Is Bloomsbury Still The Artist Quarter? / Travel & Place

6th March 2017

The streets of Bloomsbury narrate their own past as you wander through them: plaques, monuments and faded signs peel back layers of history built up like the grime on the bricks of the Georgian houses. But the area’s past is embedded not only in its buildings, old and new, but also in the vibrant literary and artistic activity that is still drawn to Bloomsbury. When Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) and her siblings moved from upmarket Kensington to 46 Gordon Square in 1904, their family was outraged. Though it had been home to Dickens and Thackeray, and possessed a pioneering university, several hospitals and the British Museum, Bloomsbury was considered distinctly unfashionable, far removed from the shops and mansions of West London: its name, wrote resident Thomas Burke, ‘was used allusively for shabby-genteel poverty and the grey half-world’. Yet by 1932, when Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm, Bloomsbury was a byword for glamorous bohemia: ‘those Bloomsbury-cum-Charlotte-Street lions which exchanged their husbands and wives every weekend in the most broad-minded fashion.’

Today, a cluster of blue plaques and a bust of Virginia Woolf in the garden of Tavistock Square pay homage to the famous Group. Meanwhile, the Morton Hotel on Woburn Place offers an enhanced Bloomsbury experience: afternoon tea is served in an underground bar decked with photographs of the friends at leisure, Omega-print armchairs and posters of Vanessa Bell’s cover designs for her sister’s books. More modernist — and modern — beauty can be found at Persephone Books, which reprints classic novels, memoirs and cookbooks mostly by women of the interwar period, their elegant grey covers backed by delectable endpapers featuring textile designs from the period of each book’s first publication. The irresistible bookshop is nestled on scenic Lamb’s Conduit Street, opposite the Lamb pub where Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath held early liaisons.

Bloomsbury’s rich publishing tradition dates to the 1920s, when the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press and TS Eliot’s Faber & Faber headquartered in the area; Faber still operates from Bloomsbury Street, while an unassuming house opposite the Oxfam bookshop now contains newer press Oneworld, publisher of the last two Booker Prize winners. The London Review Bookshop on Bury Place — offshoot of the magazine whose offices are round the corner — hosts regular readings from renowned authors, in an atmosphere reminiscent, perhaps, of that at Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop on Devonshire Street, where crowds climbed a rickety staircase to the attic to hear poets including Wilfred Owen, WB Yeats and Robert Frost debut new work over sherry. Then and now, audiences repair for post-reading drinks at the Museum Tavern on Great Russell Street, its frosted glass doors still delineating ‘public’ and ‘private’ entrances.

Bloomsbury remains, in part, a residential quarter, though many of the old houses are turned over to hotels and offices. Sir Hans Sloane, who lived in Bloomsbury Square and whose private collection of antiquities formed the British Museum after his death in 1753, would hardly recognise the western end of Great Russell Street, where tourist shops peddle life-size mummy cases, Diana mugs and Stonehenge teatowels, while small Korean pitstops in side-streets are flanked by fish and chip shops of uncertain quality. Yet something of the old atmosphere still lingers. One original Georgian house, next door to the museum, is owned by the art critic Sacha Craddock, who has lived there since the 1970s; she shares her home — walls adorned with works by artists including Chantal Joffe, Tacita Dean, Gillian Wearing and Mark Wallinger — with a revolving household of artists. Stepping inside conjures something of the bohemian thrill, I imagine, of entering Duncan Grant’s Fitzroy Street studio, where Bloomsbury parties rampaged among half-finished canvases and dusty assemblages for still-lives. Woolf and her friends are gone, but something of their spirit lives on still in this elegant enclave of London.

Words by Francesca Wade

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