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Take a literary pilgrimage through Virginia Woolf’s England

As Wayne McGregor’s award-winning ballet inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf returns, we take a closer look at the locations that influenced her work.

By Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer)

13 January 2017 at 4.02pm | 13 Comments

Wayne McGregor’s award-winning ballet Woolf Works returns to the Royal Opera House this Season.

With the triptych being inspired by the writings of one of the greatest figures in literature, Virginia Woolf, we've traced the writer's history through the locations that inspired her:

Kensington, London

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born at 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington on 25 January, 1882. As Virginia Woolf, she was to become one of the most significant figures in London’s literary society and a leading modernist and feminist thinker.

She came from artistic stock; her father Sir Leslie Stephen was an eminent editor and critic who exposed his children to an influential Victorian literary crowd. Her mother, who died when Virginia was just 13 years old, had been a model for the pre-Raphaelites, a group of English painters.

In her early years, Woolf lived in the white town house with her three siblings Vanessa – later known as Vanessa Bell – and her two brothers, Thoby and Adrian Stephen.

St. Ives, Cornwall

‘Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall?’, wrote Woolf in her diary in 1921. She spent every summer of her childhood in St Ives at the family holiday home, Talland House. The wild coast was to make notable impressions on her writing.

Godrevy Lighthouse, which stands 86ft tall off Porthminster Beach, is thought to have inspired Woolf’s novel To the LighthouseShe signed the visitors’ book in autumn 1892 and the book was later sold at auction for more than £10,000.

Weymouth, Dorset

In 1910, Virginia Woolf was part of the infamous (and to modern minds somewhat unsavoury) Dreadnaught hoax, organized by her brother while he was at the University of Cambridge. It was executed by a group of his friends that would later form the Bloomsbury Group, a spin off from the exclusive Cambridge society, The Apostles. The group caught the train from Paddington to Weymouth, where they enacted a prank on the Royal Navy, claiming to be a delegation of Abyssinian royalty and convincing the armed forces to give them a tour of their flagship HMS Dreadnought. Woolf donned a fake beard an Orientalist regalia for the occasion.

As they toured the vessel to a guard of honour, the group muttered among themselves in Latin and Greek to the bemusement of the crew, and even attempted to bestow fake military honours on some of the sailors. When the prank was uncovered after the group's return to London, the incident caused the Navy a good deal of embarrassment in the press for several months.

Bloomsbury, London

After the death of her father in 1904, Woolf sold her house near Hyde Park and moved to 46 Gordon Square with her brothers. It was to be the first of five Bloomsbury addresses at which the writer would reside. It was here that Woolf became close to members of the Bloomsbury Group including founding writer Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, her soon-to-be husband Leonard Woolf and other artists like the poet Rupert Brooke.

St. Pancras, London

In 1912 in a humble registry office on Judd Street, Virginia became Mrs Woolf. Despite her prevailing battle with bipolar disorder over the coming decades, Woolf attested all her happiness to her husband Leonard – her final written words read, ‘I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been’.

Richmond, London

In 1914, the Woolfs moved out of central London to Richmond. The following year they moved to Hogarth House in Paradise Road and established The Hogarth Press – publishing work of T.S. Eliot among other contemporary writers, including Woolf herself.

Garsington, Oxford

Just east of Oxford, Garsington Manor was owned by a Bloomsbury Group socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell and her husband Philip. It became a retreat for many of the ‘Bloomsberries’, including Woolf.

It was later bought by the Leonard Victor Ingrams who founded the Garsington Opera festival, which from 1989 to 2011 was held each summer at the manor (and which now continues at the nearby Wormsley Estate).

Charleston, Sussex

‘It will be an odd life, but… it ought to be good for painting’, said Vanessa Bell of her relocation to Sussex with her lover Duncan Grant. Vanessa’s house, Charleston, became the country meeting place for the writers, artists and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury Group and was situated only a short distance from Woolf’s own country cottage.

The house still retains work by the Bloomsbury artists, including murals, painted furniture, ceramics and textiles. Bell and Grant created beautiful walled gardens in the grounds in the 1920s, with a grid of gravel paths to divide up each section of floral colour.

Rodmell, Sussex

The Woolfs bought the 18th-century cottage Monk's House in Sussex in 1919 and lived there full-time after their flat in Bloomsbury was damaged during an air raid in 1940. The cottage is situated three miles from Lewes and is near the River Ouse, where Woolf would drown herself a year later.

Between the Acts, her final novel published posthumously in 1941, references the countryside and villagers of Rodmell. The house is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.

Woolf Works runs 21 January–14 February 2017. Tickets are still available.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from David Hancock, Randa Khoury, Linda and Philip Harley, Victoria Robey, The Woolf Works Production Syndicate and an anonymous donor.

This article has 13 comments

  1. It is amazing how easy it is to read the article in English for foreigners. Such friendly presentation in English meet for the first time in his life, though have to read English texts every day. This style of writing is seen even more fantastic, given the current presentation of the media. Thank you, Rose!

  2. A very well put together article thank you. I am fortunate enough to work at both Monks House Rodmell and Charleston (actually just a farmhouse not a manor house) and much of your excellent precis makes up my regular message to visitors. I might have included the now demolished Asheham House in Beddingham Sussex which was an early meeting place of the Bloomsbury group from 1911 and also the inspiration for Virginia's short story A Haunted House.
    Well done indeed.
    All the best
    Chris Cook

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 16 January 2017 at 2:57pm

      Hi Chris,
      I'm very glad you enjoyed it and thank you for pointing out Asheham House. For anyone else interested there's some more information here.
      All best wishes,
      Rose

  3. Eliza Mellen responded on 17 January 2017 at 10:25pm Reply

    Such a good introduction to the Woolf landmarks; many years ago I was involved in the beginning of the fundraising for Charleston, inviting Quentin Bell to Kettles Yard, Cambridge, to give a talk to students, and then taking a group to the farmhouse. Is there a way of saving this article and its beautiful images please? Thank you for all the research.

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 18 January 2017 at 4:11pm

      Hi Eliza,
      Thanks so much for your comment. As far as I know, the article will stay live on our website for the foreseeable future, so do be sure to bookmark it on your browser if you want to access it again!
      Hope that helps.
      Kind regards,
      Rose

  4. Mary Gledhill responded on 20 January 2017 at 10:51am Reply

    I think there may have been a mistake with one of your images. The image shows 'Hogarth's House' in Chiswick, former home of the artist (and worth a visit but don't expect to see any information about Woolf). As stated in the text Woolf lived at 'Hogarth House' in Richmond. The site where it stood is now occupied by a Travelodge.

    • Mary Gledhill responded on 20 January 2017 at 11:06am

      Sorry - just done a little more research of my own and happily Hogarth House still exists, just along Paradise Road from the Travelodge. It's listed on the website of berwickhill.co.uk so they may be able to provide a replacement photo :)

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 23 January 2017 at 4:18pm

      Thanks for flagging Mary! I'll get in touch with them and see if we can track down a replacement image.

      All best wishes,
      Rose

  5. Excellent article ! I think Gordon square is wrong though .. is that Morrels house in Bedford Square .?
    I designed the TV series Life in Squares and went through the houses of Gordon sq trying to find which ones they'd lived in by identifying elements from the paintings . Very hard as inside they are all one building now . They moved around so much the blue plaque just lists them as living around here !
    But no 40 still has the original door and last time I went it was still red

  6. Jack de Gruiter responded on 8 February 2017 at 12:55pm Reply

    Thank you Rose Slavin for the excellent article from which I have learnt a lot. As a foreigner, but now, resident in London, I have come to know of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group but not in great detail. As an admirer of the Royal Ballet your article, in addition to everything else published about this, Wayne McGregor's work, has helped me to prepare well for seeing "Woolf Works" for the first time!!

  7. Katherine responded on 8 February 2017 at 10:45pm Reply

    Nice article, but incorrect in that Rupert Brooke was not part of Bloomsbury.

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 9 February 2017 at 10:24am

      Hi Katherine.
      Thanks for your comment and apologies if that was misleading.
      Brooke was friends with several of the members but I agree it wouldn't be accurate to suggest he was part of Bloomsbury. I've tweaked that section now!
      All best wishes,
      Rose

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