Love and the literary retreat
Bliss for a Bloomsbury threesome was a Wiltshire farmhouse, says Anna Tyzack
It was a curious set-up at Ham Spray House in the 1920s. The Bloomsbury Group was given to love in triangles, so artist Dora Carrington was in love with Giles Lytton Strachey, the biographer, who loved Ralph Partridge, an ex-army officer; Partridge loved Strachey, but married Carrington to stabilise their triangular relationship.
In 1924, they set up home together at the 19th-century farmhouse outside the village of Ham, in Wiltshire, along with Ralph’s lover (and later wife) Frances.
Ham Spray, which cost Partridge and Strachey £2,000, suited their communal living and working arrangements. Surrounded by fields, and with a local shop selling Wellington boots, it was “a perfect English country house”.
“We believed there was no view more beautiful, more inexhaustible in England, and no house more lovable than Ham Spray,” wrote Frances in her diary. It is now on the market for £2.75million, complete with decorative works by Carrington.
Ham Spray’s setting is not dissimilar to that of Charleston, in Sussex, the farmhouse at the foot of the South Downs that Virginia Woolf found for Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell and Duncan Grant (another ménage à trois). However, the rooms are of Georgian proportions, with high ceilings and cornices and pretty fireplaces – perfect for Carrington’s tiles and painted furniture. Her paintings hung on every wall, alongside works by Grant, Vanessa Bell and Augustus John.
While Lytton Strachey wrote in his upstairs study, looking out across Ham Hill and Inkpen Beacon, Carrington painted in a studio above the former granary. In the evenings, they gathered in the music room, where there was a piano, gramophone and ping-pong table.
Leonard Woolf, nephew of Virginia, recalls a friend describing Ham Spray as “a centre of loving hospitality and enlightenment and the greatest civilized taste in all things”.
But seven years after moving in Strachey died of cancer, driving an inconsolable Carrington to shoot herself. According to Frances, who was then able to marry Ralph, “this fact did not fill the house with gloom”.
The Partridges had a son, Burgo, and continued to live at the house for almost 30 years, entertaining a roll-call of artists and writers, among them EMForster and Patrick Leigh Fermor. Frances sold the house a year after Ralph’s death in 1961, insisting that it did not become a shrine to the Bloomsbury Group.
She need not have worried. For the past 24 years, it has been a family home – in the conventional sense – for Mary and Richard Gray and their three children. “We wanted to bring up our children in the country,” says Mary. “We looked at a dozen houses in the area, but we couldn’t find anything that was not surrounded by other houses.”
The house has been redecorated since its Bloomsbury days. But the same things that enchanted Frances – the white façade and “inexhaustible” view – also appealed to the Grays. “We thought there must be a catch, but there wasn’t,” says Mary.
Even without Carrington’s bold colours, Ham Spray’s interior is lively. There are curved doors, alcoves with bookshelves, wood panelling, and arched ceilings in two of the bedrooms.
In Strachey’s former study – now a bedroom – there are surviving works by Carrington, including a mural of an owl and a self-portrait of her riding across the Downs, painted on a tile.
On a door in the corner of the room is a trompe d’oeil of a bookshelf, featuring titles such as Deception by Jane Austen and The Empty Room by Virginia Woolf. “It was included in an exhibition of Carrington’s work at The Barbican,” says Mary.
Ham Spray’s layout is largely as it was when Frances sold it, although the music room, with its six tall windows, is now a drawing room and there is a large farmhouse kitchen with an Aga.
“It is the hub of the house. The Partridges would have had servants, so it wouldn’t have seemed so big,” says Mary.
Parts of the house need restoring, but Mary is convinced it will be bought by someone who appreciates its Bloomsbury connections – and spectacular view. “It is beautiful even when it’s tipping down with rain,” she says. “And in the evening light the shadows are incredible.”
Inspiring: Ham Spray House and views, top and left; works by Carrington, centre and top; and Strachey