Violet Gordon-Woodhouse

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Gordon Woodhouse, circa 1900

Violet Gordon-Woodhouse (23 April 1872 – 9 January 1948) was a British keyboard player. She specialised in the harpsichord and clavichord, and was 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 at 97 Harley Street, St Marylebone, London, into a wealthy family with an estate in Sussex, England. She was the second daughter and fourth of seven children of James Eglinton Anderson Gwynne (1832–1915), an engineer, inventor, and landowner, and Mary Earle Purvis (1841–1923). Her mother was a friend of soprano Adelina Patti. Violet became a pupil of the country's leading piano teacher, Oscar Beringer, a German émigré, and by the age of sixteen she was one of his most promising pupils.[2]

Violet's maternal grandfather, Royal Navy officer and merchant William Purvis (1796–1854) from Dalgety Bay, Scotland, married Cornelia Louisa Intveld (1808–1857) in 1822.[3] Intveld was a noted soprano and a great beauty of her era. Upon glimpsing her across the auditorium at the opera in London, King William IV sent his equerry to invite her to his box. When she refused, the King sent the equerry back just to ask her name.[4] Cornelia Louisa Intveld was born in Padang where her father, who came from humble beginnings in Hellevoetsluis, South Holland, rose up through the Dutch East India Company to become the Dutch Resident of Padang. Her maternal grandmother was an Ono Niha ranee (a term that covered every rank from chieftain's daughter to princess) who married a prominent Dutch colonial official and merchant. This "foreign blood" caused opposition to Violet Gordon-Woodhouse's father's family to her parents' marriage and so they eloped.[5]

Violet was the sister of Rupert Gwynne, MP for Eastbourne from 1910–24, and Roland Gwynne, Mayor of Eastbourne from 1929–31.[6] She was the aunt of the cookery writer Elizabeth David.

Violet broke off an engagement to a wealthy Sussex neighbour, Viscount Gage, after human sexuality was explained to her.[7] In 1895 she entered into a mariage blanc with Gordon Woodhouse. She persuaded her husband to adopt the hyphenated surname Gordon-Woodhouse.[8] His reasons for entering into the marriage are unclear. In 1899, William Barrington (heir to a viscountcy) moved into the marital house, joined later by Max Labouchere and Dennis Tollemache. This arrangement was referred to in society circles as the "Woodhouse circus".[citation needed]


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.[9] The other two harpsichordists in the Bach were Elodie Desirée (the second Mrs Dolmetsch) and Dolmetsch himself. Dolmetsch worked abroad in the early-20th 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.

Later years[edit]

After the First World War, Violet, who did not receive anything in her father's will, found herself relatively short of money. This may have been a factor in her deciding to sign a recording contract.

By the 1920s, Violet and Gordon acquired Nether Lypiatt Manor in Gloucestershire, where they lived with Barrington (known as "Bill"). Finances improved after Gordon received an inheritance in 1926. Violet reduced her public performances.

In the 1930s she taught the Australian keyboard player Valda Aveling.[10]

After Violet's death in 1948, aged 75, the two men remained at Nether Lypiatt until 1951, when Gordon died.[11] She lies in the churchyard of The Church of St Peter ad Vincula, Folkington, near Eastbourne, East Sussex. A plaque to her memory and achievements can also be found on the left-hand wall inside the church. An obituary was published on 12 January 1948.[12]

The memorial to Violet Gordon-Woodhouse on the wall of the church of St Peter ad Vincula, Folkington, East Sussex.

In popular culture[edit]

She was close to many of the leading artists of her day, including Dame Ethel Smyth, Siegfried Sassoon, Irene, Lady Dean Paul (also known as Poldowski), and George Bernard Shaw. Welsh tramp poet W. H. Davies often visited her harpsichord recitals and also dined, with the Sitwells, at Nether Lypiatt.[13]



Gordon-Woodhouse is claimed to be the first person recorded playing the harpsichord in 1920. Some of her recordings have been released on CD. The composers featured include J.S. Bach.[9][14]


Violet also made clavichord recordings, but she was not the first person to record the instrument, an honour that appears to belong to Arnold Dolmetsch.[15][14]

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. ^ "Violet Gordon Woodhouse". Retrieved 20 May 2015.
  3. ^ Hedemann, Nancy Oakley (1994). A Scottish-Hawaiian story: the Purvis family in the Sandwich Islands. Book Crafters. ISBN 9780964402003. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  4. ^ Douglas-Home, Jessica (1996). Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse. Harvill Press. ISBN 9781860462696. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  5. ^ Cooper, Artemis (2011). Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David. Faber & Faber. ISBN 9780571279777. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  6. ^ Cullen, Pamela V., A Stranger in Blood: The Case Files on Dr John Bodkin Adams, London, Elliott & Thompson, 2006; ISBN 1-904027-19-9
  7. ^ a b Douglas-Home, Jessica, Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse (1997)
  8. ^ Sklaroff, Sara (January 1998). "A Baroque Menage". The Washington Post. Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive. HighBeam Research (subscription access). Archived from the original on 18 May 2013. Retrieved 11 September 2012.
  9. ^ a b Kimberley, Nick (13 December 1999). "A very 20th century period instrument". The Independent. London, UK. Retrieved 12 September 2012.
  10. ^ Nash, Pamela (18 December 2007). "Obituary". The Guardian. London, UK. Retrieved 14 September 2012.
  11. ^ Angeline Goreau. "Menage a Cinq : Violet Gordon Woodhouse lived an extraordinary life, with the help of four good friends". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 September 2017.
  12. ^ The Times
  13. ^ The Complete Poems of W. H. Davies, (ed. Daniel George), London, Jonathan Cape, 1963: pp. xxvii–xxxiv, "Introduction" by Osbert Sitwell
  14. ^ a b "Violet Gordon Woodhouse".
  15. ^ Schott, H (1999). "Thurston Dart Clavichord Recordings". Early Music. 27 (4): 678–680. doi:10.1093/earlyj/XXVII.4.678. JSTOR 3128776.