Charleston, in East Sussex is a property associated with the Bloomsbury group, that is open to the public. It was the country home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and is an example of their decorative style within a domestic context, representing the fruition of over sixty years of artistic creativity. Vanessa Bell wrote of this time; “It will be an odd life, but … it ought to be a good one for painting.”
In addition to the house and artists’ garden, there is an exhibition gallery showing a mix of contemporary and historical shows of fine and decorative art, a Crafts Council selected shop selling applied art and books relating to Bloomsbury, a small tea room and a video presentation. Charleston hosts a number of special events throughout the year, most notably the Charleston Festival which is centred on talks and drama relating to literary, artistic and Bloomsbury themes.
The house is located in the village of Firle, in the Lewes District of East Sussex, England.
In 1916 the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant moved to Sussex with their unconventional household. Over the following half century Charleston became the country meeting place for the group of artists, writers and intellectuals known as Bloomsbury. Clive Bell, David Garnett and Maynard Keynes lived at Charleston for considerable periods; Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry were frequent visitors. Inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists, the artists decorated the walls, doors and furniture at Charleston. The walled garden was redesigned in a style reminiscent of southern Europe, with mosaics, box hedges, gravel pathways and ponds, but with a touch of Bloomsbury humour in the placing of the statuary.
“It’s most lovely, very solid and simple, with … perfectly flat windows and wonderful tiled roofs. The pond is most beautiful, with a willow at one side and a stone or flint wall edging it all round the garden part, and a little lawn sloping down to it, with formal bushes on it.” — Vanessa Bell
The rooms on show form a complete example of the decorative art of the Bloomsbury artists: murals, painted furniture, ceramics, objects from the Omega Workshops, paintings and textiles. The collection includes work by Auguste Renoir, Picasso, Derain, Matthew Smith, Sickert, Tomlin and Eugène Delacroix.
Charleston’s walled garden was created by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to designs by Roger Fry. Together they transformed vegetable plots and hen runs, essential to the household during the First World War, into a quintessential planted garden mixing Mediterranean influences with cottage garden planting. In the 1920s a grid of gravel paths gave structure to beds of plants chosen by Grant and Bell for their intense colour and silver foliage. These became the subject of many still lives over their long residence at Charleston. Dora Carrington wrote of the garden, “Never, never have I seen quite such a wonderful place! … What excellent things there will be to paint in that garden with the pond and buildings.” Part of the garden’s sense of luxuriance and surprise comes from the variety of sculpture it contains. Classical forms sit side by side with life-size works by Quentin Bell, mosaic pavements and tile edged pools. The orchard offers shade from the sun and the pond a focus for tranquil contemplation. Above all this was a summer garden for playing and painting, an enchanted retreat from London life. As Vanessa Bell wrote in 1936, “The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes … lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.”
The Charleston Trust is a charity set up in 1980 to restore and maintain the home of the Bloomsbury Group artists for the benefit of the public. The unique collection at Charleston is illustrative of the art and lifestyle of the influential Bloomsbury Group and has been on show to the public since 1986. Charleston attracts visitors from the local community as well as the rest of the UK and abroad. Today although Charleston is no longer in crisis, its future is far from secure. The Charleston Trust does not have the funds to guarantee the preservation of the house for future generations and relies on its income from admissions, sales from the shop and tea room, membership fees from the Friends of Charleston and grants from various bodies and donations.
Events and exhibitions
The Charleston Festival takes place around May each year in a marquee in the gardens of the house and lasts about a week and a half. It is predominantly a literary festival that has hosted such figures as Peter Bazalgette, Jung Chang, Michael Frayn, Patrick Garland, Stephen Poliakoff, Patti Smith, Sarah Waters, Polly Toynbee and Simon Schama.
It also holds an exhibition programme that has included: Norman Ackroyd, Stephen Finer, Derek Jarman, Desmond Morris, Tom Phillips, photographs by Patti Smith, Sir John Tenniel and others.
There is also another single night event, The Quentin Follies, named after Quentin Bell, the son of Vanessa Bell, that raises money to buy back works of art by the Bloomsbury Set that are privately owned. It takes the form of a silent auction of donated works of art and an evening variety show with a number of acts from opera singing to music hall to stand-up comedy.