’s recent 3-part drama Life In Squares [DVD now out] has prompted ‘a tourist rush on the trail of the Bloomsbury Group’. This pursuit seems limited to the Sussex farm where some of the group worked and lived. However, the group also frequented our area. To adapt an old ‘X slept here’ heritage-tourism claim, the Bloomsbury Group slept here too, and a small literary colony developed.

Life In Squares takes its clunky title from Dorothy Parker’s epithet about the Bloomsbury Group - ‘they painted in circles, lived in squares and loved in triangles’. The ‘lived in squares’ part implies a fashionable address on a leafy square and refers to the origin of the group’s name in their HQ, though Edwardian-era 'Old Bloomsbury' was mainly one leafy square [Gordon Square] in the Bloomsbury district of London. The group takes its name from this neighbourhood, where writer-publisher Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), and her sister the painter Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) lived, and other group members like economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) later moved to.

The Guardian article notes that little remains for the literary pilgrim to see, just some blue plaques. (The square was blitzed in WW2.) The district was shown in Victoria Coren Mitchell’s June 2015 How To Be Bohemian BBC4 documentary series, along with the Charleston farm, which was preserved as it was – and hence provided the BBC dramatists with a ready-made set. This preserved farm is now the main destination for Bloomsbury pilgrims, where tens of thousands – perhaps a hundred thousand this year – will now head, as the 'shrine' of the Bloomsbury set. However the group also frequented our area, with associations going back to their earliest outings, before WWI.

A Prospect Of England
EM Forster, a former civil servant in India and author of novels about the English abroad like A Passage To India and A Room With A View, was one of Bloomsbury's outer circle. He had his first major success with his 1910 Howards End, now filmed as a 4-part
BBC series, with location shooting in the Purbecks. The novel contains a swooning description of the view from the Purbecks which would put any tourism brochure to shame. In it, he said that if one wanted to show a foreigner England, the best course would be to take him to the summit of the Purbeck Hills, between Corfe Castle and the resort of Swanage. (See banner image at page top.) “Then system after system of our island would roll together under his feet.”
From there, he could look inland and see the green fields and valleys of Dorset, the gorse heaths of Poole, and – in imagination at least – all the way to Salisbury Plain and the downs beyond. He could gaze out across the bay, where the Atlantic and North Sea tides collide and swirl around the Isle of Wight, when seen from the west the “epitome of what will follow … beautiful beyond all laws of beauty”. For there stand the white cliffs of Freshwater which will “guard the Island's purity till the end of time.” East, where the Avon and Stour meet, stands the ancient “tower of Christchurch,” and beyond The Solent, the port of Southampton, “hostess to the nations” and the coastal routes to the Channel ports. He concludes this arm-waving description, “How many villages appear in this view! How many castles! How many churches, vanished or triumphant! How many ships, railways, and roads! What incredible variety of men working beneath that lucent sky to what final end! The reason fails, like a wave on the Swanage beach; the imagination swells, spreads, and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England.”
As Bloomsbury Group members routinely read one another's work pre-publication, it's quite likely they read Forster's novel even before it was published, though it was not the only reason they were prompted to holiday here, as we shall see.
The only sour note in Forster's enthusiastic Edwardian view is the recent appearance of “Bournemouth's ignoble coast … heralding the pine-trees that mean, for all their beauty, red houses, and the Stock Exchange,” i.e. the redbrick reach of modern materialism and suburban modernity. This modernity had first arrived with the railways in the late Victorian Era, allowing stockbrokers and others of the moneyed classes to build red-brick seaside villas here, and opened up the seaside-holiday accommodation market for everyone else.
Before they found fame under their married surnames as the writer Virginia Woolf and the artist Vanessa Bell, the sisters Virginia and Vanessa Stephen came to the area by train with their widowed father and brothers on such summer holidays. Their father Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) had edited Thomas Hardy’s first major novel for its original publication as a magazine serial in Cornhill Magazine, so he may have had an appreciation of the area from Hardy’s work. (Hardy himself when first married had lived 1875-6 above Swanage.)
In 1895, the family stayed at Freshwater on western Wight. In 1898, they stayed at The Manor House in Ringwood. In 1900, 1891 and 1902, they stayed at Fritham House, Lyndhurst in the New Forest. In 1901, they also stayed at Little Park, Lyme Regis. In 1903, they stayed at Salisbury. In 1904 and 1906 they spent part of Xmas at Lane End House, at Bank in the New Forest. (All of these places were then on or near railway lines – something which is no longer true.)

That was not the end of holidays down here, though from now on it would be members of the Bloomsbury circle in attendance rather than just surviving family.
Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell (1881-1964) in 1907 and as Virginia did not marry till 1912, there was an interval where the trio would holiday together, for the sake of Virginia’s nerves (she had been having breakdowns since the year of her first holiday down here, in 1895). Her sister and her brother would be on hand for familial support. Of course, this being the Bloomsbury Group, it was more complicated: Clive Bell had a flirtation with Virginia while Vanessa was nursing the couple’s first child. (This is covered in Ep 1 of the BBC series, along with a passing mention of a visit to Dorset.) Woolf was in fact already suffering the start of a series of nervous breakdowns and depressions which would eventually drive her to suicide, and she apparently felt these seaside visits helped her recover.
The usual venue was the coastal hamlet of Studland, just north of Swanage.

Studland - Bloomsbury By The Sea
The seaside village of Studland by the entrance to Poole Harbour was Bloomsbury’s favourite strip of seaside from at least 1909. (The first author who settled in Studland, Theodore Powys, one of a talented literary clan, had already moved away, to Chaldon near Lulworth, in 1905 as it was becoming too crowded and fashionable in the summer for retiring country types like himself.) There is a letter and a photo of Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) and her brother-in-law Clive Bell in swimsuits dated Feb 1909 (which seems somewhat chilly for bathing, but is supported by other references); the trio stayed at a place simply called The Cottage. The three are also known to have returned to Studland in autumn 1909, staying at the village’s Harbour View resort cottages, and Virginia again enjoyed swimming. She hired a ‘bisexual’ bathing costume and “swam far out, until the seagulls played over my head, mistaking me for a drifting sea anemone.”

Virginia and half a dozen Bloomsbury-circle friends came down to Dorset by train in Feb 1910, where they played a famous hoax on the Navy at Portland, dressing up in blackface and shawls as Abyssinian princes to inspect a new Dreadnought battleship with the full diplomatic British-Empire red-carpet treatment. Despite the holiday high-jinks impression this incident creates, Woolf in fact suffered another nervous collapse at the reaction of the Navy, who sent cadets out to physically threaten the hoaxers unless they consented to chastisement (a symbolic caning) to satisfy the honour of the Navy. (This later inspired her 1921 story “A Society”.) Soon after that, in late March to mid-April 1910, she had a recuperative stay of “two splendid weeks” at Studland, again at Harbour View cottages. She returned for a month’s stay in Sep-Oct that year.

In September 1911, the trio stayed at Harmony Cottages, along with the biographer Lytton Strachey (whose first school had been at Parkstone) and the painter and international art critic Roger Fry, who later helped build up Poole Pottery. From there, they visited Poole and got a lift on a tug pulling barges up the Frome to Wareham, “one of the most lovely towns I have ever seen.” Although Fry was there with his wife, he also had an on-off affair with Vanessa from 1911 onward. Both painted famous pictures of their 1911 Studland visit. Fry’s “Studland Bay” was presumably the painting he mischievously called Black Sea Coast, having painted the sands and bluffs an unlikely reddish hue; it was only later when someone recognised this was the view from Studland’s Knoll House [now a hotel] that it was renamed. (Giving local views some sort of “Mediterranean” identity was not unusual.) Vanessa’s painting of Studland Beach (glimpsed in Ep 2 of the BBC serial) was actually a series of paintings, an enigmatic study of several figures by a bathing tent. (These bathing tents – really canvas changing rooms - are also seen in snapshots the group took on the beach. They were later supplanted by National Trust beach huts, as shown in the photos, above right.)

Poole Historical Trust’s art-book Art In Poole & Dorset (1987) by Peter Davies mentions that in her 1911 painting “The Bathers” the straw-hatted figure is Virginia, gazing out over the waves. Her sister may also be one of the figures in one or more of Bell’s “Studland Bay” scenes, the last attempt at this apparently being painted during a visit in 1913. (If the repeated attempts at this bathing scene seem slightly obsessive, one biographer suggests Vanessa felt betrayed by her sister’s flirting with her husband, though both partners opted to have an open marriage, she herself being courted by Roger Fry and others.)

A pivotal figure who was not a member of the Group, but impacted on them as a patroness of various artists and writers, was Lady Ottoline Morrell. With her MP husband she had a house in Bloomsbury where she held readings, and rented a seaside retreat down here, Cliff End villa below Studland’s Bankes Arms Hotel. At Easter 1911, she began an affair there with mathematician and philosopher (and conscientious objector in WWI) Bertrand Russell, who would soon move over the Purbeck Downs in search of a romantic hideaway with greater privacy, which he found just beyond Lulworth at a farm above Durdle Door. (Their affair continued there, Russell writing her more than 2,000 love letters over the next quarter-century.) Lady Ottoline had an open-marriage arrangement with her husband (who had his own mistresses, by whom he had illegitimate children) and asked him to leave as Russell was en route from Cambridge. (The two men’s trains passed outside Swanage Station.) The affair was an immediate success. She was “delighted by the discovery that his love for the sea and the wild Dorset landscape was as great as her own.”

The statuesque redhead had actually arrived in Studland with another new protégé, the painter Henry Lamb, who had been a pupil of Augustus John’s at Chelsea School Of Art, and continued as his rival, each having affairs with each others’ wives in pre-war Paris, leading to the breakdown of Lamb’s marriage to “Euphemia,” the art-school model made famous by John and the sculptor Epstein. Ottoline had begun an affair with John in 1907, and remained his champion despite the unflattering portrait he painted of her. (It was she who gave him his trademark soft felt black hat, which gave him his Paris-Bohemian public image.) John established an artistic commune across the Bay, on Alderney Manor estate in Parkstone, where many artists and other creative types stayed, 1910-27. She may also have been involved with Roger Fry and the painter Dora Carrington.

At her Oxfordshire manor house she also entertained creative types, though one invitee, DH Lawrence, penned an unflattering depiction of her as the overbearing and pretentious society-hostess Hermione in his Women In Love. (Publicity accompanying the BBC's recent adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover claims the novel was inspired by Ottoline's sexually-ecstatic affair with a stonemason hired to carve plinths for her statues, which DHL heard about while her house guest.)

The blunt Midlands author DH Lawrence was not a Bloomsbury type, but did spend time locally in this period, first on the Isle of Wight at Shanklin with his mother and sister in 1909, then while working on his second novel, The Trespasser (1912), set partly on Wight. He wrote this largely at Bournemouth while staying at a rooming house opposite St Peter's Church. (Or rather he rewrote it: it had been provided to him as a fact-based story, written in diary-style form by a teacher acquaintance there, Helen Corke, who had had a week-long affair at Freshwater with a married teacher, who then went home to his family and killed himself).

Virginia and Leonard Woolf took a winter break in January 1912 at Niton, southern Wight, and in 1913 returned to Harbour View cottages. The 1914-18 War however saw the retreat of the Bloomsbury group to their Sussex farm, for they were antiwar, conscientious objectors in a period when this was popularly regarded as cowardice (women would hand out white feathers to men they saw not in uniform). While Augustus John and Henry Lamb went off to serve as war artists, poets like Rupert Brooke wangled active-service military commissions, and economist JM Keynes played a significant role in arranging finance for the war, the Sussex Bloomsbury men mainly had to work as farm labour to avoid prison, which led to the acquisition of the Sussex farm that would become their base not just for the war years but during a very productive postwar decade before the group went into decline in the 1930s.

Nevertheless, some of the group returned after WWI and set up a literary colony in the Wessex Downs, together with other writers and artists, which survived beyond the original Bloomsbury set's Sussex country-living experiment. We’ll have to cover this on a separate feature webpage as it’s an even more complicated story, with a larger cast …. [to be continued]


Studland, where Bloomsbury Group members holidayed. As well as a sandy beach (now a National Trust nature reserve), Studland also had a small but exclusive seaside resort village. The bathing tents of the Bloomsbury era have since been replaced by beach huts. (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.)

Left: The Purbeck sequence from BBC's 2017 production of EM Forster's Howards End. The protagonists visit their aunt's house at Swanage, played here by the Studland clifftop villa Harry Warren House. The two main characters also stroll on Swanage Pier.

The Neo-Pagans
Another link was to the overlapping group that either Virginia Woolf or her sister (according to her son and biographer Quentin Bell) christened The Neo-Pagans, after their interest in outdoor settings for their ‘reading parties’, which involved camp-outs and country walks. The settings for these ranged all across southern England, from the West Country to Salisbury Plain and the New Forest.
The Purbeck District between Studland and Lulworth became a favourite, with visits from 1910 on. Bloomsbury Group member Lytton Strachey and his brother James stayed at West Lulworth’s Cove Cottage at Easter 1910 together with poet Rupert Brooke, though he is not considered a Bloomsbury Group member – he was not a London-dweller, but was Cambridge-based with a summer holiday home, since childhood, with relatives at Bournemouth. A January 1911 Bloomsbury getogether at Lulworth led to Brooke having a breakdown after his amorous plans for Ka Cox fell afoul of the group’s bisexual entanglements (Brooke blamed Lytton Strachey), and he stormed off over the hills to stay with a couple of other Bloomsbury friends, the artists Gwen and Jacques Raverat, at Studland.
There were other cross-over connections, such as the fact it was Ka Cox who found Woolf in the midst of her 1919 overdose attempt. (This suicide attempt is shown in the BBC serial.) Also, Vanessa Bell son’s and biographer Quentin married Anne the daughter of Brooke’s other amorous target, Brynhyld Olivier; Anne later edited the 5 volumes of Virginia’s diaries published by the Woolf’s own imprint, Hogarth Press, after Leonard died in 1969.
Rupert Brooke’s parallel and overlapping activities in this area are covered in a separate feature page onsite here:
Cultural Contributors: Rupert Brooke



Clive Bell and Virginia Woolf, Studland 1909. Note the bathing tents, the Edwardian forerunner of the modern beach hut.

Studland beach is said to have become the nation's first nudist beach in the 1930s, but it may have already been an unofficial one in 1911, when the Bloomsbury set frequented it. That year, the pleasure steamer Lord Elgin nearly capsized due to so many young men with cameras crowding forward to see the dozen young women who bathed nude here every evening, tilting the rudder out of the water, sending the vessel veering out of control towards the beach, and the girls fleeing into the sand-dunes.

The Dreadnought Hoax, Portland, 1910: Virginia Woolf is at the far left.


Wareham, which Virginia Woolf called “one of the most lovely towns I have ever seen.”

Freshwater, the small resort on west Wight where some of the Bloomsbury set holidayed. Virginia Woolf even wrote a play called Freshwater, for private Bloomsbury performance, about local resident photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was her great-aunt.


Studland’s Bankes Arms: Lady Ottoline Morrell and her MP husband rented a seaside retreat near here, Cliff End villa, where she began her affair with Bertrand Russell. The inn is now more of a pub-restaurant.


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