Saxon Sydney-Turner – biography

intellectual, aesthete, enigma, and civil servant

Saxon Sydney-Turner at the Piano

Saxon Sydney-Turner (1880-1962) is one of the lesser-known and more enigmatic figures in the Bloomsbury Group. Very little is known about his life – largely because he took a lot of trouble to keep much of it private. His father was a doctor who ran a home for mental patients at Hove near Brighton. As a child he attended Westminster School in London and then went on in 1899 to Trinity College Cambridge. There he met Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, and Thoby Stephen, who had all arrived the same year. He was on the same staircase as Clive Bell, and he later shared rooms with Leonard Woolf, who described him as ‘an absolute prodigy of learning’.

He was introverted and ferociously intellectual, and was rarely seen by day at Cambridge, since he rose late and stayed up reading late into the night. Together with his new friends he was elected as a member of the not-so-secret society the Apostles. This met late at night to discuss cultural and philosophic matters – all its members deeply influenced by the ideas of G.E.Moore and his Principia Ethica (1903). However, Saxon Sydney-Turner is mainly remembered for his silences rather than any positive contribution to the debates.

He was interested in poetry, painted a little, and was a music lover with an especial liking for opera. He regularly attended the Wagner Ring cycles at Bayreuth. He loved puzzles, crosswords, riddles, and acrostics, and won one of the scholarships in Classics because he was able to identify and solve a riddle in the centre of an obscure Greek text which was set for translation.

In his finals he took a double first and did well enough in the Civil Service exams to gain a choice opening as a civil servant in the Treasury. He moved into the job and stayed there, working in obscurity for the rest of his life. Through his friendships with Leonard and Thoby, he became an accepted part (though a peripheral figure) in the Bloomsbury Group, though his reputation as an intellectual intimidated some of its members, and he sometimes exasperated his more outgoing contemporaries because he might turn up as one of their causeries, stay for sixteen hours, and say nothing.

He was modest, unassuming, and kind, but despite his formidable erudition people found him slightly infuriating because of his lack of drive and motivation. His friend Leonard Woolf described him as ‘an eccentric in the best English tradition who wrote elegant verse and music and possessed an extraordinary supple, and enigmatic mind’. And yet –

The rooms in which Saxon lived for many years in Great Ormond Street consisted of one big sitting room and a small bedroom. On each side of the sitting-room fireplace on the wall was an immense picture of a farmyard scene. It was the same picture on each side and for over thirty years Saxon lived with them for ever before his eyes while in his bedroom there were some very good pictures by Duncan Grant and other artists, but you could not possibly see them because there was no light and no space to hang them on the walls.

Unlike many of his Bloomsbury friends, he was not at all sexually active. He did fall in love with Barbara Hiles, a former Slade student who was a friend of Dora Carrington. When she revealed that she was going to marry Nick Bagenal but could retain Saxon as a potential lover, he wrote to say that he felt unable to share her with somebody else. However, he did manage to reconcile himself to the loss and remained a close friend to Barbara Hiles and her children – indeed the friendship lasted longer than the Bagenal’s marriage.

When Lytton Strachey moved into the Mill House at Tidmarch with Dora Carrington, Saxon had a £20 a year stake in it for occasional use, though Gerald Brenan‘s account of his visits there illustrates why he described him as ‘one of the greatest bores I have ever known’.

he took to going every summer to Finland, coming back each time with a collection of snapshots that showed nothing but fir trees of varying heights and small railway stations. When he arrived at Lytton Strachey’s house for the weekend he would bring these photographs with him and one dreaded the moment when he would fetch them out and display them one by one, very slowly, in that muffled yet persistent voice of his, with brief comments: ‘I took that one of a railway station in the tundra because when I first went to Finland it had not been built.’

In later life developed a weakness for the horses – though he never went to any races. He gambled away almost all his modest savings and was forced to scrounge from neighbours for essentials. He ended his days in a small flat where he watched television on a set purchased for him by friends.


Saxon Sydney-Turner links

Red button The Bloomsbury group

Red button Leonard Woolf – Autobiography

Red button Lytton Strachey – biographical sketch

© Roy Johnson 2010


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10 Responses to “Saxon Sydney-Turner – biography”

  1. Raymond Edmondson says:

    I enjoyed reading your potted biography of dear old Saxon (as I think of him!); however, it told me nothing I didn’t already know. Has anyone ever written a full biography of him? I keep thinking that there must be more to him than as set out in your biography, and that, perhaps, someone might have unearthed it!

  2. mantex says:

    Well Raymond, if you can find more information, feel free to make it available! The sketch above stitches together the fragments I was able to locate about him.

  3. Todd Avery says:

    If either of you is still interested to know more about Saxon Sydney-Turner, you might have a look at the chapter on him in Sarah M. Hall’s book BEFORE LEONARD: THE EARLY SUITORS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. Hall does a fine job in her portrait of “the strangest mind.” Also, I’m doing some work on him: I’ve found one of his Canadian relatives (still living), and have read hundreds of pages of his letters from archives at the British Library, King’s College Cambridge, and elsewhere (with some delightful surprises—which I can’t yet reveal), and would enjoy the conversation. Best, Todd Avery

  4. mantex says:

    Thanks for this contribution Todd. If you come across more material available on line, please feel free to post URLs here.

  5. Stephen says:

    It was good to discover that not all the Bloomsbury set were witty and creative.

  6. That’s (almost) true – but Saxon Sydney-Turner was regarded by his fellow Apostles as exceptionally clever. He just never realised any potential.

  7. That’s (almost) true – but Saxon Sydney-Turner was regarded by his fellow Apostles as exceptionally clever.

  8. clement mannin says:

    I understand that the Huntington Museum near Los Angeles owns a collection of Sydney-Turner’s papers; that his laziness and non-participatory attendance at parties and meetings frustrated his contemporaries; that he wasted every free moment watching “The Avengers” on the telly, and that Barbara Hiles was disappointed in the unresponsiveness of certain of his body parts regardless of the attention she offered. If anyone can verify these recollections, please write.

  9. What you say is true Clement. Turner was obviously a slightly odd character. He also wasted the money he’d got by betting on the horses.

  10. Todd Avery says:

    Clement, the Huntington does have some of SST’s papers. Others are at King’s College, Cambridge, the British Library and a few other places. I didn’t know of Barbara Hiles’s disappointment. Would you mind posting a source for that information? Many thanks.—Todd Avery

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