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Violet Gordon-Woodhouse (23 April 1872 – January 1948[1]) was an acclaimed British harpsichordist and clavichordist, highly influential in bringing both instruments back into fashion.



Violet Kate Eglinton Gwynne[2] was the sister of Rupert Gwynne, MP for Eastbourne from 1910 to 1924, and Roland Gwynne, Mayor of Eastbourne from 1929 to 1931, who was the lover of suspected serial killer Dr John Bodkin Adams.[3] Among her nieces was the renowned cookery writer, Elizabeth David.[4]


Originally, Violet played the piano but rose to fame playing the harpsichord and clavichord, after meeting Arnold Dolmetsch, a great pioneer of early instruments, in 1910. 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.

She did however scandalise much of society with her private life. She married Gordon Woodhouse on 31 July 1895 on the understanding that they would not sleep in the same room. Violet took lovers and in 1899, much to Gordon's humiliation, William "Bill" Barrington, 10th Viscount Barrington moved into the marital house. He was later 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'.

Later years

As Violet aged, she took on more extreme views. During the 1930s she was often heard making anti-semitic rants and admiring Adolf Hitler.[5]

In popular culture

Sir Osbert Sitwell mentions her often in his autobiography. Radclyffe Hall, the lesbian novelist, dedicated a book of erotic poems to her.[6] In 2005 Roger Scruton premiered the opera "Violet", based on her life.

See also

Contemporary harpsichord


  1. ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., 1954, Eric Blom ed.
  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. ^ Ayling, Katharine, "My Father's Family", 1979
  6. ^ Douglas-Home, Jessica, "Violet : The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse", 1997


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