The Bloomsbury Set of Mecklenburgh Square
Thomas Kelly, current Member of Goodenough College, has studied some of the lives lived in and around our beloved Mecklenburgh Square. This blog post takes a look at the Square's creative and inspiring former residents and the Goodenough Members who carry on the legacy today.
“They lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles”, as goes the famous quote from Dorothy Parker about the activities of the ‘Bloomsbury Set’, who frequented the streets, parks, townhouses, and squares, of early twentieth-century London. Her phrase is a reference not just to where they lived, but also how these modernist intellectuals saw and captured the world on the page, canvas, and through their personal relationships and political identities.
Of all the squares, Mecklenburgh Square was the one that played host to the most members of the Set, which included famous artists, writers, philosophers, classicists, and socio-political thinkers, such as Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle, Dorothy L Sayers, Eileen Power, John Maynard Keynes and others. Were these fascinating individuals just incredibly privileged and, in some cases, aristocratic elites? Or were they a group of avant-garde radicals that pushed the boundaries of creativity and knowledge? Let us revisit the lives, experiences, and exploits of the Bloomsbury Set and other intelligentsia that called the Square, and its adjacent districts, home over the years and see how this same creative energy has been passed down to its current residents.
If you want to read more about the Bloomsbury Set and, specifically, its female members, check out Francesca Wade’s, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars.
Georgian and Victorian Period
Ever since Mecklenburgh Square was landscaped in 1810 and lined with its classic, Georgian architecture in 1814, it has attracted well-to-do and prominent members of London’s intellectual and cultural society. TS Elliot, who happened upon the Square entirely by accident, described it as, “a most beautiful, dilapidated old square, which I had never heard of before”. Plenty of barristers, solicitors, physicians, surgeons, architects, aristocrats, and gentlemen have called the Square home, but it has always been a space for creatives, particularly authors, historians, and writers. It also gained a reputation as a space of bohemian radicalness, with leading suffragettes, socialists, spies, and open same-sex couples, such as the classics scholar, Jane Harrison and her student turned lover, Hope Mirrlees, taking lodgings on the Square.
One of the most notable residents was George Augustus Sala, a successful author, journalist, abolitionist, and later, convicted spy, who occupied number 46 from 1878. His biography, The Life and Times of George Augustus Sala (1895), features a whole chapter discussing the strange happenings that befell him in the Square, from a mysterious rotting smell to the various banquets and dinners he hosted and attended with his upper-class friends. He described his new house on the Square to a friend as:
“Under the friendly wing of the governors of the Foundling Hospital, northwest corner, no – thoroughfare, nice garden in rear, one of the oldest and greenest of full-bottom wigged squares in front, and a shilling cab fare to one’s offices and one’s clubs”.
1881, Caricature of George Augustus Sale featured in Punch
Perhaps the most famous female novelist of the Victorian era, Mary Elizabeth Braddon also lived on the Square. Braddon wrote over 90 novels in her lifetime, often with sensational and dramatic plotlines. Her most famous novel, Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), depicts a bigamous heroine, who murders her husband, contemplates murdering the next, and lives a reckless life in pursuit of other men. Braddon’s immense success as a novelist enabled her to buy the entire property of number 26, Mecklenburgh Square for her large family, which she occupied from 1862 to 1868. She bore several more children in this house to her husband, John Maxwell, whom she married immediately after his wife died.
1865, Portrait of Mary Elizabeth Braddon by William Powell Frith
The Bloomsbury Set
With the coming of the twentieth century and the cultural and social changes of urban modernity, the Square entered its renaissance period, when the Bloomsbury Set arrived. Although its members outrightly denied being a formal group, they all shared a belief in the importance of art for reflecting and interrogating the changes of modern society. They did this by helping to promote and circulate one another’s work, with many of them being journalists, publishers, or newspaper editors. They mutually enhanced each other’s careers by debating ideas and reading and critiquing their creative products, but, of course, they also formed very close friendships.
While most of its male members met at Trinity or King’s College Cambridge, it was not until 1905 when Adrian Stephen’s sister, Vanessa, began the ‘Friday Club’, and Thoby Stephen, ‘Thursday Evenings’ at 46 Gordon Square, that the group officially began to meet regularly. The former group was for the artist members, which met to organise exhibitions and discuss the latest techniques and compositional rhetoric of the day, and the latter group was made up of mostly writers. Vanessa’s letter to Clive Bell offers insight into the informal and humorous nature of the meeting:
“The chief one seems to me to be that, as you say, we should have to eradicate politeness. We can get to the point of calling each other prigs and adulterers quite happily when the company is small & select, but its rather a question whether we could do it with a larger number of people who might not feel that they were quite on neutral ground”.
Letter from Vanessa Stephen to Clive Bell (1905)
Group picnic of the Bloomsbury Group at High and Over, Sussex
Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf, lived at what was number 37, Mecklenburgh Square, for just a year from 1939-40. During this time, Woolf completed several projects: she wrote a biography of Roger Fry; began her final novel Between the Acts, a meditation on English country history, pageantry, and sexual ambivalence; and made a start on her memoirs. The Woolfs also ran their own literary press, the Hogarth, out of the basement. Their stay on the Square was cut short when their house was damaged during a German air raid in the Blitz. Upon realising her home had been destroyed, Virginia Woolf lamented her lost possessions or rather ingredients for her own philosophy on women’s writership as described in A Room of One’s Own: “I want my books & chairs & beds. How I worked to buy them – one by one”. It was the loss of her home that sent her into a deep depression which continued until her tragic suicide on 28 March 1941.
Photograph of Virginia Woolf (far right) with other members of the Bloomsbury Set
Dorothy L Sayers
Like her friend Virginia, Sayers lived on the Square for just a year from December 1920 to December 1921. She occupied the same room that the imagist poet and writer Hilda Doolittle had occupied a year or so earlier. After working as an educator, she escaped to the Square to work on becoming a writer. It was here that she began working on her first novel, Whose body? (1923), where she introduced her famous aristocratic detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, to the world. The Square was also where she fell in love with fellow writer and community resident, John Cournos.
Photograph of Dorothy L Sayers at a Pageant in Bloomsbury
After their eviction from their property in Cornwall, DH Lawrence and his wife, Frieda moved temporarily into the Square in 1917 from 20 October to 30 November. In fact, they shared a room with Hilda Doolittle (known as HD) and Dorothy Yorke, an American lover of Richard Aldington, the husband of HD. The characters of Julia and Robert Cunningham in Lawrence’s novel Aaron’s Rod, which was begun during this period, are modelled on HD and Aldington. He called the Square, “the dark bristling heart of London”.
Artists in the Contemporary Era
The same spirit of virtuosity, imagination, and creativity that galvanised the Bloomsbury Set continues to this day in the broad range of students at Goodenough College. Attracting early career arts and humanities graduates from all corners of the world, the Square has once again become a centre for artistic experimentation and intellectual curiosity in London. Here are just a couple of them:
Having lived on the Square for seven years from 2015-22, Tamar Geist is a polymath of creativity being a performer, artist, singer, actor, and trained vocalist. Her PhD research focuses on the banning of female singing in Judaism and the effects it has on their identity and creative performance. During London’s lockdown, she began to specialise in body art, painting intricate and complex patterns, scenes, and narratives. She created a one woman show transforming her body into a physical form of language and storytelling all from her smartphone.
Photo of Tamar Geist and her body art
Alondra is a cross-disciplinary Mexican Canadian artist originally from Toronto, but now based in London. Arriving in the College in 2020 to study for an MA in Fine Art, Alondra’s work branches into a diversity of themes and concepts, but prominently engages with the notion of a traumatised society, vulnerability, transformation, and collective unconsciousness.
She is currently working as the principal artist for the Mexican Embassy’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival. For this event, she has created an ofrenda – an altar where offerings are placed to celebrate the Mexican festival. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ofrenda is a safe way to bring people together to contemplate the philosophical and symbolic meaning of death.
Photo of Alondra at an exhibition of her work at Chelsea Art College