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What was the Bloomsbury group?

Written by
Image of Allison Adler Inglis-Taylor
Allison Adler Inglis-TaylorResearcher, University of Oxford
The Sitting Room at Monk's House with dark wooden beams, mint green walls and an arrangement of furniture including a writing desk, dining table and chairs, standing lamp and paintings on the walls.
The Sitting Room at Monk's House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

The Bloomsbury group was a circle of artists, writers and intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century, originating in the Bloomsbury home of Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell. Discover the influential members of the group, learn about their modern views, and find connections between Bloomsbury and the special places that we care for today.

The beginnings of the Bloomsbury group

Virginia and Vanessa moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury in 1904 after the death of their father, the celebrated writer and critic, Sir Leslie Stephen.

Their original Bloomsbury house, 46 Gordon Square, became a centre of artistic and intellectual activity when their brother, Thoby, brought his Cambridge University ‘Apostles’ friends to the ‘Thursday Evenings’ the sisters hosted. Members included Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Saxon Sydney Turner. Around 1910, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry also became prominent members.

At these gatherings everything from the status of art to issues of Britain’s declining empire was subjected to intense scrutiny.

Embracing a new culture

Drawn together in part by the hugely influential philosophy of G.E. Moore, whom Thoby had encountered at Cambridge, the ‘Bloomsberries’ embraced a culture of sexual equality and freedom, informality and fierce intellectual debate, largely at odds with their strict Victorian upbringings.

Virginia Woolf's writing desk in the Writing Lodge at Monk's House, East Sussex
Virginia Woolf's writing desk in the Writing Lodge at Monk's House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

The rise of English modernism

The heady atmosphere of openness, experiment and intellect produced some of the most significant statements in English modernism – from Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s paintings.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that salon hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, philosopher Bertrand Russell, aristocratic writer Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat husband Harold Nicolson, all attached themselves to the group between 1909 and 1923.

Facing criticism

Influential in everything from art and literature to post-colonial politics, the group became the focus of intense dislike in the post-war period.

The group was seen as elitist and self-regarding, despite its origins in the Stephen sisters’ rejection of the socially exclusive upper middle-class world to which their parents had belonged.

Beyond Bloomsbury: the South Downs

While all members of the Bloomsbury group were based in London, they regularly congregated at their various homes in the South Downs: Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived at Monk’s House near Rodmell; Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell lived at nearby Charleston Farmhouse where they regularly hosted group members and other notable friends; and Maynard Keynes lived at Tilton House with his wife, the Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova.

As their attachment to the Sussex landscape attests, the group was profoundly invested in the English countryside. Both the Woolfs and Keynes campaigned to protect the South Downs, while Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant celebrated its landscapes throughout their artistic careers.

Here are some of the places in the National Trust's care with connections to the Bloomsbury group.

Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monk's House, East Sussex
Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monk's House | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel
Monk’s House, East Sussex
Virginia and Leonard Woolf's country retreat, Monk's House, is a 17th-century cottage in the village of Rodmell. The Woolfs purchased the house in 1919, and Virginia worked on all her subsequent novels there. Her writing lodge, in the garden, overlooks Mount Caburn and the medieval parish church, and gave her a room of her own. Virginia would often walk the six-mile walk along the South Downs from Monk's House to Charleston Farmhouse to visit her sister, Vanessa Bell.
Knole, Kent
Knole was the much-loved ancestral home of Virginia Woolf's close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. It is the main setting for Woolf’s Orlando, a novel which Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson, famously described as a ‘love letter’ to his mother. Numerous Bloomsbury group members and acquaintances visited Knole, including Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Aldous and Julian Huxley, E.M. Forster and Raymond Mortimer.
Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent
Woolf was a frequent visitor to Sissinghurst Castle, the country home of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson near Cranbrook in Kent. Sissinghurst became the object of Vita’s intense focus as she lovingly restored its buildings and created it the garden. Sissinghurst is home to the first hand-press that Leonard and Virginia Woolf bought for the Hogarth Press. Virginia gave it to Vita as a present when she and Harold moved to the castle in 1930.
Studland Bay, Dorset
Vanessa Bell visited Studland Bay with other members of the Bloomsbury group on a number of occasions in the early 1910s. She is known to have painted there at least four times, the most famous example being her work Studland Beach in the Tate collection.
The Purbeck Hills, Dorset
'If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit, a few miles to the east of Corfe.' So wrote E.M. Forster in Howards End. The section Forster had in mind stretches from Corfe Castle to Ballard Down, overlooking Old Harry, with its views over the Studland peninsula and Poole Bay as far as the Isle of Wight.
Piney Copse, Surrey
E.M. Forster once owned Piney Copse. Forster used to live nearby and bought the wood to save it from development using funds from various book sales, in particular his famous novel, A Passage to India. In his book, Abinger Harvest from 1926, Forster wrote about owning Piney Copse and his feelings, entitled My Wood. When Forster died in 1970 he donated the Copse to the National Trust. The wood is a mixed secondary woodland with oaks, sweet chestnuts and beech trees.
South Downs, Hampshire to East Sussex
Virginia Woolf first visited the South Downs in 1910 with her brother Adrian and found the landscape so entrancing that she decided to lease a villa in Firle. In 1912 she leased Asheham House, near Beddingham, with her sister Vanessa Bell, and later, she and Leonard Woolf purchased Monk’s House in Rodmell. Woolf's long daily walks along the Downs were immensely important to her writing, and details of the landscape abound in her novels, essays, letters, and diaries. The landscape also features in the work of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell who lived at the foot of Firle Beacon.

This article was written by Allison Adler Inglis-Taylor. Allison is a researcher from University of Oxford, specialising in English literature, history and culture from 1800 to the present day. She also has research interests in political history and theatre, and is a contributor to the Trusted Source project.

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