To The Lighthouse And Beyond - A Virginia Woolf And Bloomsbury Trail

By Heidi Dore | Updated: 13 June 2014
Shows Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry's film, The Hours.

Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry's 2003 biopic, The Hours. © 2002 Paramount Pictures Corporation and Miramax Film Corp.

Charleston, nestling in the Sussex Downs between Eastbourne and Brighton, has become a mecca for devotees of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set.

Following a chronology of Woolf's life, this trail is designed to give an insight into the world of Bloomsbury, whilst taking in some of the key heritage sites, galleries and other places of interest that tell the story of this iconic writer and her circle.

Apart from being an innovative and prolific author, Virginia Woolf was also the epicentre of 'The Bloomsbury Group', the network of writers, artists and philosophers who gathered together at the beginning of the last century to discuss art, philosophy and religion.

Bloomsbury became a major influence on British twentieth century painting, design and literature, and for Woolf, the group offered intellectual freedom. It liberated her from the stuffy conventions of polite society and inspired her to experiment with many literary techniques.

Her life became a constant search for a way of representing the world which she, like many of her generation, saw as chaotic, fragmentary, and without definite meaning.

portrait of a woman knitting in an armchair

Virginia Woolf, by Vanessa Bell 1912. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

1882: She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen, in London on January 25 to Leslie Stephen, statesman and man of letters, and Julia Duckworth Stephen. Her father had a mentally handicapped daughter from a previous marriage, her mother three children from an earlier marriage. Together they had four more children: Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian.

Until the age of 12, Virginia lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate, a house near Regents Park. Her brothers went to school but Virginia was educated at home where she learnt traditional 'ladies accomplishments' such as singing and dancing.

The inadequacy of girls' education was to become a key issue in her novels. Despite having little formal education, Virginia showed an early literary talent and from the age of nine produced The Hyde Park Gate News, a journal of day-to-day life for the family to read.

During her childhood there were frequent family visits to the Woolf's Cornish holiday home, Talland House, above Porthminster Beach, on the edge of St Ives. It is said that Woolf spent the happiest days of her life here.

"Probably nothing we had as children was quite so important to us as our summers in Cornwall…to hear the waves breaking…to dig in the sands; to scramble over the rocks and see the anemones flourishing their antennae in the pools"

Shows a view of St Ives and Godrevy Lighthouse.

The area around St Ives was a fruitful childhood haunt for the young Virginia. The far-off vision of the Godrevy lighthouse was to come back to her as a potent literary motif in later life. Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum.

Many famous literary names were visitors to Talland House including Henry James and the young Rupert Brooke. The house is now a holiday apartment complex and is not open for public tours, but Woolfians tracing her footsteps will find the town centre, quaint fishing harbour, beautiful beaches and art galleries within five minutes walk.

These childhood holidays acted upon Woolf's imagination and formed the background to many of her novels. Godrevy Lighthouse, the source of inspiration for the acclaimed, 'To The Lighthouse,' can be reached by a 15-minute car journey from Talland House. It is now maintained by the National Trust and the magnificent surrounding coastline is open to public access and is a great spot for walks and picnics.

1895 - 97: The death of Woolf's mother sent Leslie Stephen into deep mourning and Woolf had the first of many severe mental breakdowns which she suffered intermittently all her life. The running of the household was taken over by Woolf's sister Stella Duckworth who died suddenly two years later. Woolf was deeply affected by these deaths and they provided a model for the many sudden deaths in her fiction.

Stella and her mother are buried next to each other at Highgate Cemetery. The graves were often visited by Virginia and her family and you can visit both graves today. From the gates, take the first unpaved path curving to the left; shortly after there is a narrow unmarked path at 90 degrees to the left; at this point Stella's stone is visible at the top of the little path by the fence.

1904-5: Following the death of her father, Virginia had another breakdown and made the first of three suicide attempts by jumping out of a window.

Shows a detail of the 'log box' painted by Duncan Grant.

Duncan Grant's Log Box (detail). When the Woolf clan moved to the Bloomsbury area it opened up a whole new vista of artistic expression and possibilities. © Charleston Farmhouse Trust.

The father's death provided the family with a fresh start and they sold up and moved to 46 Gordon Square in the bohemian Bloomsbury area of London. Black paint, red plush and the claustrophobic Victorian décor was banished from the new house. Suddenly all was white, light and airy. Woolf later described her sense of optimism at this change:

"Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Every thing was on trial."

This new beginning was also marked by the publication of her first essays. She soon became a regular book reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement whilst teaching at an evening college for working men and women.

The British Library is an essential stop off point for anyone interested in the literary development of Virginia Woolf. It holds the first editions of the Hogarth Press as well as all of her other first editions and many rare printed materials - including a publisher's flyer setting out the Hogarth's high art ideals.

There are also many letters, manuscripts and literary journals making it the best collection of Woolf printed material in the world. Visitors can also hear a rare recording of her voice in the form of a short extract from Craftmanship in 1937 in the John Ritblat Gallery.

Shows a self portrait by Duncan Grant.

Self Portrait by Duncan Grant c. 1909. For Duncan Grant art, life and death was a serious business. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Virginia's brothers brought friends home from Cambridge University, and this is how the Bloomsbury Group came into being. Lytton Strachey, Edward Morgan Forster, Clive Bell, Duncan Grant and Leonard Woolf gathered together to discuss philosophy, art and religion.

The intellectual environment and the group's freedom from the conventions of polite society were a breath of fresh air for Virginia and her sister. Life long friendships were forged and romance blossomed. In 1907 Vanessa married the critic Clive Bell and Virginia later married Leonard Woolf.

Many Bloomsbury homes and haunts are marked by English Heritage blue plaques. Gordon Square is particularly blessed with the former residences of various 'Bloomsburyites' No. 46 was first the home of Virginia and Vanessa. The group regularly met at No. 50, No. 37 was the home of the Bloomsbury painter Dora Carrington and No. 51 the home of the critic Lytton Strachey. The Lamb in Conduit Street was purportedly a 'Bloomsbury pub' whilst the 1917 Club in Soho's Gerrard Street was another favourite - and perhaps rather more likely - meeting place.

You can search for individual blue plaques in London on the English Heritage website by selecting 'blue plaques' from the menu.

Shows a painting of a woman reclining on a sofa in a light-filled drawing room

Vanessa Bell, by Duncan Grant, 1916-1917. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

The National Portrait Gallery holds many of the iconic images of the Bloomsbury set. There are photographic portraits and paintings both of and by, key Bloomsbury figures including Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf and Dora Carrington. Many of these can viewed on the NPG website while some are on display at the gallery itself.

1910: The new beginning for the family coincided with wider social change. Virginia observed: "in or about December 1910, human character changed." These changes extended to men and women, masters and servants and impacted upon conduct, politics art and literature at the time. This sense of change was widely acknowledged by the Bloomsbury artists. The painter, Duncan Grant, wrote:

"It was a moment which brought together all the younger painters in England into a sort of mass movement. They agreed that something had happened that they must cope with."

The Bloomsbury Group widened and met weekly on Thursday evenings and the French Post-Impressionists like Cezanne and Matisse were a major influence on artists in the group. Virginia's friend, the critic and art historian Roger Fry, brought the first post-impressionist exhibition to England.

Shows an exterior view of the facade of Tate Britain.

Tate Britain in central London is one of the many galleries to hold work by Bloomsbury artists.

Thought scandalous by some, the show introduced the key modernist concept that form rather than subject, could be an important medium for discussion. This was a theme that Woolf drew into her writing. She perfected the fragmented style of modernism in writing experiments that rejected the tradition of linear narrative.

Virginia Woolf later wrote a biography (published by Hogarth Press) of her friend Roger Fry whilst the Courtauld Institute Gallery houses the Roger Fry Bequest as well as many Impressionist and post Impressionist masterpieces that influenced the artists of the Omega Workshops.

1912- 1915: Virginia married Leonard Woolf at St. Pancras Registry Office on August 10 1912. Shortly after, she suffered her third breakdown which lasted for three years. She completed her novel The Voyage Out (originally titled Melymbrosia) but its publication was delayed by her poor health, and the outbreak of war on August 4, 1914.

During this time Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry started the Omega Workshops at Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury. Omega was a place where Bloomsbury artists could experiment and work together.

Tate has a sizeable holding of paintings by the key Bloomsbury artists, many of them can be accessed by clicking on this link and using Tate's online search facility.

Selected works can also be viewed at Tate Modern, Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool.

Regional museums holding paintings by Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell include: Touchstones Rochdale, Bankfield Museum Gallery in Halifax, Wakefield Art Gallery, Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, University Gallery Leeds, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and Astley Cheetham Art Gallery in Stalybridge.

Shows a large double-fronted farmhouse against a bright blue sky

Charleston is an essential place of pilgrimage for any self-respecting Woolfian. © Charleston Trust.

Charleston in Firle, East Sussex has become a Mecca for anyone interested in Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set. It was acquired by Virginia's sister, Vanessa, in 1916, and became a home and meeting place for some of the most influential artists and thinkers of the day. Vanessa described her time there as an "odd life, but…a good one for painting." As a means of recreating a specific time and place, it has no parallel.

Decorated in the Bloomsbury style, its preserved interior is a unique example of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant's distinctive style of decorative art in a domestic context and is the fruition of over 60 years of artistic creativity.

Shows a living room at Charleston. There is a patterned rug on the floor and two arm chairs and a book case sit either side of a fireplace

The interior of the house is preserved just the way it was when Woolf, Bell and Grant used to meet and reside there. © Charleston Trust.

Charleston also has an exhibition gallery showing a mix of contemporary, historical, fine and decorative art. It hosts special events throughout the year, most notably the Charleston Festival, which has talks, readings and drama - some of which relate to Bloomsbury themes.

In 2003, Patti Smith, the American punk poet, song writer and self-confessed Woolf devotee spent several days there as artist-in-residence to create a site-specific work for the festival.

Shows a bathroom with a brightly painted bath in reds, blues and yellows

Everywhere you look there is art, even in the bathroom © Charleston Trust.

Another fascinating and essential place of interest is nearby Berwick Church, which boasts superb murals painted by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and her children whilst they lived in Charleston farmhouse.

Shows an image of Jesus under Berwick Church's vaulted ceiling.

Not just any blank canvas, Berwick Church was beautifully painted by Bloomsbury artists. Heidi Dore © 24 Hour Museum.

The Bishop at the time, Bishop Bell, suggested they should paint the murals after the church had many of its windows destroyed by bombs in World War Two. It was a bold move, but after some consternation from certain members of the congregation the artists were given the go-ahead and the results, which can still be seen today, are stunning.

Shows the interior of Berwick Church, Sussex.

A pastoral version of the Sistine Chapel - nestling exquisitely in the Sussex countryside. The interior of Berwick Church is a quietly breathtaking example of Bell and Grant's unique painting style. Heidi Dore © 24 Hour Museum.

1917: Leonard Woolf bought a printing press to distract his wife from her "glooms" and set up the Hogarth Press with a small hand press in their home, Hogarth House in Richmond, Surrey. The Woolfs lived in this house on Paradise Road between 1915-1924, and today an English Heritage blue plaque commemorates their presence there.

The Hogarth Press became the first to publish Sigmund Freud in English (this greatly inspired Woolf). It also published T.S.Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Maxim Gorky and all Woolf's writings.

Shows an exterior view of Sissinghurst.

Sissinghurst, Vita Sackville West's house and garden creation is home to the first printing press used by Woolf in the early days of the Hogarth Press. © National Trust.

In 1923 Woolf wrote her only play, Freshwater, a comedy take on the life of her great-aunt, the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Set amidst the Victorian bohemia of Cameron's home, Dimbola Lodge, on the Isle of Wight, the play was later performed at Vanessa Bell's London studio in 1935 as one of Bloomsbury's theatrical evenings.

Committed Woolfians can make the pilgrimage to Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight and visit this famous house, which is also reputed to be the very place where Woolf's parents first met. The house is open to visitors and is maintained and run through the good work of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust.

1927 - 28: To The Lighthouse was published in 1927 and Orlando, a fictional biography of Woolf's friend and possible lover, Vita Sackville-West, was published the following year.

Famously described by Vita's son Nigel Nicolson as "the longest and most charming love letter in literature", the novel was largely set at Vita's beloved childhood home - Knole, in Sevenoaks, Kent. Possibly the largest private house in the country, Knole is set in one of England's last remaining mediaeval deer parks, and boasts a globally significant collection of Royal Stewart furniture, as well as family portraits by Reynolds, Gainsborough, and van Dyck. 

Although the Sackville-West family continue to occupy most of the house, it is owned by the National Trust, which opens the principle show rooms to the public every day except Monday during the open season.  

After marrying the diplomat Harold Nicolson, Vita left Knole for nearby Long Barn, which was another popular Bloomsbury meeting spot. In the 1930's they created the world famous gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. The house and gardens are now owned by the National Trust and are open to the public. The castle tower is a key point on our trail because it contains the first hand press used by the Woolfs for the Hogarth Press.

Shows Virginia Woolf's former bedroom at Monks House.

The rooms at Monks House, Rodmell offer another chance to experience the unique atmosphere and ambience of the Bloomsbury era. © National Trust.

1940: The Woolf's London home in Meckleburgh Square was bombed in August 1940 and their country home, Monks House in Rodmell, East Sussex, became their permanent residence. It is now a National Trust property and its preserved rooms effectively reflect the life and times of Virginia Woolf and her circle.

Other properties in this area of rural Sussex have strong Woolf connections. The Round House in Pipe Passage, Lewes, East Sussex is now a private house but was once owned by the Woolfs. Similarly, Little Talland House in Firle, was a holiday home between 1911-1912.

Shows an exterior view of the Round House, Lewes.

The Round House in Lewes, East Sussex. Heidi Dore © 24 Hour Museum.

1941: At the onset of another mental breakdown, which she feared would be permanent, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home leaving the following suicide note for her husband and sister.

"I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and can't concentrate."

Virginia Woolf was cremated and her ashes scattered and buried in the grounds of Monks House, where there is now a commemorative statue. The spot on the River Ouse where she drowned has become a pilgrimage site for dedicated Woolfians. Some have even thrown themselves into the river in a macabre homage.

The Charleston Farmhouse conducts excellent walks that include this poignant spot, as well as Monk's House and the beautiful churchyard at Firle, which contains the graves of Duncan Grant and Vanessa and Quentin Bell.

Virginia Woolf's death resists any trite summing up. She once described death as defiance and an attempt to communicate and this may also be a key to understanding her innovative but complex life and work.

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