07 August 2011

Enjoying ‘great spirits and mediocre minds’ in literary Bloomsbury

A typical terrace of Bloomsbury houses in Bedford Square, one of the best preserved examples of Georgian architecture in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I was in London earlier this summer speaking at a conference in Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster, organised by Affirming Catholicism. Once again, I stayed at the Penn Club in Bedford Place, part of a Georgian terrace in Bloomsbury, built in the 1800s.

Bedford Place runs between Russell Square and Bloomsbury Square. There are book shops around every corner, the British Museum is close-by in Great Russell Street, and the British Library, Covent Garden and the West End theatres are within walking distance.

The British Museum in Great Russell Street, in the heart of Bloomsbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Bloomsbury is an area between Euston Road and Holborn but is not a borough and has no official boundaries. Southampton Row and Woburn Place, which form Bloomsbury’s main thoroughfare, are lined with several large tourist hotels and link Tavistock Square and Russell Square – the central points of Bloomsbury.

Bloomsbury’s parish church, Saint George’s, is a landmark in itself – its spire was inspired by Pliny’s description of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the world, and fragments of which have since made their way to the British Museum.

The spire of Saint George’s Church, Bloomsbury, is modelled on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Home to writers and philosophers

The Penn Club in Bedford Place ... a room here commemorates a Birmingham theologian (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Bloomsbury is known for its university and academic life, hotels, museums and literary associations. Here are University College London, Birkbeck College and the School of Oriental and African Studies; here AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins plan their new college; and here many US universities have their London bases.

The Penn Club was founded in 1920 with funds left from Quaker peace activities in World War I. Those Quaker links are retained in the name of the Edward Cadbury Room – Edward Cadbury (1873-1948) of Woodbrooke and Bourneville was instrumental in establishing the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham and the Department of Theology at Birmingham University.

John Wyndham, author of The Day of the Triffids (1951), lived at the Penn Club for many years. But Bloomsbury has many better-known literary associations.

Writers, poets and philosophers who lived and worked in these squares and streets include TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, EM Forster, and Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (Anthony Hope).

London’s first square

Bloomsbury Square and a statue of Charles James Fox, Whig statesman and first cousin of Lord Edward FitzGerald (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Bloomsbury began as the estate of Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, who acquired the former Carthusian monastic lands in 1545. Bloomsbury Square, first known as Southampton Square, was laid out in the 1660s by Thomas Wriothesley, 4th Earl of Southampton, and was the first open space in London officially called a square. The second movement of Symphony No 2 (A London Symphony) by Vaughan Williams represents “Bloomsbury Square on a November Afternoon.”

The area is now a collection of squares, parks and terraces developed by the Russell family, Dukes of Bedford, after they inherited the estate through marriage. According to the historian of London town planning, Donald Olsen, “Far from being typical, the Bedford estate may well have been the best managed urban estate in England.”

TS Eliot’s former offices with Faber and Faber at 24 Russell Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Russell Square is the largest square in Bloomsbury, although little remains of its original Georgian houses. The east side is lined by the fanciful Russell Hotel. TS Eliot worked as poetry editor for Faber and Faber at No 24, now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

A public and academic apology to the Russell estate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As Bloomsbury became more popular as a base for institutions, the Russell estate fought to preserve its genteel, residential character. A modern building in Russell Square displays a plaque apologising for a development not in keeping with the expectations of these attentive landlords.

No 5 Woburn Walk ... the Bloomsbury home of WB Yeats from 1895 to 1919 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

From Russell Square, Upper Woburn Place leads to Woburn Walk, designed in 1822 by Thomas Cubitt as the first pedestrianised shopping street. Charles Dickens lived nearby, and it is easy to imagine that he strolled along this street while he lived in Bloomsbury. A plaque on No 5 marks the house where WB Yeats lived for more than a quarter of a century from 1895 to 1919. While Yeats worked there on some of his finest poetry, he was friends with Ezra Pound, TS Eliot and Rabindranath Tagore. Later, Maud Gonne lived in the same house, which is now part of “Wot the Dickens,” a restaurant, café and food shop.

Gandhi’s statue in the centre of Tavistock Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

North of Russell Square, Tavistock Square, laid out by Cubitt in the early 19th century, suffered in the London tube and bus bombings in 2005. But the square has peaceful associations too, with a statue commemorating Mahatma Gandhi, unveiled in 1968, and monuments, memorials and trees commemorating conscientious objectors and the victims of the Hiroshima bombing in 1945.

Virginia Woolf’s statue in Tavistock Square, near the site of the house where she once lived and ran the Hogarth Press (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Leonard and Virginia Woolf lived at No 52 from 1924 until shortly before her death by suicide in 1941. From No 52, they ran the Hogarth Press, named after Catherine Hogarth, wife of Charles Dickens. The house has since been demolished and the site is part of the Tavistock Hotel, but there is a monument to her in the square.

A controversial chapel

Off Tavistock Square, the Woburn Chapel on the north side of Tavistock Place (between Nos 31 and 32) was at the heart of curious 19th century controversies. Built as a private chapel in 1801, it was known first as the Tavistock Chapel.

The Revd Thomas Bagnall Baker, the minister from 1836 to 1848, was suspended by the Bishop of London for his High Church practices. He quickly fell into poverty, lost the chapel, and ended his days in a lunatic asylum. His squalid death in 1860 left his family without any means of support and stirred many public appeals.

In 1859, the controversial, ultra-Protestant Irish preacher, the Revd Tresham “Trash’em” Dames Gregg, bought Woburn Chapel, and remained there until 1865.

When the Revd Sir Charles Gordon Cumming Dunbar was minister from 1877 to 1880, the chapel acquired a reputation for unholy goings-on. Dunbar had been ordained by the Bishop of Ceylon and was Archdeacon of Grenada before coming to London. When the Bishop of London revoked his license in 1880 and prohibited him from preaching, Dunbar ignored the ban.

Dunbar’s wife Edith petitioned for a separation in 1881, accusing him of adultery with several women on the chapel premises, and alleging late-night drinking parties there. When her petition was dismissed, one of her witnesses, the chapel’s verger, was tried for perjury, but he was acquitted.

The chapel reopened in 1882 “with a full ritualistic service and the performance of an oratorio, under the auspices of its former minister, Archdeacon Dunbar.” But Dunbar moved on within months and Woburn Chapel was later known as Saint Andrew’s Church and Saint Andrew’s Fine Art Gallery.

In 1898, the chapel was at the centre of what was known as “the Salvation Catholic Church cycle school fraud.” The case involved “Samuel Johanni Baptisti Stanhope,” also known as “Captain Stanhope” of the Salvation Catholic Church, whose real name was Samuel Lee. The chapel was finally demolished in 1900 and flats were built on the site

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Looking out from the Church of Christ the King onto Gordon Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

To the west of Tavistock Square, Gordon Square was also developed by Cubitt in the 1820s. The Bloomsbury group began at No 46 Gordon Square, when it was the home of four members of the Stephen families – two sisters, Virginia and Vanessa, and their brothers, Adrian and Thoby Stephen – from 1904 to 1907.

Their Thursday evening conversations and recitals were attended by Thoby’s Cambridge friends, including Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, David Garnett, Duncan Grant, John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry and Saxon Sidney-Turner. Vanessa lived there after her marriage to Clive Bell, and the economist John Maynard Keynes lived there from 1917 when the Bells left.

The square remains one of the quietest places in Bloomsbury, and includes the houses of Lytton Strachey (No 51), author of Eminent Victorians (1918), while a plaque at No 50 commemorates the Bloomsbury Group.

In 1922, Virginia Woolf declared, without much exaggeration: “Everyone in Gordon Square has become famous.” In a typically scathing comment, she once compared Ulysses to a “bell-boy at Claridges” scratching his pimples. However, her books are largely forgotten today, while Ulysses remains a literary classic.

The Church of Christ the King has seen many changes in its history, from the Irvingites, to Forward in Faith (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The most unusual building on Gordon Square is the Gothic Revival Church of Christ the King on the south-west corner. This church was built in the Early English Gothic Revival style between 1850 and 1854 for the Catholic Apostolic Church, a Victorian sect also known as the Irvingites.

From 1963 to 1994, the church was used by the Anglican Chaplaincy to the Universities and Colleges of the Diocese of London, and became known as the University Church of Christ the King. During that time, the Memorial Service for the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner was held there in 1983. In 1994, the chaplaincy returned the lease to the trustees of the Catholic Apostolic Church and the church is now used by the Forward in Faith movement.

Prisoners and protesters

Anthony Hope, the author of the Prisoner of Zenda, lived in Bedford Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Bedford Square, built between 1775 and 1783, is one of the best preserved examples of Georgian architecture in London. No 41 was the home of Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins, who as Anthony Hope wrote The Prisoner of Zenda. His father, the Revd Edward Comerford Hawkins, was the Vicar of Saint Bride’s, the journalists’ church in Fleet Street.

No 44 Bedford Square was once the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, a cousin of the late Queen Mother and an intimate friend of Bertrand Russell. When she recognised herself as Lady Hermione Roddice in Women in Love (1921), she threatened to sue DH Lawrence for libel.

Bertrand Russell once lived in a modest apartment in Russell Chambers on the Russell estate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Bertrand Russell, the radical philosopher, pacifist and mathematician, was a member of the Russell family who owned and developed much of Bloomsbury. He lived for several years at No 3 Russell Chambers in Bury Street, and many of his letters to Lady Ottoline were written from this fourth floor flat, where TS Eliot once stayed too.

Although Russell was an atheist from his teens, his lifelong social values were shaped by his grandmother, whose favourite Bible verse was: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23: 2). When his books were confiscated to pay his fines after one anti-war protest, his friends bought them back, and for the rest of his days he treasured his King James Version of the Bible that had been stamped: “Confiscated by Cambridge Police.”

When Russell was the subject of bitter personal attack while lecturing in the United States, Albert Einstein came to his defence, saying: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 “in recognition of his ... writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” His former apartment in Russell Chambers is now available to rent and the world of literature and architecture continues to be indebted to the foresight and planning of his family and his ancestors.

The Russell Hotel ... dominates the east side of Russell Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) in August 2011

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