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Charleston, East Sussex

The Country Home and Garden of the Bloomsbury Group

Charleston Farmhouse by Barbara Ballard Charleston Farmhouse from the garden by Barbara Ballard Charleston, the country home of the Bloomsbury Group, was a hub of artistic and literary creativity; a meeting place for writers, painters and intellectuals. Its decoration, together with their collection, represents their art and lifestyle and forms a unique example of their decorative style. The collection includes ceramics, paintings, textiles, and work by Renoir, Picasso, Derain, Matthew Smith, Sickert, Tomlin and Delacroix.

Charleston Farmhouse view over front pond by Barbara Ballard 'Bloomsbury' first came to be synonymous with both literary and artistic styles. The Bloomsbury group was essentially a collection of like-minded friends (many originally from Cambridge) who met regularly from 1904 onwards, at 46 Gordon Square, in London's Bloomsbury district, which was then the home of Vanessa and Virginia Stephen (later to become Bell and Woolf) and their two brothers Adrian and Thoby.

Charleston Clive Bell study courtesy Tony Tree Charleston Trust They had a 'common attitude to life' commented Vanessa's son Quentin Bell, and would discuss relevant topics of the day. The group was never strictly defined, but its members included Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf and Saxon Sydney Turner, with Roger Fry among later additions.

Charleston Library courtesy Tony Tree Charleston Trust Bloomsbury artists were greatly influenced by the Post-Impressionists and in particular the ground-breaking exhibitions of Post-Impressionist work organised by Roger Fry and held at the Grafton Galleries, London, in 1910 and 1912. Its three chief painters—Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant—were, after a conventional training, profoundly influenced by the modern French art of the Fauves; the bold composition and angular drawing of Picasso's cubist work and above all by Cezanne.

Charleston study courtesy Tony Tree Charleston Trust Bloomsbury painting was not an aggressive, symbolic or political art, but rather a celebration of the sensuous beauty of everyday domestic surroundings. Alongside their work on canvas they developed a fluent decorative style for murals, textile design and ceramics. Much of this work had its influences from the continent in Italian frescoes, the Ravenna mosaics, and Spanish peasant pottery.

Charleston Duncan Grant bedroom courtesy Tony Tree Charleston Trust Artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and David Garnett moved to the Sussex farm house in 1916, and it became the gathering spot for the group. Among them were Clive Bell, David Garnett, Maynard Keynes, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, and Roger Fry.

The land was part of the Firle Estate owned by the Gage family, inhabitants of nearby Firle Place. Until the Charleston Trust purchased the house in 1981, Charleston had always been tenanted and remained part of a working farm until the end of the 19th century, when the farmland was leased separately. The house was then used for a number of years as a boarding house until shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. A tenant continued to occupy the house as a weekend residence until Leonard and Virginia Woolf expressed an interest in the house in May 1916. The agricultural setting of the house that they found at the time would have been similar to the one experienced by visitors today.

Charleston Dining Room courtesy Tony Tree Charleston Trust The house itself was spartan when they first occupied it, with no electricity or telephone and only a hand pumped water supply. The house was built some time between the mid 17th and early 18th century. It replaced an earlier house, which appears on an estate map drawn by John de Ward for John Elphick in 1622. Little else is known about the house which the present Charleston farmhouse replaced.

Charleston decorated bedroom lamp courtesy Tony Tree Charleston Trust The present house was extensively modernised in 1796-7 and the internal layout of the rooms changed. The current arrangement of rooms also dates from this time, when the windows were sashed and the original kitchen made smaller. The existing staircase is more recent. Also during the 1790s the two-storey extension, which now houses Vanessa Bell's bedroom with the Library above, was built against the east range to form a 'U' shaped house.

Charleston Dining Room table courtesy Tony Tree Charleston Trust As occupancy of the house became more permanent, improvements were made including the building of a large studio in 1925. The group were inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists, and it motivated them to paint the interior of the house including the walls, doors, and furniture. The house shows an evolution in decorative style throughout its different rooms. Initially only Vanessa's bedroom (now the library), Clive Bell's study door and window and Duncan's bedroom were decorated. Later the designs spread throughout the house, including the spare room in 1936 and the garden room in 1945.

Iceland poppies by Vanessa Bell courtesy Charleston Trust Charleston not only houses an impressive collection of art by its inhabitants but also a varied collection of other artist's work including sculpture by Renoir and Gimond and paintings by Fry, Picasso, Sickert and Derain. Vanessa Bell’s still life painting, Iceland Poppies, (c.1908-09) was acquired in 2007 through the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund. She is acknowledged as one of the most significant British women artists of the 20th century. The painting constitutes a rare example of her early work, most of which was lost or destroyed. Iceland Poppies is an iconic painting, marking a clear transition in Bell’s career from Victorian conventions to Modernity. The painting hung from the 1930s at Charleston, her Sussex home, which was opened to the public in 1986.

Charleston decorated library door courtesy Tony Tree Charleston Trust Charleston hosts a number of special events throughout the year; of special note is the Charleston Festival which is centred on talks and drama relating to literary, artistic, and Bloomsbury themes. A cornucopia of writers, performers, poets, film-makers, and thinkers provide stimulation, celebration, entertainment, good argument, conversation, comedy, new ideas, and stories in 23 events over ten days. Charleston also welcomes adult learners, with group tours and an annual program of lectures, tours, and workshops covering Bloomsbury and related topics as well as hands-on art workshops.

An exhibition gallery shows a mix of contemporary painting and sculpture as well as hosting historical exhibitions. There is also a video exhibition. A Crafts Council selected shop sells applied art and books relating to Bloomsbury. Original ceramics, painted furniture, printed and constructed textiles, hats and clothes are among the items available.

Charleston shop and exhibition area by Barbara Ballard Charleston is run by the Charleston Trust which became a registered charity in 1980. It was formed in order to save the house which had decayed from 1978 when sole resident Duncan Grant died. During his final years he had lived almost entirely in the studio at Charleston. The accumulated effects of damp, dirt and decay upon the building had taken a heavy toll. Decorated walls moldered, pests attacked woodwork and irreplaceable pictures and fabrics crumbled. But slowly the tide of decay began to turn. The house was fumigated and the roof replaced to provide a stable environment for its contents. It was brought back to its former glory.

The Garden

Charleston walled garden by Barbara Ballard Charleston garden statue by Barbara Ballard When Vanessa Bell first moved to Charleston, the walled garden consisted of vegetables and fruit trees. In the 1920s Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant redesigned the walled garden to reflect both the Mediterranean and country garden styles found in southern Europe: mosaics, box hedges, gravel pathways, and ponds. Then they added a touch of Bloomsbury humour in the placing of the statuary: classical forms and life-size works by Quentin Bell are side by side and enhanced by mosaic pavements and tile edged pools. An orchard and a pond add to the mix. A summer garden was used for painting and relaxing. The vegetable patch was moved to the paddock beyond.

Charleston garden flowers by Barbara Ballard The garden gradually evolved and flourished until, in 1945, Vanessa complained that one could hardly walk down the paths for the abundance of plants. The following year saw the final major addition of a mosaic 'piazza', created from fragments of broken china, some of which can be identified as pieces of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell's designs for Wedgwood and Foley.

Charleston walled garden by Barbara Ballard The casts of classical heads on the garden wall were put up in 1986 to replace those acquired by Duncan Grant in the 1950s which had disintegrated. Two extra heads were added in August 1990 to commemorate Quentin Bell's 80th birthday. Work on reconstructing the garden was carried out between 1984 and 1986 under the guidance of Sir Peter Shepheard. As with the house, it would be impossible to restore the garden to a specific date, but its current layout reflects its 1950s heyday.

Visitor Information

Charleston walled garden view by Barbara Ballard The Charleston Trust
Nr. Firle
Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 6LL
On country lane, sign-posted off the A27 Brighton to Eastbourne road, 7 miles east of Lewes, between the villages of Firle and Selmeston
Tel. 0 1323 811 265 for visitor information; 0 1323 811 626 for administration
Open: house, garden, April-end Oct, Wed-Sat and BH, 1-6pm; July-Aug and Sept, Wed-Sat, noon-6pm (last entry 5pm); Sun and BH Mon, 1-5.30pm, last entry 4.30pm; shop, ticket office and cafe open 1 hour before house; entry is by guided tour only on Wed-Sat; tours last for one hour and leave approximately every 20 minutes; Sun and BH Mon house open but unguided
Web: Charleston

Related place to visit:

Monk’s House (Home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf)
Rodmell, Lewes
East Sussex, BN7 3HF
Tel: 0 1323 870 001 (enquiries via Alfriston Clergy House)
Open: April-Oct, Wed and Sat, 2-5.30pm; last entry at 5pm

Berwick Church
East Sussex
Tel: 0 1323 896 008
Open: daily until dusk
Murals painted by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant

Photographs by Barbara Ballard except house interior by Tony Tree © and courtesy of the Charleston Trust.
Information courtesy Charleston Trust

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