Bloomsbury voices: Duncan Heyes

Canvas Issue 26

Duncan Heyes describes the choices made in compiling the British Library’s latest contribution to the oral history of Bloomsbury.

September saw the release of the CD ‘The Bloomsbury Group’, the eighteenth release in the British Library’s series The Spoken Word, which so far has included many writers and poets – among them H.G. Wells, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell, Robert Graves, and a pair of 2-CD sets of Ted Hughes. Compiling this Bloomsbury CD marked a departure from my usual work with printed collections at the British Library, as it was the first time I had worked with recorded sound. However, when I was approached to get involved with this particular project I realised it was an opportunity not to be missed.

The first task was to gain a sense of the amount of existing material and whether there would be sufficient for a 2-CD set or a single CD. Our first idea was to release a single CD of recordings of the core members of Bloomsbury, but on consideration we felt that this would miss the opportunity to make available a selection of more general recordings about Bloomsbury, from the younger generation and those associated with the group. Once we had established that there was more than enough suitable material available for two CDs, the question arose of who to include on both.

Membership of Bloomsbury is not clearly defined, and we are all no doubt familiar with the discussions in biographies and studies of the group about who was or was not Bloomsbury, as even among the writings of its core members accounts vary as to its membership. The difficulty arises because, as we know, Bloomsbury was not in any sense a formal card-carrying club or a cohesive artistic movement which produced a manifesto of its aims; as we hear Leonard Woolf saying on the opening track, Bloomsbury was ‘simply a fortuitous aggregation of friends’. Leonard then lists the original thirteen members as himself, Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, Clive Bell, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Adrian Stephen, Duncan Grant, E.M. Forster, and Desmond and Molly McCarthy.

It was decided that CD1 would comprise all those people associated with ‘Old Bloomsbury’ who had left recordings. I was fairly certain, however, that no recordings existed of Roger Fry or Lytton Strachey. At the time of the release of the film Carrington a good deal of discussion took place about the Strachey voice but no recordings of him were discovered, though there is some extant silent home movie footage.

The Strachey voice is much referred to as the archetypal Bloomsbury voice and was said to be characteristic of the Strachey family, so, in the absence of a recording of Lytton, I have included a recording by his sister Marjorie on CD2. Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry died in 1932 and 1934 respectively. Unfortunately, no commercial recordings were made of either of them – only a handful of spoken word recordings of literary figures date from as early as this, and it was only in the early 1930s that the BBC started to appreciate the value of archiving radio broadcasts. We know from Virginia Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry that he did appear on radio as she described his great book as ‘perpetually pushed aside to make room for lectures, for reviews and broadcasts….’ Unfortunately, it would seem that Lytton Strachey never took to the airwaves.

Having settled on members of ‘Old Bloomsbury’ to be represented on the first CD1 was quite happy to include recordings of them talking about subjects other than Bloomsbury itself if that was all that was available. For example, I have included an extract from a programme first broadcast in 1945 by Maynard Keynes talking about the establishment of the Arts Council, an organisation he worked tirelessly to promote. I have also included a recording of Desmond MacCarthy discussing tears in literature, from a broadcast in 1947. This recording is preceded by a talk by E.M. Forster about Desmond MacCarthy in which Forster describes Desmond’s character and, amusingly, how efforts were made by his friends to encourage him to write his ever-postponed novel by forming their own novel-writing group. I was also pleased to be able to include a recording by Leonard Woolf describing with affection the quiet man of Bloomsbury, Saxon Sydney-Turner. The other speakers on CD1 are Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, and Vanessa Bell, with a very telling anecdote about the Stephen sisters’ childhood.

We are extremely fortunate that an extract of a talk by Virginia Woolf from 1937 has survived. In the 1930s and 40s, before the use of magnetic tape, recordings were made directly on to a record (a ‘coursegroove disc’) which was a cumbersome and expensive process. The capacity of the disc was around four minutes per side, which accounts for the surviving eight minutes of Virginia Woolf on two sides. This is the only extant recording of Virginia Woolf, though she had made two earlier broadcasts. The first was with Leonard in July 1927, entitled ‘Are too Many Books Written and Published?’ And in 1929 she gave the second talk in the three-part series ‘Miniature Biographies’ on Beau Brummell, the text of which appeared in The Listener in November 1929 (the other two speakers in the series were Harold Nicolson and Desmond MacCarthy).

The recording of Virginia Woolf on this CD set is an extract from a broadcast she gave in April 1937 entitled ‘Craftsmanship’. The typescript of the complete talk survives in the BBC Written Archives with her manuscript annotations, and a published version of the talk was printed in The Listener in May 1937.

The broadcast was part of a four-part series entitled ‘Words Fail Me’. The other speakers in the series were Professor A. Lloyd James, Allan Ferguson, and Logan Pearsall Smith.

The themes of the talks have an eerie resonance today. Lloyd James’ talk was on the importance of grammar. Allan Fergusson asked ‘…if there has ever been an age in

our history that has seen so rapid an extension of the vocabulary of our language – so many new words born, so many old words diverted to new meanings,’ and Pearsall Smith’s talk intended to show ‘by what methods our language has been enriched. The first great source of new words has always been that of borrowing from other languages.’

The theme of Virginia Woolf’s talk was that ‘craftsmanship is a word that can be applied to the meaning of pots and pans, but not to words in the way in which writers use them. There is a distinction to be made between the useful use of words and their literary use. The novelist and the scientist use words differently.’ The earlier broadcasts may not have been preserved, but we are incredibly fortunate to still have the recording of Virginia Woolf talking about the importance of words.

The majority of the recordings we used come from the BBC Sound Archive and are a mixture of prepared talks and interviews. Another important source for recordings was Charleston’s own archive. Among my favourite recordings are those of Duncan Grant interviewed by Quentin Bell.

The interviews with Duncan took place in the studio at Charleston and have a refreshing informality which perhaps offers a taste of what a Bloomsbury conversation was like.

I think the recordings of Duncan also convey something of his famous charm. On these tracks we hear Duncan’s vivid account of the public horror at the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1910. ‘Did you witness the scenes of violence, people actually brandishing umbrellas?’ asked Quentin.

‘Not destroying the pictures,’ Duncan replied but ‘rage, real outrage … and letters sometimes from my aunts, complaining … one of them did a very pretty little imitation of Matisse; saying this must be easy to do – delightful’.

He also talks in some detail about Roger Fry, his extensive influence, the beginnings of the Omega Workshops, and what it was like to work there. He is very perceptive about the reasons for their demise. And he tells the story of the ‘Cézanne in the hedge’, which Quentin Bell described in an article for the Charleston Newsletter.

Also included is an extract from Duncan’s appearance on Desert Island Discs in 1975 in which he recounts the story of the famous ‘Dreadnought’ hoax, when he was one of a number of friends including Virginia and Adrian Stephen who disguised themselves as Abyssinian princes to fool the Royal Navy into hosting an official visit and tour of HMS Dreadnought. The practical joke caused a minor scandal at the time resulting in questions being asked in the House of Commons. Although undoubtedly a familiar story to many, it is amusing to hear Duncan’s first-hand account of the escapade, delivered in his typically droll manner.

The selection for CD1 of core members of Bloomsbury was unproblematic simply because there were not a great number of surviving recordings from which to choose. The choice of who of the younger generation, and those associated with Bloomsbury, to include on CD2 was more difficult, as after the First World War Bloomsbury became a far more amorphous group, with people moving in and out of its orbit all the time. I decided that only recordings directly bearing on some aspect of Bloomsbury would be included. I also wanted to include recordings which shed some light on the attitudes and ethos of Bloomsbury as well as giving a more general sense of the Bloomsbury lifestyle.

Perhaps an eyebrow or two may be raised at some of the speakers – Bertrand Russell may be of an older generation than the original members of Bloomsbury but he shared many Bloomsbury attitudes, such as pacifism, and Bloomsbury can perhaps be regarded as his spiritual home. In addition, he knew many of the members of Bloomsbury, meeting them frequently at Garsington Manor and Bedford Square, the homes of their mutual acquaintance Ottoline Morrell. His inclusion on CD2 is justified by the amusing account he gives of his first meeting with the Strachey clan and his description of Lytton.

George ‘Dadie’ Rylands was a particularly entertaining speaker and it was difficult to choose which of his recordings to use. I eventually decided on the talk he gave about how his rooms at Cambridge provided the setting for the luncheon party described in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. He cannot resist comparing the inspired inaccuracy and exaggeration of her written account with his own more modest recollections of the occasion. He also recounts the story of the Bloomsbury party where Virginia Woolf met the popular novelist Berta Ruck who had threatened Virginia with legal action after she had used her name in one of her novels (although Dadie was mistaken in thinking it was in To the Lighthouse; it was actually Jacob’s Room). The dispute was settled amicably and Virginia and Berta went on to become friends. During her lifetime Frances Partridge was called on to comment on all things Bloomsbury and she has left a legacy of many recordings. I was happy to include a recording of her from 1999, when she was approaching her hundredth birthday, in which she describes the influence of the Bloomsbury group on her life. I was also particularly pleased to be able to include a recording by her husband Ralph Partridge and one by his great friend Gerald Brenan, whom many Bloomsberries visited in Spain. Other speakers on CD2 include Harold Nicolson, Angelica Garnett, Quentin Bell, Vita Sackville-West, and David Cecil.

A recent area of interest has focused on the domestic staff of Bloomsbury, notably in Alison Light’s book Mrs Woolf and the Servants, so I felt the inclusion of recordings of Grace Higgens, Lottie Hope and Nellie Boxhall would add another dimension, and recognise the contribution that they have played in the history of Bloomsbury. In 2006 the British Library acquired the archive of Grace Higgens comprising diaries, letters, newspaper cuttings, photographs, exhibition catalogues, scrapbooks, and film shot at Charleston. Items from the archive were displayed at the British Library in 2008 in an exhibition which proved to be very popular with visitors. A recording of Grace is included on the CD describing life at Charleston where she lived and worked for over fifty years. Also included are recordings of Nellie Boxhall and Lottie Hope, who worked mostly for the Woolfs but also at other Bloomsbury households including Roger Fry’s, and a spell at Charleston. The CD closes with a moving account by Louie Mayer, the Woolf’s housekeeper, describing the circumstances surrounding the day of Virginia Woolf’s suicide in March 1941, which seemed an appropriate recording with which to end.

By the 1940s the cultural importance that Bloomsbury had enjoyed in the 1920s and 30s had started to wane. However, a renewed interest started to grow in the 1960s as biographies, memoirs and letters began to appear and the values of Bloomsbury struck a chord with the mood of the time. Since then there has been an almost continual interest in the lives and work of the Bloomsbury Group, evidenced today in the recent publication of biographies of Frances Partridge and Lydia Lopokova, in exhibitions such as Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-1919 at the Courtauld, and of course in the growing popularity of visits to Charleston.

One of the attractions of Charleston for many visitors is the sense of Charleston as a home and not a museum. Such is the success of the restoration that one feels that Duncan or Vanessa may have just left the room. I hope that these recordings will enhance that experience. We can see how they lived; now we can hear the voices of many of those who knew the house so well.

‘The Bloomsbury Group’ CD set is available from the Charleston shop at a discounted price of £13.50 (plus £3.50 p&p), or from the British Library Bookshop priced £15.50 or online at

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