Virginia Woolf, or as she was at the time, Virginia Stephen, moved with her brother Adrian to 29 Fitzroy Square in April 1907. She was immediately captivated:
‘All the lights in the Square are lighting, and it is turning silver grey, and there are beautiful young women still playing tennis on the grass.’
Designed by Robert Adam as a circle within a square and built between the 1790s and 1830s, Fitzroy Square is elegant but, at the time, was down-at-heel.
Although the area did not become the famous bohemian haunt ‘Fitzrovia’ until the 1930s, it was beginning to attract writers and artists - The artist Duncan Grant lived at no 22 and in 1913 Roger Fry established the Omega Workshop and Studio at No. 33.
Virginia had the whole of the second floor to herself and could spread out as she chose, filling her rooms with ‘great pyramids of books, with trailing mists between them; partly dust, and partly cigarette-smoke’.
And, mistress of her own domain, she could furnish the rooms as she liked, which included bright green carpets, red brocade and, later, purple curtains, and a pianola.
Here she and Adrian had parties, discussed the arts, and played host on their ‘Thursday evenings’ attended by Lytton Strachey and other members of the Bloomsbury Group and the flamboyant literary hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell who, for all her support for writers and artists, was often viciously mocked by them (Virginia Woolf included).
In her memoirs Lady Ottoline describes Virginia Woolf at this time as ‘a strange, lovely, furtive creature.’
Though Virginia enjoyed the London season, the parties and the talking, she was also irritated by it all; by Adrian’s lethargy; by the endless discussions late into the night; by the closeness of it all. Looking back in a letter to a friend, Ethyl Smith, in 1930, she wrote:
‘… And much of this talking and adventuring in London alone, and sitting up to all hours with young men, and saying whatever came first, was rather petty .. at least narrow, circumscribed and leading to endless ramifications of intrigue. We had violent rows – oh yes, I used to rush through London in such rages, and stormed Hampstead heights at night in white or purple fury.’
Nevertheless these were the years when she, and the Bloomsbury circle, began to find their voice, shedding the inhibitions of the past to break down the barriers of what could be said.
The illegal and the banned became the subject of their jokes and conversation; in their private life they challenged conventions - what new ways of living, what new kinds of thoughts may now be possible?
In Jacob’s Room, Jacob instructs himself ‘Detest your own age. Build a better one’. But his optimism is cut short by the war.
For Virginia Woolf, 1910 became the year ‘human character changed.’
It was from 29 Fitzroy Square that, on 7th February 1910, Adrian, Virginia and friends dressed up as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his suite and left for Weymouth by train to be shown round one of the largest and newest warships of His Majesty’s Fleet.
Virginia was ‘Prince Mendax’, blacked up and wearing a moustache, flowing robes and a turban.
Below: Virginia Woolf (Stephen) and the group in costume for the Dreadnought visit. VW is at far left.
The group were met with a guard of honour, a launch which took them out to the battleship, and a naval band – although the band played the Anthem of Zanzibar, because the band master had been unable to find the Abyssinian National Anthem.
Despite the casually organised and improvised nature of the plan, it succeeded brilliantly and managed to ridicule the empire, bureaucratic procedures, establishment pomposity and naval security.
For Virginia the event became totemic, demonstrating that ‘high ranking hearts of oak’ of the naval establishment were ‘accompanied by heads of the same material.’
The other great event of the year, which caused as great a scandal as the Dreadnought Hoax but with considerably greater historical significance, was the exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ mounted by Roger Fry at the Grafton Galleries from 8 November 1910 to 15 January 1911.
Fry coined the term ‘post-impressionist’ for the exhibition, which included works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Manet - including A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (see above) - Matisse, Picasso, Seurat and many others. It was the first time such work had been shown in England, and it was met with general outrage.
Adding to the scandal, Virginia and Vanessa appeared as ‘indecent’ Gauguin girls at the post-Impressionist Ball, wearing brilliant flowers and beads, browned legs and arms, and 'very little on underneath.'
By the autumn of 1911 she and Adrian had had enough of just the two of them sharing a house.
They moved to a larger house, 38 Brunswick Square with a plan to make it a communal house, sharing with friends. ‘It’s ever so much nicer … so quiet, and a graveyard behind. We are going to try all kinds of experiments.’ She wrote to Lady Ottoline Morrell on 9 Nov 1911.
Leonard Woolf was to be one of the tenants.
On a recent walk we chatted about the view from Virginia Woolf's window which, looking to the right, is now dominated by the BT Tower (originally called the Post Office Tower, when it was built in the 1960s).
Close up like this it looks very dynamic. You really experience the size of the structure. It's shocking - but, I think, in a good way. As radically different as Woolf's work in its time.
Coincidentally, George Bernard Shaw had also lived at No. 29 Fitzroy Square. He lived here with his mother from 1887 to 1898 until his marriage.
In his biography Michael Holroyd writes that Shaw worked upstairs in conditions of incredible squalor while his mother, neglecting all housework, communicated with the dead with her planchette and Ouija board:
Shaw ‘wrote his first seven plays, his finest literary, music and theatre criticism and [carried out] his most active political campaigning’ in what he [Shaw] called ‘this most repulsive house’.