Great Men’s Houses

by charlestonattic

In her essay ‘Great Men’s Houses’ Virginia Woolf discussed the ways in which the Carlyles’ presence could still be felt at their London home after it became a museum. Woolf was of the opinion that the difficulties of the house, or ‘battlefield’, contributed significantly to the personalities of its occupants and that: ‘One hour spent in 5 Cheyne Row will tell us more about them and their lives than we can learn from all the biographies.’[1]


Influenced by her older sister, Vanessa Bell, Woolf invested a good deal of time, energy and money decorating her own homes. Hermione Lee writes that when the Woolfs moved into Monk’s House at Rodmell in 1919 ‘the relics’ belonging to former occupants ‘began to be mixed up with dark blue Omega plates on a green kitchen dresser, paintings by Duncan and Vanessa, and strong-coloured wall paints (pomegranate, green, yellow, blue) applied by Virginia.’[2] As time passed, they added:


carpets and china and screens, armchairs and cushions, all designed at Charleston. They bought mirrors in decorated canvas frames, cupboards and tables from Provence. There would be a painted dining table with chairs and a painted music cabinet from the music room designed at the Lefevre Gallery by Duncan and Vanessa in 1932. There would be a gramophone and a wireless, a fish tank, a box of bowls. The style of the furnishings was very similar, in places identical, to the sister house at Charleston.[3]


 The similarities to Charleston are noticeable in items of furniture and decorative motifs. The image below is a design found in one of the painters’ sketchbooks in the Angelica Garnett gift that would not look out of place at either home. The form and shapes recall the canvas-work mirror frame in the dining room at Monk’s House, designed by Grant and worked by his mother, and given to the Woolf’s for Christmas 1937.


However, there are also marked differences, such as the prevalent use of green (Woolf asked Bell: ‘Would I be allowed some rather garish but vibrating and radiating green and red lustres’)[4], whereas Charleston walls tend to be painted in colours designed to offset artworks. Woolf believed that:


it would seem to be a fact that writers stamp themselves upon their possessions more indelibly than other people. Of artistic taste they may have none; but they seem always to possess a much rare and more interesting gift – a faculty for housing themselves appropriately, for making the table, the chair, the curtain, the carpet into their own image.[5]


Her own possessions, and the quirky arrangements at Monk’s House seem to bear this trace of their owner, and a set of dining chairs painted by Bell and Grant are even physically stamped with her initials as shown in the image below.



[1]Virginia Woolf, ‘Great Men’s Houses’, The London Scene (London: Hogarth Press, 1982), p.25; Ibid., p.23.

[2]Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996), p.424.


[4]VW to VB, 13th June, 1936, Letters III, 1647, p.273.

[5]Virginia Woolf, ‘Great Men’s Houses’, The London Scene (London: Hogarth Press, 1982), p.25; Ibid., p.23.