Violet Gordon-Woodhouse

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Violet Gordon-Woodhouse (23 April 1872 – 9 January 1948) was an acclaimed British harpsichordist and clavichordist, highly influential in bringing both instruments back into fashion. She was the first person to record the harpsichord, and the first to broadcast harpsichord music.[1]


Violet Kate Eglinton Gwynne was born into a wealthy family with an estate in Sussex, England.[2] She was the sister of Rupert Gwynne, MP for Eastbourne from 1910 to 1924, and Roland Gwynne, Mayor of Eastbourne from 1929 to 1931, who is thought to have been the lover of suspected serial killer Dr John Bodkin Adams.[3] Among her nieces was the renowned cookery writer, Elizabeth David.[4]

Violet broke off an engagement to Viscount Gage when human sexuality was explained to her.[5] In 1895 she entered into a mariage blanc with Gordon Woodhouse.[6] His reasons for entering into the marriage are not clear, but he gave Violet the freedom to perform in public, and also to take lovers. In 1899 William "Bill" Barrington (heir to a viscountcy) moved into the marital house. He was joined in 1903 by Max Labouchere, and then, a little time later, by Dennis Tollemache. Barrington was once asked about this arrangement by Violet's niece, Katherine Ayling, and whether the 'ménage-à-cinq' ever argued. He answered: "Yes, Denis and Max once - about a cricket match". This open marriage arrangement was referred to in society circles as the 'Woodhouse circus'.


Originally, Violet played the piano, but she rose to fame playing the harpsichord and clavichord. An important influence on her was Arnold Dolmetsch, a pioneer of the early music revival, who began making copies of old keyboard instruments in the 1890s. Dolmetsch supplied Violet with instruments and gave her instruction on how to play them. In 1899 Violet performed Bach's Concerto for Three Harpsichords in C at a public concert in London.[7] The other two harpsichordists in the Bach were Elodie Desirée (the second Mrs Dolmetsch) and Dolmetsch himself. Dolmetsch worked abroad in the early twentieth century, but Violet resumed her collaboration with him in 1910. As well as early music repertoire Violet played music by nineteenth century composers and living composers such as Delius, who dedicated a harpsichord piece to her. Some recordings of her playing survive.[7]

She taught the Australian keyboard player Valda Aveling.[8]

Later years[edit]

By the 1920s the menage was reduced to three. Violet and Gordon acquired Lypiatt Manor, where they moved with Bill. The household finances improved after Gordon's sisters were murdered by their butler, resulting in an inheritance for Gordon in 1926. Violet reduced her public performances.

As Violet aged, she took on more extreme views. During the 1930s she was often heard making anti-semitic rants and admiring Adolf Hitler.[9] After Violet's death in 1948, Gordon and Bill remained at Lypiatt Manor until Gordon's death in 1951.

In popular culture[edit]

She was close to many of the leading artists of her day, including, amongst others; Ethel Smyth, Siegfried Sassoon, Poldowski (Lady Dean Paul) and George Bernard Shaw. Welsh tramp poet W. H. Davies often visited her harpsichord recitals and also dined, with the Sitwells, at Nether Lypiatt.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., 1954, Eric Blom ed., Vol. IX. pp. 360-361, Woodhouse, Violet (Kate) Gordon
  2. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  3. ^ Cullen, Pamela V., "A Stranger in Blood: The Case Files on Dr John Bodkin Adams", London, Elliott & Thompson, 2006, ISBN 1-904027-19-9.
  4. ^ Cooper, Artemis., Writing at the Kitchen Table: The authorised biography of Elizabeth David
  5. ^ a b Douglas-Home, Jessica, "Violet : The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse", 1997
  6. ^ Violet persuaded her husband to adopt the hyphenated surname Gordon-Woodhouse. Sklaroff, Sara (January 1998). "A Baroque Menage". The Washington Post. Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive. HighBeam Research (subscription access). Retrieved 11 September 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Kimberley, Nick (13 December 1999). "A very 20th century period instrument". The Independent (London). Retrieved 12 September 2012. 
  8. ^ Nash, Pamela (18 December 2007). "Obituary". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 14 September 2012. 
  9. ^ Ayling, Katharine, "My Father's Family", 1979
  10. ^ The Complete Poems of W. H. Davies, (ed. Daniel George), London, Jonathan Cape, 1963: pp. xxvii–xxxiv, "Introduction" by Osbert Sitwell