Ottoline and Phillip were wed in 1902 but their marriage, although it endured, was not a happy one. Two extramarital affairs had a major impact on Ottoline. The first was a brief relationship with the Welsh painter, Augustus John, who encouraged her love of art; Ottoline not only served as a model for John and other leading artists in the London scene, she was also instrumental in the establishment of the Contemporary Art Society in 1910. The second was a long lasting relationship with the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Their correspondence over three decades amounted to more than 3,000 items, according to the scholar Alan Schwerin, who sees Ottoline as having had an intellectual influence on Russell’s celebrated book The Problems of Philosophy (Schwerin, 1999).
The Morrells fell into financial difficulties after the First World War and were forced to give up both 44 Bedford Square and their country residence, Garsington Manor, the latter having played host to Siegfried Sassoon and other conscientious objectors during the war. It was at this point that the couple moved to 10 Gower Street, a grand townhouse by most people’s estimation but a modest one by Ottoline’s. Her hospitality for intellectuals was undiminished, however, and the walled garden at the back of the building provided the perfect setting for afternoon tea. Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and other members of the Bloomsbury Set were regulars at these gatherings. So too were T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats visited 10 Gower Street from time to time, as on one occasion did the actor Charlie Chaplin. Ottoline was in poor health for much of her time at 10 Gower Street and she died on 21 April 1938 at the age of 64. Among the most fitting tributes paid to her was one by the writer Henry Green who recalled ‘the good she did to literally hundreds of young men…[and] the trouble she took over them and they went out into the world very different from what they would have been if they had not known her’ (Seymour, 2008: 556). Ottoline lives on not only in recollections such as these but also in the work of the writers whom she encouraged. Miranda Seymour sees traces of Morrell in characters such as Virgina Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, D.H. Lawrence’s Hermione Roddice and Aldous Huxley’s Mrs Bidlake. Not all of these portraits were flattering but they are testament to Ottoline’s enduring influence on the intellectuals of her day.
A new chapter in 10 Gower Street’s intellectual history began in 1982 with the arrival of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and Sociology. It was founded a decade earlier by Bernard Crick, a celebrated scholar of political liberalism and, later, biographer of George Orwell; Paul Hirst, a social theorist with an extraordinary range of research interests; and Sami Zubaida, a pioneer in the study of Middle East politics and an expert on, among other things, food and culture. Having previously been housed in Birkbeck’s Gresse Street Building, the Department made good use of its new surroundings. The old drawing room at 10 Gower Street became a seminar room for undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as the site of numerous PhD vivas. The building’s walled garden, meanwhile, played host to summer parties for staff and students at which Bernard Crick set off fireworks. These fireworks were apparently aimed at nearby Senate House, though it is reported that Crick hit his target on one occasion only (Seaton, 2008).
The Department of Politics and Sociology thrived in its Gower Street location. Through the 1980s and 1990s it became a hub of political and academic activity. Paul Hirst, a founder member of the Charter 88 campaign group for constitutional reform, organised events such as the Sovereignty Seminars, at which think tank members, party politicians, activists and academics worked to rethink the character of political rule in a progressive democratic direction. Ben Pimlott, biographer of Harold Wilson and of the Queen, maintained a buzz of activity in his first floor office, and Sami Zubaida made number 10 home to many scholars who gathered for the Middle East Research Group, and to the journal Economy and Society, both of which held meetings in the building. In the mid 1990s the Consortium PhD programme was launched from the seminar room, with students offered courses as wide-ranging as ‘Whiteness’, ‘Art and Antiquity’ and ‘Shit and Civilisation’. Through this, Paul Hirst’s ground floor office, with its open door and always-engaged inhabitant, became the venue for many informal but influential conversations, both erudite and political. In 2012, Birkbeck’s Department of Politics, as it is now called, celebrated its 40th anniversary. Today, it is home to more than 700 part-time and full-time certificate, undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students and 19 full-time faculty members who teach and research on topics ranging from British, European, Russian, American and Middle Eastern politics to gender, public policy, the economy, law, political theory and war. The Department also houses The Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life. 10 Gower Street remains central to the academic and social life of the department. The old drawing room remains a focal point for teaching and is named in memory of Paul Hirst. On its walls can be found a growing collection of politics books, portraits of Paul Hirst, George Birkbeck, who founded Birkbeck College in 1823, and Phillip and Ottoline Morrell. And, the spirit of Ottoline’s tea parties, not to mention Crick’s fireworks, carries on with the annual garden party.
Dr Dermot Hodson, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the Department of Politics, Birkbeck College.
Dr Sam Ashenden, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Department of Politics, Birkbeck College.
Note: The first photograph above is ‘The King and the Queen in Gower Street on their way to lay the foundation stone of a new building’ (Queen Mary) possibly by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1935, NPG, Ax143557, © National Portrait Gallery, London. It appears to be taken from the ground floor of 10 Gower Street and the foundation stone in question belongs to Senate House. The final photo shows Birkbeck students and faculty past and present at the annual garden party in July 2014.
Schwerin, A. (1999). A Lady, Her Philosopher and a Contradiction. Russell: the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies, 19(1), 3.
Seymour, M. (2008). Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale (London: Faber and Faber). Seaton, J. (2008). ‘Letters: Sir Bernard Crick’ The Guardian 27 December 2008.
Marr, A. (2009). The Making of Modern Britain (London: Pan Books). See pages 228-330: ‘Interlude at Garsington’.