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- Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey in the garden of Ham Spray House.

Who were the Bloomsbury Group?

The Bloomsbury Group (or "Set"), that English collection of friends and relatives who mostly lived in or near London during the first half of the twentieth century, had an interesting association with Ham Spray House near Hungerford.

Their work deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality. Liberation and what became known as polyfidelity were explored by many of the group.

Its best known members were the novelists and essayists Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, and Mary (Molly) MacCarthy, the biographer and essayist Lytton Strackey, the economist John Maynard Keynes, the painters Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and Roger Fry, and the critics of literature, art, and politics, Desmond MacCarthy, Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf.

Initially, the male members of the group had nearly all been at Trinity College or King's College, Cambridge. Interestingly, close friends, brothers, sisters, and even sometimes partners of the friends were not necessarily members of Bloomsbury. Lytton Strachey's companion, the painter Dora Carrington, was never a full member; Keynes's wife Lydia Lopokova was only reluctantly accepted into the group.

Other members seemed to be socialite and society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, Virginia Woolf's long term lover Vita Sackville-West, Arthur Waley, and a few others mentioned in Woolf's letters and diaries. 

What was their connection with Ham Spray?

As well as the social side of their friendships, there were various affairs among the individuals. Initially they lived in Bloomsbury, but over the years they acquired other houses, some of them out of London. One of these was a few miles south of Hungerford, at Ham Spray House, just off the Ham to Inkpen road.

In 1921, Ralph Partridge married Dora Carrington, who was in love with Lytton Strachey, a homosexual who was himself more interested in Ralph Partridge. An added complication was Dora Carrington's intermittent affair with one of Ralph Partridge's best friends, Gerald Brenan. Carrington, Partridge, and Strachey shared Ham Spray, in a complex triangular relationship.

The diarist Frances Partridge married into Lytton Strachey's ménage in the thirties. Frances originally met many of the 'set' whilst indexing the translation of Freud's entire work and working at the London bookshop owned by David Garnett There are frequent references to the Carringtons, Augustus John, John Julius Norwich, the Stracheys, EM Forster and Virginia Woolf. Frances' father knew Darwin and HG Wells.

Frances Partridge's diaries and books include fascinating glimpses into their life at Ham Spray, and these are just a few extracts:

"Early in 1924 Lytton (Strachey) and Ralph (Partridge) jointly purchased Ham Spray House in the Wiltshire downs, registering it in Ralph's name, as he was considerably the younger. During that Spring electricity (self-generated) was installed, as well as a massive central-heating system, whose large formidable-looking radiators never managed to attain anything above mild tepidity, even when the boiler was constantly stoked with hods-full of coke. No matter, the house was a dream, and the beauty of its position and its view - looking out towards downs that were neither too close nor too far away, but composed a perfect whole, set off by the beechwood hanger on their domed top - was a source of perpetual joy.'

"The front hall is yellow (wrote Ralph in July), the arches in the passage to the kitchen, Giotto blue - but it's really more Fra Angelico."

"January 3rd 1928. Away at last! A fine morning; nearly all the snow gone, and a car from the Bear at Hungerford to fetch us. From the windows of our train we gazed out at acres of floods on both sides; we swam through Newbury station like a swan; the rails had disappeared under water."

Even greater insight into the complexity and intensity of life in the "group" can be gained from the following summary of Dora Carrington's life, and her connection with Ham Spray House:

"The painter Dora Carrington (1893-1932), later always known simply as Carrington. attended the Slade at Oxford, and whilst there she met Mark Gertler, a fellow artist who would pursue her romantically for several years. Gertler introduced her to Lady Ottoline Morrell, and thus into the Bloomsbury group. It was while visiting Morrell at Garsington Manor in 1915 that Carrington was introduced to Lytton Strachey, a writer and confirmed homosexual. Gertler, feeling that Strachey could act as a safe go-between for himself, encouraged their friendship. To his dismay, Carrington fell inexplicably and deeply in love with Strachey, a love that would last for the rest of her life and cause her to follow him from life into death.

In 1917 Carrington's relationship with Gertler ended and when Strachey rented Mill House, Tidmarsh, she moved in with him. Carrington met Ralph Partridge, an Oxford friend of her younger brother Noel, in 1918. Partridge fell in love with Carrington and, accepting that she was still in love with Strachey and would not give up her platonic relationship or living arrangements with him, married her in 1921. In 1924 he and Strachey purchased the lease to Ham Spray House, near Hungerford, and all three lived out their lives there.

Over the next eight years Carrington divided her time between domestic chores, caring for Strachey whose health was erratic, and her art work. She painted on almost any medium she could find including glass, tiles, pub signs, and the walls of friends' homes; she also made woodcuts for Hogarth Press and did some leather work.

She had two well-known affairs, one with Gerald Brenan, an army friend of Partridge's, and the other with a sailor, Beakus Penrose. In 1926 Partridge formed an attachment to Frances Marshall, ending his marriage with Carrington in spirit, if not in law, but maintained his role of manager for Ham Spray House, visiting most weekends.

In November 1931 Strachey became suddenly and violently ill. Doctors fluctuated between diagnoses of typhoid fever and ulcerative colitis, but his condition - stomach cancer - was not accurately diagnosed until an autopsy was performed. Round the clock nurses were hired and various treatments were tried. In late December he took a turn for the worse and on 20th December Carrington attempted suicide by shutting herself in the garage with the car running. Partridge rescued her and she recovered enough to spend the last few days of Strachey's life taking her turn watching over him.

On 21 Jan 1932 Strachey died. The local doctor Dr T G Starkey-Smith wrote a paper on Strachey's illness and the post-mortem findings. The paper was published in the British Medical Journal on 28th May 1932. [Many thanks to Susan Fox for this reference].

The greatest concern of their friends now became preventing Carrington from killing herself; arrangements were made to keep her occupied and attended.

In March Carrington was planning for a trip to France and her friends began to feel less concern, but she also borrowed a gun from a neighbour, ostensibly to shoot rabbits in her garden. On 11 Mar 1932 she shot herself fatally. She was found before she died and Ralph Partridge, Frances Marshall, and David Garnett arrived at Ham Spray House in time to say good-bye."

Shortly after Carrington's death, Ralph Partridge and Frances Marshall married on 2 Mar 1933, and they lived happily at Ham Spray until Ralph's death in 1960. In her memoirs and diaries, Frances made frequent references to walks along the Kennet and Avon Canal, watching the swans at Crofton, and to staying at The Bear in Hungerford. She also writes of walks and drives in Savernake Forest, as well as over the downland around Inkpen Beacon.

Through her reminiscences grows a realisation of the importance of this tranquil background to the intellectual and social activity of the key members of the group, and particularly of Strachey's writings and Carrington's art.

See also:

- British Medical Journal paper on Strackey's illness and post mortem, 28 May 1932

- Obituary of Frances Partridge, Daily Telegraph, 7 Feb 2004

- Ham Spray House