Queer History

Charleston has an incredible LGBTQ+ history, having been home to the Bloomsbury group – a largely queer group of artists, writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant and John Maynard Keynes. They forged new ways of living at Charleston in the early 20th century, with the house acting as a space of freedom. Love and friendship, pacifism, atheism, same-gender relationships, polyamory and other ways of living were actively embraced.

Discover Charleston’s groundbreaking history and the opportunities it presents as a site of investigation for LGBTQ+ studies…

BOOK A QUEER HOUSE TOUR – Queer Tours of Charleston are available for group bookings

Sign up for news about LGBTQ+ programming at Charleston


In 2010, Charleston created a podcast exploring aspects of Duncan Grant’s life as a gay man. Previously unpublished interviews with Duncan Grant from 1969, together with new recordings by gay men who visited the house in the 1960s and 1970s, allow us to investigate the history of the house at this time as well as Charleston’s place within LGBTQ+ history.

These recordings focus on Duncan Grant and Charleston in the 1960s and 1970s, but the LGBTQ+ history of Bloomsbury is extensive. During his early life Duncan Grant had affairs with Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes, as well as with Adrian Stephen, the brother of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf, although married to Leonard Woolf from 1912, had a number of relationships with women including, most famously, Vita Sackville-West.

The Charleston Trust would like to thank Surrey, East & West Sussex Museums Development Service (SEWS MDS) and Renaissance South East for their support in developing this webpage and podcast.

  • Duncan Grant on moving to Charleston in 1916
  • Simon Watney on returning to Charleston now
  • Simon Watney on Charleston as an Edwardian household
  • Mark Rowlands on Charleston as a museum
  • Mark Rowlands on Charleston as a peaceful escape from Brighton
  • Mark Rowlands on Duncan Grant
  • Mark Rowlands reading Duncan Grant’s Times obituary
  • Duncan Grant on Clive Bell’s Study
  • Duncan Grant on the desire to decorate the walls
  • Duncan Grant on the effect of seeing frescoes in Italy
  • Duncan Grant on the Dining Room
  • Duncan Grant on the contents of the Dining Room
  • Simon Watney on breakfast
  • Simon Watney on lunch
  • Mark Rowlands on drinks
  • Simon Watney on tea and dinner
  • Mark Rowlands reading from his 1971 diary

  • Duncan Grant on Lytton Strachey
  • Simon Watney on the beds
  • Simon Watney on Maynard Keynes as the love of Duncan Grant’s life
  • Simon Watney on Maynard Keynes as inspiration and encouragement
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s love for Maynard Keynes
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s attractiveness and lack of vanity
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s sexual confidence and relationships
  • Simon Watney on the appeal of confident narcissistic bisexual men
  • Simon Watney on his relationship with Duncan Grant
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s life as a gay man
  • Mark Rowlands on Duncan Grant’s life as a gay man
  • Simon Watney on gay pubs and clubs
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant and the guardsman
  • Simon Watney on Grace Higgens [home version only]
  • Simon Watney on Grace Higgens’s formality [home version only]

  • Duncan Grant on the Garden Room
  • Mark Rowlands on tea in the garden
  • Paul Roche on Duncan Grant’s relationship with Vanessa Bell [home version only]
  • Mark Rowlands on Duncan Grant using Vanessa Bell’s bedroom
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s autobiography in his work
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s desire for models and for company
  • Mark Rowlands on Duncan Grant’s painting routine
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s love of music
  • Mark Rowlands on reading to Duncan Grant while he painted
  • Mark Rowlands on the look and smell of the Studio
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s erotic drawings
  • Mark Rowlands on Duncan Grant’s youthful outlook
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s attraction to younger people
  • Quentin Bell on Duncan Grant
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s personality and genius
  • Simon Watney on Duncan Grant’s last years: ‘the light went out’

Queer Objects

Charleston’s varied collection acts as a repository of incredible stories, every object’s cultural content waiting silently to be unlocked and revealed. Many objects at Charleston have queer connections.

Discover the queer history of some key works of art in the house, and look out for them on your next visit.

Studio Passageway : This characterful etching is hung in the passageway to Duncan Grant’s studio and depicts two sailors in conversation at a bar.  The work was given to Clive Bell, husband of Vanessa Bell, by French artist Jean Oberlé, and bears a personal inscription to Bell.  The subject matter can be considered a gay archetype, and it is interesting to consider the etching through this lens.

Print, Jean Oberlé, "English Bar", 1926, etching, framed, glazed, signed and dated, inscribed "à Clive Bell Souvenir de Londres", 18.3 cm x 12.9 cm.

Print, Jean Oberlé, “English Bar”, 1926, etching, framed, glazed, signed and dated, inscribed “à Clive Bell Souvenir de Londres”, 18.3 cm x 12.9 cm

Sailors have long been a common trope in queer iconography, and this etching introduces homoerotic undertones through the pair’s close, interacting pose. Predominantly male organisations, such as the navy, have tended to be homoeroticised by society, in part due to the combination of the hyper-masculine environment of the ship and the specific characteristics of the naval uniform.  Ships were crammed with young, fit and healthy men in uniforms that were more feminine in their fashion-conscious tight fit than other more practically designed military uniforms. The sailor has as such been historically fetishized and queered because of his costume and all-male environment. In this etching we see an exploration of this queer iconography: the sensuality of the tipped hat and close fit clothes, accentuating the physique of the male body, is brought out in the fluid curves of the foreground figure, while the front-facing figure exudes health and strength.

Jean Oberlé, the artist of this work, became a major voice in the French resistance through the powerful medium of the radio in the 1940s, producing famous slogans of the BBC Free French broadcast in particular. One of the best known was ‘Radio Paris ment, Radio Paris ment, Radio Paris est allemande‘ (‘Radio Paris is lying, Radio Paris is lying, Radio Paris is German’). Closely involved in the Free French broadcasts with Oberlé was Raymond Mortimer, the Francophile writer, literary and art critic and editor.  Mortimer was a member of the second generation Bloomsbury group and was the long-term lover of Harold Nicolson, husband of Vita Sackville-West.

The Dining Room: Lytton Strachey was the cousin of Duncan Grant. Born in 1880, he was the eleventh of thirteen children, and five years senior to Grant. Strachey found overnight fame for his magnum opus, Eminent Victorians (1918), a collection of biographies of Victorian heroes, written in a radical, new style combining psychological insight with irony and wit.

Lytton Strachey by Duncan Grant, c.1913. Photo © Penelope Fewster

Lytton Strachey by Duncan Grant, c.1913 Photo © Penelope Fewster

Before finding fame Strachey had become firmly entwined in the Bloomsbury group, and it is through the Stracheys that Duncan Grant was first introduced to this group of extraordinary friends. In the company of his Bloomsbury friends Strachey was able to be openly gay and had a passionate love affair with John Maynard Keynes. However, outside of his circle, Strachey’s sexuality was not widely known about and was not published until the biographies of Michael Holroyd in the late 1960s.

Lytton was the first of Grant’s many male lovers. Lytton wrote of the intensity of his love to Maynard Keynes in 1905 ‘… I’ve managed, since I saw you last, to catch a glimpse of Heaven. Incredible, quite – yet so it’s happened. I want to go into the wilderness of the world, and preach an infinitude of sermons on one text – “Embrace one another.” It seems to me the grand solution. Oh dear, dear, dear, how wild, how violent, and how supreme are the things of this earth! – I am cloudy, I fear almost sentimental. But I’ll write again. Oh yes, it’s Duncan.’[1]

This exuberant painting exemplifies the transformation in Grant’s style in the early 1910s in the wake of Post-Impressionism. A vibrant palette and broad, visible brush strokes in colour blocks express Strachey’s renowned idiosyncrasies. Joyous and humorous, the work could be a caricature. Compare the 1913 work with Grant’s painting Lytton Strachey. Verso: Crime and Punishment (c. 1909), just four years earlier, and we see how the later work encapsulates an enormous turning point in the development of the artist.

The colourful work betrays a challenging time for the lives of those in the Bloomsbury group. It was painted in September 1913 at Asheham House, home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. As Michael Holroyd describes, ‘in blinding fauviste sunlight, Duncan, Roger [Fry] and Vanessa had simultaneously painted Lytton’s portrait.’[2] However, the reason for this visit was to support the Woolfs in the wake of Virginia’s suicide attempt earlier that month. Strachey had proposed to Virginia Woolf in 1909 and following this failure had suggested to Leonard Woolf that he might propose. While it took some time to come to being, Strachey may be credited with initiating the relationship, and remained lifelong friends with both Leonard and Virginia.

Strachey never married, but participated in a lifelong open relationship with the artist Dora Carrington, who in turn married Ralph Partridge, with whom Strachey was involved sexually. Strachey led a life of poor health and died aged 51 of cancer.

[1]Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey, The New Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995), p. 115

[2]ibid, p. 293

John Maynard Keynes’ Room: Adrian Stephen was the younger brother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. He was a lover of Duncan Grant before Grant had a child with Stephen’s sister, Vanessa.

Following in his elder brother Thoby’s footsteps, Adrian Stephen went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, before moving to the Bloomsbury district in London.

Adrian Stephen by Duncan Grant, c. 1910. Photo © Penelope Fewster.

Adrian Stephen by Duncan Grant, c. 1910 Photo © Penelope Fewster

Adrian Stephen and Duncan Grant became close friends when both lived in Fitzroy Square. Grant was such a frequent visitor to the home of Adrian and Virginia Stephen that the maid Maud remarked, ‘That Mr Grant gets in everywhere’.[1] The two men went on to have a sexual affair which began in 1909. During this time Grant painted three portraits of Stephen of which two now reside at Charleston.

In 1910 Adrian participated with Duncan, Virginia and others in the famous ‘Dreadnought Hoax’, in which the group gained a tour by the admiralty of their most prized warship, pretending to be an envoy of Abyssinian princes. The episode gained notoriety in the national papers and was a cause of great embarrassment for the navy.

Like many members of the Bloomsbury group, Stephen was a conscientious objector during the First World War. He married fellow student Karin Costelloe in 1914, who was an authority on the French philosopher and public figure, Henri Bergsen. Together with Karin, Stephen developed a deep interest in Freud and was a psychoanalyst during the very earliest stages of the profession in the UK.

Of the two portraits that reside at Charleston, Frances Spalding has noted that both ‘catch the pallor of his long face and the steadiness of his gaze, which conveys a subdued watchfulness. The impression remains of hidden depths, of a character whose complexities are withdrawn and possibly too deeply entangled to allow for any surface indication of them. Awareness of this may eventually have helped Adrian in his final choice of career: psychoanalysis.’[2]

The brutality of World War Two led Stephen to abandon his pacifism and he volunteered as an army psychologist at the age of 60. He died in 1948.

[1] Duncan Grant “Virginia Stephen” in Virginia Woolf: interviews and recollections (ed. J H Stape, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1995), p. 135

[2] Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997) p. 92.

The Orchard: The novelist David Garnett is a central figure at two important points of the Charleston narrative.

A member of the original household, Garnett moved with Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Bell’s children Julian and Quentin to Charleston in October 1916. Garnett and Grant were lovers at the time. Like many members of the Bloomsbury group, they were both conscientious objectors and needed to find meaningful work on the land in order to avoid prison during World War I.  It was due to this need that the family came to move to Charleston, and a nearby farm took on Grant and Garnett as labourers.

Bust of David Garnett, photograph © Grace Towner

Bust of David Garnett, photograph © Grace Towner

Garnett and Grant’s relationship was often turbulent, filled with jealousies and tension. Life at Charleston was often difficult and uneasy during the first few years; their relationship eventually came to an end.

Garnett, always known as Bunny to friends, had a literary career writing several novels and running a bookshop with Francis Birrell. Today his best known work is probably his novel Aspects of Love, which was turned into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1989.

Garnett was bisexual, and went on to marry the illustrator Rachel (Ray) Marshall, sister of Bloomsbury group member Frances Partridge. Ray died young of breast cancer, and in due course Garnett once again became a key operator in the lives of the Bloomsbury group at Charleston.

On hearing the news of the birth of his former lover Duncan Grant’s child Angelica on Christmas Day 1918, Garnett wrote to Lytton Strachey: ‘I think of marrying it. When she is 20, I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?’ When Angelica reached her early twenties, he did just that.

Fittingly for a person labelled ‘Bloomsbury’s Outsider’ in a biography by Sarah Knights, Garnett is represented at Charleston not in the house itself, but by this sculpture in the Orchard.  The sculpture has been the subject of recent restoration work with the aid of the Pebble Trust, which you can find out more about here.

The Library: Stephen Tomlin was a sculptor and close friend of the Bloomsbury group; one of his most famous works is the bust of Virginia Woolf, the original of which resides in Charleston’s Studio.

This sculpture by Tomlin is of Lytton Strachey, the cousin of Duncan Grant. It was commissioned by Strachey in 1928, and captures Strachey’s long distinctive face and beard, and ambitiously depicts his circular spectacles. Strachey wrote of the portrait, ‘I sit all day to Tommy, who is creating what appears to me a highly impressive, repulsive, and sinister object.’[1]

Tomlin was educated at Harrow, together with Angus Davidson (a lover of Grant’s in the 1920s), and after attending Oxford he trained with sculptor Frank Dobson. He went through a series of relationships with both men and women, and in 1927 married Lytton Strachey’s niece, Julia, separating five years later. Both Angus Davidson and Grant developed feelings for Tomlin in the early 1920s.

Tomlin’s relationship with Grant came to a height in 1923, when Bell wrote to Grant ‘You are at the moment no doubt sitting in the arms of Tommy – at least feeling quite happy, I hope, also not staying up too late.’[2] At this point Grant was taking on a number of lovers, possibly in response to the dissolution of his longer affair with Bunny Garnett. Bell wrote regularly to Grant to find out the details of his love affairs, asking teasingly ‘I wonder which arms are round you now, A’s or D’s or T’s or XYZ’s. Not B’s or are they B’s? It’s quite possible another B is with you and if so there’s no doubt where his arms are. But when you really make up your mind to leave them all in the lurch perhaps you’ll come to the country with me.[3]

Later when the sexual relationship had subdued, Grant remained friends with Tomlin and his subsequent lovers. One of Tomlin’s lovers known as ‘H’ became a particularly loyal friend to Grant, notifying Grant when police had targeted meeting places of the gay community at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. Grant returned the friendship and often lent small amounts of money to ‘H’, who returned the loans when he could.

Tomlin died at the age of 35 in early 1937, ill health exacerbated by alcoholism and psychological trouble. Virginia Woolf remarked it was a ‘tragic, wasted life’.[4]

[1]Tate, “Display caption, Lytton Strachey by Stephen Tomlin, 1930″, 2004, retrieved from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/tomlin-lytton-strachey-n04616
[2]Vanessa Bell to Duncan Grant, April 1923, TGA, quoted in Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997), p. 253
[3]Vanessa Bell to Duncan Grant, April 1923, TGA, quoted ibid, p. 294
[4]Woolf, Diary, V, p. 48, quoted ibid, p. 350

The Studio:  This striking photograph shows Nijinksy prowling, feline, dressed in the full costume of his role in Les Orientales in 1911.  It resides in the Studio at Charleston and perhaps served for Duncan Grant as a prompt to old memories and inspiration, recalling a moment in time when the artistic world underwent a radical change.

Nijinsky in the Siamese Dance from 'Les Orientales'. Photograph by Penelope Fewster

Nijinsky in the Siamese Dance from ‘Les Orientales’. Photograph by Penelope Fewster

When Diaghalev’s Ballet Russes came to London in 1911, Grant was enthralled by its originality: powerful rhythms, sensual movement and androgynous shapes and costumes transformed the art of dance.  Central to the success of the Ballet Russes was one particular dancer: Vaslav Nijinksy.  Nijinsky was world famous, and renowned as much for his physical prowess and balletic virtuosity as for being one half of Europe’s most famous gay couple, living openly in a relationship with Diaghalev.

Coinciding with the discovery of freedom of form and colour in the work of Matisse and the Post-Impressionists, Grant was stimulated by these great modern changes in the arts and underwent a rapid development of painterly style.

Nijinksy and Grant met in 1912, and went on to see each other at several parties, including those hosted by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Holroyd describes how Grant ‘had at once become what Ottoline called the “pet” of both Nijinksy and Diaghilev: “I saw Nijinksy looking him all over!” she reported (20 July 1913).’[1]

A Bloomsbury party during which Grant played tennis went on to provide the inspiration to Nijinksy’s Jeux (1913), a ballet exploring homosexual and heterosexual pairings and trios, set to a score by Debussy. As Millicent Hodson’s book Nijinksy’s Bloomsbury Ballet reveals, the subject of the ballet is the ‘libertine manners and mores of the Bloomsbury artists [Nijinksy] and designer Leon Bakst observed at a nocturnal tennis party in London’s Bedford Square. The ambiguous coupling and tripling Nijinsky explored in Jeux startled the public as did Debussy’s music … Critics attacked not so much the ethics of Jeux as its post-impressionist aesthetics influenced by the French painters that Bloomsbury had revealed to England since 1910.’ [2]

Reciprocating the influence, Grant’s tennis player murals for Brunswick Square in 1913 then echoed the balletic shapes and costumes of Nijinksy’s ballet.

Bloomsbury’s links to the Ballet Russes were cemented in 1925 by the marriage of John Maynard Keynes to ballerina Lydia Lopokova. You can find out more about Ballet and the Bloomsbury group from a post in our Charleston Attic blog by our curatorial interns.

Nijinsky’s later life was plagued by debilitating mental illness. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1918, after which he never danced again.


[1]Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey, The New Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995), p291
[2]Millicent Hodson, Nijinsky’s Bloomsbury ballet: reconstruction of dance and design for Jeux (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2008)

Duncan Grant’s Bedroom: George Bergen was a Russian born painter who moved to the United States in his early life. He became closely linked with the Bloomsbury group through relationships with Duncan Grant and later, Grant’s daughter Angelica. This small painting, which is found in Duncan Grant’s bedroom, dates from around 1931, in the middle of their turbulent relationship, and is one of eight works by Bergen in the Charleston collection.

George Bergen, 'The Policeman', circa 1931

George Bergen, ‘The Policeman’, c.1931

Bergen met Grant in late 1929, and they quickly became close friends, painting together on Hampstead Heath. As Quentin Bell recalls, Bergen was strikingly attractive, ‘To Duncan and to many others George Bergen was an Adonis or perhaps an Apollo: immensely handsome, irresistibly charming, a most gifted painter, a man of wit, perhaps of profundity.’[1]

The friendship rapidly developed into a love affair, and Grant and Bergen spent time privately together at Charleston in 1930. Vanessa Bell at this point was so strongly attached to Grant that she was jealous and uncertain of their relationship. Grant confided to Bunny Garnett of the complications of his feelings: ‘I know perfectly well that George loves me … But why do I get into a state when he is tired and I am tired and therefore think that he has no feeling for me? And why does Nessa not believe that I love her as much as ever I did? … Why does she not realise that my love for George gives me more power to love her instead of less … The truth is I want them both … Only I know that sometimes Nessa suddenly feels that I give something to George that I don’t give to her.’[2]

Bergen made several trips to America, and became less involved with Grant in the mid 1930s, with his poor rate of replying to letters leading to a distance in their relationship. In America he spent a period in California, mixing with film stars and painting their portraits, the most notable of which was of Charlie Chaplin. He returned to American permanently shortly before the second world war, and lived in New York until his death many years later. Grant visited New York in the 1960s with Paul Roche, and rekindled his friendship with Bergen, accepting his hospitality and staying up into the small hours despite his old age.

In 1967, Grant and Bell’s daughter Angelica visited Bergen in New York, and fell in love. At the age of 50, Angelica had once again fallen for one of her father’s former lovers, earlier having married Bunny Garnett. Grant wrote to his daughter, ‘Of course I am deeply interested to hear of your feelings for George. I only hope his complete inability to write letters may not make things difficult for you, because he is sometimes a difficult person to understand as you probably know.’[3] Angelica went on to live with Bergen for a time, but the relationship was fraught with Bergen’s divided loyalties and was over within a year.

[1]Quentin Bell, Bloomsbury Recalled (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 65

[2]Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997, p.298

[3]ibid, p. 460

Clive Bell’s Study: The artist Edward Le Bas was a very good friend of both Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, as well as being a regular visitor to Charleston.  He led a dual life as a businessman and artist, and as a lover of both men and women.

The only son of an iron and steel magnate, Le Bas was born in Hampstead and educated at Harrow where he became friends with Cecil Beaton. He attended the studio of Herman Paul, a disciple of Cézanne, and later studied architecture at Cambridge. In 1924 he enrolled at the Royal College of Art where contemporaries included Henry Moore, John Piper, and Eric Ravilious.

Vase, circa 1940, glazed ceramic, potted by Quentin Bell, decorated by Edward Le Bas

Vase, circa 1940, glazed ceramic, potted by Quentin Bell, decorated by Edward Le Bas, marked with Quentin Bell’s mark and Edward Le Bas’s initials, 12.5 cm x 19.5 cm x 19.5 cm

Le Bas’ friendship was Grant and Bell was long lasting, and included holidays to Venice and Provence.  A substantial legacy after the death of his father in 1934 enabled him to acquire a significant collection of paintings, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1963.  His collection had particular strengths in the Camden Town Group and also in Bloomsbury artists, especially Duncan Grant.

This vase was potted by Quentin Bell around 1940, and both Bell’s and Le Bas’ identifying marks are on the base of the piece. Le Bas was primarily an oil painter but perhaps in response to his surroundings at Charleston readily applied his brush to ceramics.

Le Bas posed for Grant for the Berwick Church murals in 1944, tied to an easel for the Crucifixion.  His friendship was particularly welcome in 1946 following the death of Maynard Keynes, as Spalding notes, ‘for this talented painter and discerning collector was also a witty and generous host.’[1]

He was made an RA in 1954, and in 1957 he became a CBE.  He died in 1966. As Frances Spalding wrote in her biography, when Duncan Grant heard the news he ‘cried, alone, at the loss of so close a friend. “Edward le Bas’ death was a great blow to me,” he told Richard Morphet.’[2]

[1] Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997) p.397

[2] ibid, p. 454

The Studio: The sculptor Stephen Tomlin created this bust of writer Virginia Woolf, sister to Vanessa Bell, in 1931. Woolf had found success as a novelist in the latter half of the 1920s with works including Mrs DallowayTo The Lighthouse, and Orlando.  Written in 1928, Orlando is an imagined biography in which the protagonist’s life spans both centuries and sexes, and is regarded as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf was involved romantically for a decade.

Virginia Woolf bust by Stephen Tomlin

Virginia Woolf bust by Stephen Tomlin, photo by Penny Fewster

Vita Sackville-West had an open marriage to her husband Harold Nicolson, both engaging in same-gender affairs. Leonard Woolf, too, was in full knowledge of the affair between Vita and his wife, Virginia, however her sister Vanessa was only enlightened in 1929 after the affair ended.

Woolf wrote of the moment to Sackville-West in a letter, revealing that curiosity rather than opinion was aroused in Bell: ‘I told Nessa the story of our passion in a chemists shop the other day. “But do you really like going to bed with women” she said – taking her change. “And how’d you do it?” and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot.’[1]

Nigel Nicolson, the son of Vita Sackville-West, wrote of Orlando, ‘The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.’[2]

After their affair ended, the two women remained friends until Woolf’s death in 1941.

[1] Karyn Sproles, Desiring Women: The Partnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2006), p. 4
[2] Harry Blamires, A Guide to twentieth century literature in English (London; New York: Methuen, 1983), p. 307

John Maynard Keynes’ Room: John Maynard Keynes is widely considered to be the founder of modern macroeconomics, and his ideas fundamentally changed governmental economic policies in Britain, Europe and around the world in the mid 20th century. Along with Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, he became a member of Bloomsbury through its emergence from the Cambridge Apostles.

Portrait of Keynes by Duncan Grant (c) The Estate of Duncan Grant courtesy of DACS.

Portrait of Keynes by Duncan Grant (c) The Estate of Duncan Grant courtesy of DACS.

A polymath, Keynes is a man who defies easy categorisation. The same difficulty could be said of his love life, but one particular document gives us some clues to his early leanings. Analytical to the core, from turning 18 in 1901 until the year 1915 Keynes kept a table of his sexual conquests which reveals a considerable appetite for same-gender relationships. In 1905 he had been vicariously thriving on Lytton Strachey’s letters detailing his love of Duncan Grant. Following the dissolution of the cousins’ sexual relationship, Keynes began a three-year affair with Strachey in 1906 (as well as an affair with Lytton’s brother James in the same year).

In a typical Bloomsbury entanglement, Maynard Keynes then began a relationship with Grant in 1908. Though the love affair was not long lasting, a close relationship followed for the next decade and Grant remains on the Keynes’ list every year until its end in 1915.

Grant and Keynes’ relationship formed one of the most important in their respective lives. Grant painted a touching portrait in 1908 at Cambridge during the height of their passion, Keynes at work but affectionately meeting the artist’s gaze with a smile. An Edwardian palette informs the work.

A decade later at Charleston, Grant again focused his gaze on Keynes, producing a sensitive and intimate portrait, temporally coinciding with a maturation in Grant’s post-impressionist style. Painted in the Charleston garden, Grant uses a broader, lighter palette than the earlier work.  Keynes is still at work, this time his eyes fixed downwards concentrating on the matter in hand.

The publication of The Economic Consequences of the Peace in 1919, a left-wing work critical of the punitive measures imposed on Germany post-war, led to considerable renown for Keynes. The work was largely written during his time at Charleston.

Among his friends Keynes was known as an exclusive homosexual, however in 1921 he caused a stir by falling in love with Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova. The news of their marriage in 1925 was not met with much enthusiasm at Charleston. Following prolonged stays at Charleston though, Keynes leased Tilton Cottage just a few hundred yards away.

Fame was cemented by the 1936 treatise The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which became a sensation and bestseller. In the early 1940s Keynes, a passionate and tireless advocate of all the arts, became chair of the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), which was renamed the Arts Council shortly after Keynes’ death in 1946.

Charleston is grateful for the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund and the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund in the acquisition of this painting.

Vanessa Bells’ Bedroom: Julian Bell was the eldest child of Vanessa and Clive Bell. He spent much of his childhood at Charleston before going up to Cambridge, where he became a member of the Apostles much like many first generation Bloomsbury figures. His first sexual encounter was with Anthony Blunt, the famed art historian who later confessed to being a Soviet spy. Julian Bell was a poet, and taught English in Wuhan, China before going to Spain as a volunteer ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War, where he lost his life in 1937.

Julian Bell, by Vanessa Bell 1908

Julian Bell, by Vanessa Bell 1908

This tender portrait by Vanessa Bell depicts her first-born son Julian sleeping. Bell’s artistic gaze takes on a new maternal dimension, Bell turning to the medium of paint to express and explore the intensity of a new kind of love. Mother and son developed a deep closeness, and throughout Julian’s life, his mother was his most important figure.

Julian felt no qualms in telling his mother of his first sexual experience in a letter of 1929, ‘My great news is about Ant[h]ony. I feel certain you won’t be upset or shaked at my telling you that we sleep together.’[1]

Vanessa Bell was quick to reassure her son, ‘You are right, of course, my dear, in thinking that I shall not be shocked – I am only delighted at anything that makes you happy.’[2]

The affair was not long lasting and by the end of the year Bell had set his sights on the opposite gender. Although he resumed heteronormative relationships from this point on, he was unusual in how candidly he spoke and wrote of his relationships with friends, family and the objects of his affections. Against emotion as a guiding principle, he felt compelled to speak the truth at all times.

Bell spent two years teaching at Wuhan University in China, returning after his affair with the dean’s wife was uncovered. Unlike the pacifists of the first generation of the Bloomsbury group, Julian Bell felt a great compulsion to take part in the resistance in Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. After lengthy debate the compromise of a volunteer ambulance driver role was settled on, as it was considered a safe position. However, within weeks Bell was killed during heavy fighting, one of 500 volunteer men and women from Britain to suffer this fate.


[1] Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, Julian Bell: from Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War (Stanford, California: Standford University Press, 2012) p. 74

[2] ibid, p. 75

Online Articles

The selection of articles here are chosen to reflect an engagement with gay heritage, and range from the anecdotal to the academic, providing a snapshot of the broad and varied approaches to examining the history of Bloomsbury. The Charleston Trust regularly commissions articles from leading Bloomsbury scholars as part of our charitable remit to promote public knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Charleston and its historical, literary and artistic connections. 

Further Reading

Links are made to books available in the online Charleston Shop.  All profits from the Charleston Shop go towards The Charleston Trust.

  • Michael Bronski, Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility (Boston (Mass.): South End Press, 1984)
  • Anne Chisholm, ed., Carrington’s Letters: Her Art, Her Loves, Her Friendships (Chatto and Windus, 2015)
  • Richard Davenport-Hines, Universal Man The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes (William Collins2015) 
  • Louise DeSalvo and Mitchel A. Leaska, The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf (London: Hutchinson, 1984)
  • P. N. Furbank, E. M. Forster: A Life, 2 vols., London: Secker & Warburg, 1977-8.Angelica Garnett, Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood (London: Chatto & Windus, 1984)
  • Victoria Glendinning, Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983)
  • Brenda Helt and Madelyn Detloff, eds., Queer Bloomsbury (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)
  • Anne Hermann, Queering the Moderns (New York: Palgrave, 2000)
  • Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: The New Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994)
  • Sarah Knights, Bloomsbury’s Outsider: A Life of David Garnett (Bloomsbury, 1997) 
  • Kevin Kopelson, The queer afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1997)
  • Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996)
  • Regina Mahler, ed., Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1994)
  • Robert Martin and George Piggford, eds., Queer Forster (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1997)
  • Wendy Moffat, E. M. Forster: A New Life (Bloomsbury, 1994)
  • Nigel Nicholson, ed. The Letters of Virginia Woolf Volume Three, 1923-28 (Houghton Mifflin, 1980)
  • Michael Petry, Hidden histories: 20th century male same sex lovers in the visual arts (London: Artmedia, 2004)
  • Christopher Reed, Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004)
  • Katie Roiphe, Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939 (London: Virago, 2008)
  • Richard Shone, Bloomsbury Portraits: Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and their Circle (London: Phaidon, second edition 1993)
  • Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, 3 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1983-2000)
  • Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997)
  • Karyn Sproles, Desiring Women: The Partnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2006)
  • Lytton Strachey, The Letters of Lytton Strachey (ed. Paul Levy, London: Viking, 2005)
  • Julie Anne Taddeo, Lytton Strachey and the search for modern sexual identity: the last eminent Victorian (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002)
  • Douglas Turnbaugh, Private: the erotic art of Duncan Grant, 1885-1978 (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1989)
  • Simon Watney, The Art of Duncan Grant (London: John Murray, 1990)
  • D. A. Boxwell, ‘In the Urinal’: Woolf Around Gay Men’, Virginia Woolf and Her Influences: Selected Papers from the Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, Jeanette McVicker & Laura Davis, eds. (New York: Pace University Press, 1998)
  • David Eberly, ‘Talking it All Out: Homosexual Disclosure in Woolf’, Virginia Woolf: Themes and Variations. Selected Papers from the Second Annual Conference (New York: Pace University Press, 1993)
  • Barbara Fassler, ‘Theories of Homosexuality as Sources of Bloomsbury’s Androgyny’, Signs (Vol. 5, No. 2, 1979)
  • Christopher Reed, ‘Making History: The Bloomsbury Group’s Construction of Aesthetic and Sexual Identity’, Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History, Whitney Davis, ed., (Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1994); simultaneously released as double issue of The Journal of Homosexuality 27 (1/2), 1994
  • Christopher Reed, ‘A Society of Buggers: Bloomsbury as Queer Subculture’, Cambridge Companion to Bloomsbury, Victoria Rosner, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
  • Julie Taddeo, ‘A Modernist Romance? Lytton Strachey and the Women of Bloomsbury’, Unmanning Modernism: Gendered Re-Readings, eds., Harrison and Peterson (1997)


What's on

White Vanessa Bell Fabric
SHOP: Fabrics designed by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell
Bloomsbury Cookbook
SHOP: Books
SHOP: Ceramics

Get involved