Christmas at Charleston: Joy and the Omega Workshops

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s first Christmas at Charleston was bleak in many ways. When they moved to the house in 1916, there was no central heating or electricity, and only cold water in the bathroom and kitchen. It was the height of the First World War, and rationing made life even more difficult. Bell’s son Quentin described their first winter at Charleston when the kitchen tap froze, explaining that each morning water had to be fetched from a pump across a frosty field:

‘The snow was thicker and the frost deeper than we were ever to see it again until 1940. One of my earliest memories was walking over to Peaklets, the cottage just visible on the further side of the front field. Here a spring still ran. We went over to fill buckets of water for the house.’

It was quite a change in lifestyle for the two artists; in coming to Charleston, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant had left a lot behind in London. There, they had been at the heart of the Bloomsbury group – a group of artists, writers and thinkers that included Bell’s sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, art critic Roger Fry and economist John Maynard Keynes, among others. They had also been co-directors of the Omega Workshops, a design collective opened by Fry in 1913.

The Omega Workshops aimed to the break boundaries between the fine and decorative arts, bringing modern post-impressionist art into the lives and homes of the London public. The Workshops produced all kinds of household items; an early advertisement promised ‘Examples of interior decorations for bedrooms, nurseries etc., furniture, textiles, hand-dyed dress materials, trays, fans and other objects suitable for Christmas presents.’ Although Roger Fry was keen to see the ideas of modern art used in design, he also wanted the Workshops to help his artist friends. They would give artists the chance to make a communal living designing and decorating furniture, textiles and other household items, alongside their more solitary careers.  

The Workshops were founded and run on friendships – and launched with a party. Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry, suggesting:

‘We should get all your disreputable and some of your aristocratic friends to come – and after dinner we should repair to Fitzroy Sq. where would be decorated furniture, painted walls etc. Then we should all get drunk and dance and kiss. Orders would flow in and the aristocrats would feel sure they were really in the thick of things.’

There was something joyous about the idea of the Omega Workshops, about friends working together to bring new life into interior design. As Fry said, ‘it is time that the spirit of fun was introduced into furniture and into fabrics. We have suffered too long from the dull and the stupidly serious.’

When Vanessa Bell’s sister, Virginia Woolf, writes about the joy of shopping – ‘here unending beauty, ever fresh, ever new, very cheap and within the reach of everybody, bubbles up every day of the week from an inexhaustible well’ – it is possible to be reminded of the Omega Workshops. Although pieces from the Workshops were not often ‘very cheap’ (many of the customers were those ‘aristocrat friends’), they were always fresh, new, and, above all, a result of the idea that beauty could be brought into the home.

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant brought the joyous idea that art should be a part of daily life with them to Charleston. Upon arriving in the house, they immediately began to paint the walls and furniture, turning it into the perfect example of a post-impressionist home. Even in that country farmhouse, London and the Omega Workshops were never really far away. Bell continued making pieces for the Workshops, particularly beautiful, giftable paper flowers, and the household would have eaten Christmas dinner sat at a table and chairs designed for the Workshops.

Even with the challenges winter brought, festivities did take place at Charleston, with visitors bringing news, gossip and gifts from London. Charleston would become the Sussex home of the Bloomsbury group and, to this day, is a living example of Omega design. And so, at Charleston this Christmas, 100 years after the Omega Workshops closed their doors, we imagine the farmhouse full of friends, food and laughter and remember the Workshops’ convivial spirit and industrious pursuit of joy.

The exhibition Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops continues at Charleston until 19 January 2020.

Bloomsbury Beginnings: The Friendship of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry

Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry were the three key artists of the Bloomsbury group – a group of artists, writers and thinkers responsible for radical innovations in twentieth-century literature, art and design. The friendships formed in the Bloomsbury group were lifelong and shaped the artists’ work together, from Bloomsbury in London to Charleston in Sussex.

In 1904, Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf (then Vanessa and Virginia Stephen) used the newfound freedom following their father’s death to move to Bloomsbury in London – much to the horror of their friends and family. There they began to make lives for themselves, exploring their respective arts, and formed a network of friendships that would last their lifetimes. It was the beginning of the Bloomsbury group.

Vanessa Bell was attending the Slade School of Art and, alongside her work and studies, she set up the Friday Club, a group of artists who met weekly to share ideas and support each other’s creative activities. The artists formed close connections and, through the Club, Bell met the man who would eventually prove to be the love of her life – the artist Duncan Grant. The Friday Club was part of a wider Bloomsbury circle, which included Grant’s cousin Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and Vanessa Bell’s husband the critic Clive Bell. While the Bloomsbury group would continue to meet for the next thirty years, the Friday Club came to an end in 1910 at a time of great change in the art world.

‘On or about December, 1910, human character changed’, wrote Virginia Woolf about Roger Fry’s ground-breaking exhibition ‘Manet and the Post Impressionists’, which introduced London to the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. While the exhibition outraged the public, and for a while cost Fry his reputation as an art critic, the Bloomsbury group met it with great enthusiasm and Fry became a central figure in their circles.

When Vanessa Bell met Roger Fry that year, their friendship, brief romantic relationship and the works she saw at his exhibition gave her a new artistic direction. She became interested in Fry’s Post-Impressionist theories and began to experiment with colour and form, moving away from directly representational art. Bell was a source of inspiration for Fry too; her attitude towards interior design, which rejected a dreary, fussy Victorian aesthetic in favour of simplicity, bright colours and bold design, encouraged Fry to establish the Omega Workshops, a design collective based at 33 Fitzroy Square in Bloomsbury that would include many of the twentieth century’s most avant-garde artists. Inspired by the spirit of Post-Impressionism, the Workshops produced items for the home designed and made by artists – from printed fabrics to ceramics, furniture and clothing.

Friendship was key to the Omega Workshops. By the time of the Workshops’ opening, Bell, Grant and Fry had become close friends, painting together regularly, and all three were co-directors. As well as furthering the Post-Impressionist movement, the Workshops gave artists a space to work and socialise together, supporting each other financially and breaking the isolation that was often part of an artist’s work.

However, just two years after the Omega Workshops opened, the three co-directors were rarely painting together. Bell and Grant had become closer, as Fry complained in a letter to Clive Bell: ‘In painting Nessa and Duncan have taken to working so entirely altogether and do not want me […] I find it difficult to take a place on the outside of the circle instead of being, as I once was, rather central.’ In 1916, Bell and Grant would move to Charleston, and when the struggling Omega Workshops had to close, just six years after they opened, Fry was the only original artist still working regularly at Fitzroy Square. Fry wrote in a letter to a friend ‘The utter indifference […] of the public to what we have attempted has bought Omega to disaster.’

Together at Charleston, Bell and Grant decorated the interiors of their house; the playfully painted surfaces and furniture make it the embodiment of a Post-Impressionist home. They brought an array of Omega objects with them – and to this day, you can find pieces at Charleston, from the tableware they ate with to the chairs they sat on. Charleston became the country home of the Bloomsbury group, with artists, writers and intellectuals making regular visits to the rural home in Sussex. Bell and Grant’s domestic and creative partnership would endure for 50 years, and, although Grant’s sexual relationships were generally with men, they had a child, Angelica, together in 1918. Despite their close partnership, Bell and Grant maintained creative and romantic connections with other people, and their friendship with Roger Fry lasted until his death.

Roger Fry lived long enough to see many of his once bitterly attacked theories accepted and, by the time of his death in 1934, he was recognised as a champion of modern art. His death devastated the Bloomsbury group; Vanessa Bell decorated his casket in a last tribute to him and Virginia Woolf wrote in a biography after his death that ‘[h]e had more knowledge and experience than the rest of us put together.’ Fry’s theories, as well as his generosity of spirit, had encouraged much of the Bloomsbury group’s innovation, and they would ensure that he was remembered to this day as both an art critic of great influence and as a true friend.


The exhibition Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops continues at Charleston until 19 January 2020.


A message from Virginia Nicholson, President of The Charleston Trust

My cousin, Henrietta Garnett, died on Wednesday 4th September 2019.

On May 15th 1945, the day Henrietta Catherine entered the world, the parties thrown to celebrate the end of the Second World War were barely over. As the daughter of Angelica and David Garnett, she inherited a complex legacy of ambivalent loves and unconventional values. David Garnett and her grandfather – Duncan Grant – had been lovers. Later, David married Duncan’s daughter (by Vanessa Bell) Angelica, who was twenty-six years his junior.

Henrietta was the second of their four daughters. She was taken to Charleston for many a childhood holiday, and was the apple of her grandmother’s eye. She described being painted there by Vanessa – sitting behind her spindly and rickety easel – “mixing the colours on her palette, glancing first at me and then at the portrait, gently stabbing the canvas, so that one could see its back quiver from the impressions she made on it. The glances she sent across the room were extraordinarily intimate and reassuring: an observant nod, an amused smile, in order to encourage me to keep still.”

Henrietta grew up privileged, radiantly beautiful and precocious. Early on she wanted to be an actress – a career that would surely have suited her. “But” – as she once wrote to me – “I never received either one ounce of formal education or of mental discipline in my life.” As a child, I was in awe of my older cousin’s breathtaking loveliness and apparent sophistication. Everything about her, from the overpowering scent of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue over breakfast, to the limitless Gauloises habit (contributing to the bewitching huskiness of her musically purring voice…); from her deft skill with rough-puff pastry, to her passion for the Victorian novel – exuded fascination.

Henrietta claimed that, from the age of ten, she had been always in love. Still a teenager when she married Burgo, the son of Ralph and Frances Partridge, she gave birth to their daughter Sophie in August 1963. She was only eighteen when, just four weeks later, she was widowed following Burgo’s terrifyingly sudden death caused by an aortic aneurysm. At the time, Sophie lay asleep in her crib, Henrietta was in the bath.

After this tragedy my cousin’s colourful life was to take many strange turns. There were the glamorous days, with the young widow rediscovering her joie de vivre among the peacocks, fashionistas, rock stars and artists of 1960s London. There were the vagabond days in Cumbria and Ireland with the aristocratic drop-outs (or “chequebook hippies” as she later called them), who took to the road in painted caravans. There were more love affairs, more marriages, an attempted suicide, a memorable appearance in a TV documentary about love at first sight, a relocation to the south of France, and an impressive self-reinvention as a writer. Her novel Family Skeletons was published to acclaim in 1996. This was followed by Anny: A Life of Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie (2004) – described by Dame Hermione Lee as ‘talkative, appealing… tender’ – and Wives and Stunners: The Pre-Raphaelites and their Muses (2012). But always, until robbed of it by advancing ill-health, it was Henrietta’s own stunning beauty that would make her the centre of attention. A friend who took her to a Cambridge May Ball in the ’70s described how crowds of party-goers clambered onto chairs and tables to get a better look at her.

Henrietta was kind, witty, mischievous, gracious and extraordinarily charismatic. But she was dealt an unlucky hand. In a troubled life, destabilised by illness, disability and excess, Charleston was a constant source of joy and fixity:

Charleston had the most powerful identity of any place that I had known. It reeked of itself: of turpentine and toast, of apples, damp walls and garden flowers. The atmosphere was one of liberty and order, and of a strength which came from its being a house in which the inhabitants were happy…

Her connection with the Trust has been one of mutual support, with Vanessa and Duncan’s oldest granddaughter always welcomed for her insights, generosity and thoroughly Bloomsbury spirit of playfulness and caprice. Many Friends of Charleston will recall her at the May Festival, stylishly adorned in gem-hued colours and beads, an intent presence among the front row audience, and sometimes on the platform too. Sometimes she tried our patience – especially after a glass or three of red wine – with her famously uninhibited interventions: a lack of reserve characteristic of her later years. Backstage in the Green Room, in the convivial familiarity of her grandparents’ house, she was usually the last to leave the party.

All of us who love Charleston will mourn her loss, and will never forget her.

Duncan Grant, Cressida Bell, Henrietta Garnett and Virginia Nicholson at Charleston 

Henrietta Garnett


We are honoured to have won an award in the Public and Community category of the 2019 Sussex Heritage Trust Awards for the restored Barns and new Galleries at Charleston.

The judges praised the new spaces, which opened September 2018, saying that the “beautiful restoration of traditional Sussex barns juxtaposed with contemporary new gallery spaces has greatly added to this iconic centre of the Bloomsbury Group.”

The Sussex Heritage Trust Awards are designed to highlight excellence in architecture and conservation work in Sussex, representing the highest quality new build, conservation and rejuvenation projects.

Other winners included: Gravetye Manor Hotel in West Hoathly, a large new restaurant building and basement set within the underused asymmetrical yard of the world-famous Jacobean manor house (Grade I Listed); White Horse Inn at Sutton, a project to conserve and develop an historic, listed country inn; and the Volk’s Electric Railway, Aquarium Station and Visitor Centre in Brighton.

For a full list of Award winners and Highly Commended projects, go to


Charleston Festival takes place annually in the gardens of Charleston, the rural Sussex home of the Bloomsbury group, and draws inspiration from the radical artistic and intellectual legacy of its past visitors including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and Roger Fry as well as its inhabitants Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

This year Charleston Festival celebrates its landmark 30th anniversary with a line-up of exceptional speakers. Running from 17-27 May, the festival of books, ideas and creativity will explore themes from feminism and identity to international politics and Brexit, political art to scientific progress:

  • Gina Miller on lessons learnt from standing up for justice and for herself
  • The Challenge of Climate Justice, a lecture by Mary Robinson, recipient of the 2019 Charleston John Maynard Keynes Prize
  • Caroline Criado Perez and Cathy Newman on gender gaps in data and in history
  • Naomi Wolf discusses her new book Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love
  • Director of BBC News Kamal Ahmed on prejudice and growing up in ’70s Britain
  • The Godfather of pop art Peter Blake
  • And appearances by: Vanessa Redgrave, Eileen Atkins, Alan Bennett, Melvyn Bragg, Simon Callow, Lionel Shriver, Andrew Motion, Tina Brown, Michael Palin, Bonnie Greer, Jeanette Winterson, Bettany Hughes, Martin Rees and Costa Book of the Year award winner Bart van Es.

Nathaniel Hepburn, Director and Chief Executive of Charleston said: “The original inhabitants of Charleston – painters, writers and thinkers – met around the dining room table to discuss and interrogate art, literature, ideas and contemporary society. These conversations, stimulated by 30 years of thought provoking Festival events, have continued to resonate in Charleston’s packed events marquee and beautiful walled garden.”

Campaigner and businesswoman Gina Miller will kick-off the 11-day event. She came to prominence by successfully challenging the UK government’s attempt to trigger Article 50, and will discuss the consequences of standing up for justice and whether her campaign can inspire those trying to make a difference in other contexts.

Former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, has been announced as the winner of the fifth Charleston John Maynard Keynes Prize. In the spirit of John Maynard Keynes’ work, life and legacy, this global prize recognises Robinson’s outstanding contribution to society. Mary Robinson said:

“I am delighted to have been awarded a Prize which pays tribute to John Maynard Keynes.  In 2019 we are marking the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles post World War One. Keynes played a crucial role in warning that punitive reparations would lead to disaster rather than justice. His humanitarian advice was rejected and World War Two followed.  We are at a similar turning point today. We need the nations of the world to come together to take necessary action to avert the global catastrophe of climate change. We need to show the same spirit of solidarity that John Maynard Keynes displayed in his time.”

Diana Reich, Artistic Director of the Charleston Festival said: “This 30th anniversary Festival is a culmination of the values that have threaded through the Charleston Festival programme since its inception: openness, originality and interrogation. We are particularly delighted to announce that the Charleston John Maynard Keynes Prize will be awarded to Mary Robinson for highlighting the danger of climate change in the developing world.” 

Also, marking the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference and the 75th anniversary of the Bretton Woods conference, historian Margaret MacMillan, who gave the 2018 Reith Lectures, will deliver a specially commissioned talk: Learning from the Past?

As Charleston was the home of artists, the Festival has sessions devoted to art, ranging from Leonardo da Vinci and the Pre-Raphaelites to graphic art and the Surrealists. Painter, sculptor, draughtsman and printmaker, Peter Blake, will whisk us back to the heady days of ’60s pop art and Maria Balshaw, director of Tate, will lead a discussion with sculptor Hazel Reeves on popular culture and protest.

Reflecting the Bloomsbury Group’s legacy of progressive gender politics, the Festival looks at the achievements of remarkable women past and present. Feminist activist Caroline Criado Perez will discuss her new book, Invisible Women, a powerful and eye-opening analysis of the gender politics of knowledge, and Helena Kennedy will address discrimination in the legal system. Cathy Newman explores the pioneering woman left out of the history books, and Tina Brown one of journalism’s legendary figures will discuss The Vanity Fair Diaries, an irreverent account of her years as editor-in-chief of one of the world’s best-known glossies.

Naomi Wolf, the bestselling author of The Beauty Myth and Vagina, illuminates the dramatic consequences of the Obscene Publications Act 1857. Her Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love reveals how this single English law had long lasting reverberations, including the creation of the modern concept of ‘obscenity’ and the consolidation of homophobia.

Editorial Director of BBC News Kamal Ahmed will talk about his memoir, The Life and Times of a Very British Man, describing what it was like to grow up as part of the first generation of mixed-race children in 1970s Britain in the wake of Enoch Powell’s incendiary 1968 “rivers of blood” speech – a candid contribution to the ongoing conversation about race and identity in the UK.

Newsnight’s Mark Urban, who interviewed Sergei Skripal at his home in Salisbury just prior to the near-fatal poisoning which dominated news headlines, will recount the gripping, topical story of the double agent’s career as a spy in Russian military intelligence, his recruitment by MI6, imprisonment in his homeland and eventual release to the UK.

Some familiar faces will be back to celebrate 30 years of the Festival. Distinguished actor, author and director, Simon Callow introduces and presents a dramatic reading of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading GaolMelvyn Bragg re-imagines the legendary romance between Héloïse and Abelard – one of history’s most passionate true love stories. Alan Bennett provides an irresistible mixture of readings from his plays and prose. In an exceptional double act, two of our most renowned theatrical actors Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave perform the parts of Vita and Virginia, a play they starred in on Broadway in 1994. Closing the Festival will be author and intrepid traveller Michael Palin.


Climate justice champion Mary Robinson has today been announced as the winner of the fifth Charleston John Maynard Keynes Prize.

Robinson is the first women to be honoured with the prize, given in the spirit of John Maynard Keynes’ work, life and legacy. This global prize recognises an outstanding individual contribution to society. Each winner exemplifies one or more of Keynes’ great achievements: an outstanding gift used in the service of humanity, original thinking to solve global challenges, talent for communicating complex ideas and an ability to bridge the divide between the arts and social sciences. Previous winners were Sir David Attenborough, Professor Stephen Hawking, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen.

Mary Robinson is the president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, and has previously served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change. She is the former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In 2018, Robinson released the book Climate Justice, highlighting the work of her foundation which promotes the urgent need for innovation, global solidarity and empathy in the turbulent and troubling times in which we find ourselves. Through Climate Justice Robinson explores the profound injustice of climate change – that the vulnerable in our society will suffer most, those who are marginalised, poor, women and indigenous communities. Robinson is fighting for nations to address the imbalance and ensure that we leave a safer and fairer world to future generations.

On receiving the prize Mary Robinson said: ‘I am delighted to have been awarded a Prize which pays tribute to John Maynard Keynes.  In 2019 we are marking the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles post world war one.  Keynes played a crucial role in warning that punitive reparations would lead to disaster rather than justice. His humanitarian advice was rejected and the second world war followed. We are at a similar turning point today. We need the nations of the world to come together to take necessary action to avert the global catastrophe of climate change. We need to show the same spirit of solidarity that John Maynard Keynes displayed in his time.’

Robinson will give the annual John Maynard Keynes Lecture at the Charleston Festival on Friday 24 May. The full programme for the 2019 Festival is now available at: Other luminaries in the Festival programme include Gina Miller, Kamal Ahmed, Peter Blake, Simon Callow, Tina Brown, Martin Rees, Maria Balshaw, Naomi Wolf, Alan Bennett and many more.

Dame Liz Forgan, chair of the Charleston John Maynard Keynes Prize advisory panel, said: If globalisation has many downsides it has one rare but wonderful consequence:  it calls up exceptional individuals with the vision and moral courage to match its challenges. Mary Robinson is one of those individuals whose work for human rights has been a force for good on a global scale in her native Ireland, the UN, Africa and the parts of the world suffering worst from the effects of climate change.

The advisory panel comprises Dame Liz Forgan, former Chair of the Scott Trust and of Arts Council England; Professor Simon Keynes, great-nephew of John Maynard Keynes; Anne Morrison, until recently Chair of BAFTA; currently Chair of BAFTA’s International Committee, board member of Women in Film and Television and a Trustee of The Charleston Trust, Professor Michael Proctor, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge and Lord Robert Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy, politician and award-winning biographer of Keynes.

Keynes wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace while staying at Charleston and subsequently moved to Tilton, just a stroll across a field away. Keynes embodies the radical and interdisciplinary nature of the Charleston milieu. His The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was recently voted the most influential academic book that has shaped our times.

‘Questions of Ultimate Concern’ by Layla AlAmmar

About the author

Layla AlAmmar grew up in Kuwait. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her debut novel The Pact We Made will be published in March 2019 by the Borough Press and her short stories have appeared in the Evening Standard, Quail Bell Magazine, and Aesthetica Magazine where her story ‘The Lagoon’ was a finalist for the Creative Writing Award 2015. She currently works as an English Instructor at a private college in Kuwait.

She was Charleston’s 2018 Small Wonder festival writer in residence, wanting to show how a new generation of Arab-Anglophone writers are working to claim their own voice, their own ‘space’, and to bring their experiences and truths to a western audience.


In my debut novel, The Pact We Made, the main character, Dahlia, is saddled with a demon, a malevolent creature of Arabian folklore. He comes in the night—a weight on your chest, a vise on your lungs, a pressure on your heart. Hooking sharp talons between your ribs, he squeezes you like an accordion. He is a profound terror, a black hole, a certainty of impending death. Science calls the experience Sleep Paralysis, but we in the Arab world know him as the yathoom.

Dahlia suffers from one, as I have off and on for years. And like others in such situations, she thinks she’s alone in her suffering until one day standing in a museum she comes face to face with Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare. Here, Dahlia, for the first time, comes to a realization one would hope all people would come to, which is that we are all connected. In the book, she feels…

“… for the first time, the unbroken thread of history. For the first time, I felt like I was more than a collection of matter floating in empty space. I felt part of something larger, my experiences no longer my own, but shared with others. I remember staring at it for hours: the woman stretched out on her back, in that position which the yathoom finds so inviting; the wide-eyed incubus, that demon, mounted on her ribs; her hand droops, lifeless, to the floor. He’s killing her. Every night, he kills her.”

It was a case of Creative Writing 101, a case of write what you know. Not much in the novel, despite what people will think, is drawn from my own life, but how Dahlia’s anxiety manifests itself does have some correlation with my experiences. I put her in a museum, but my own moment of realization was much more mundane. I’d gone down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole of art one day—I often find myself going down internet rabbit-holes—and came across Fuseli’s work. Seeing The Nightmare, I was thrown into an uneasy quiet. Here was this Anglo-Swiss, an ordained priest, from the late 18th century (which is about as far away as one could get from my reality as a half Arab/half American woman living in modern-day Kuwait), and he’d managed to capture, in one image, what I had felt on more nights than I can remember. The uncaring weight on the chest, the featureless eyes in the dark, the draping of oneself at the wrong end of the bed (in what can be nothing but an effort to confound the demon), it was all there. It was a message from 1781, one that had traveled 237 years to tell me I wasn’t alone.

I came to Charleston looking for connections.

It’s what writers (artists, in general) do, search out those elements that bind us to one another. We look for ways into a new perspective, a crack to wedge ourselves into, something to break apart and put back together. That’s what life is, after all, a breaking apart and putting back together of things—careers, relationships, selves. Our concerns center around such inquiries as: How did we come to be? Why are we here? How are we meant to be with each other? What is it all for?

We bear witness to what it means to be human. We are observers first: of people and places, of cultures and rituals, of days and nights and minutes and hours. We see the woman on the bus contemplating the non-identity of motherhood or the lovers kissing noisily in their seats. We hear the drunken men laughing at their own stupid jokes outside the pub. We sit with the old woman on the bench while she spins out the story of her life like yarn on a loom. We learn the enduring sadness and ecstatic highs of what it means to be human.

We also learn what it means to be inhuman.

Six-year-olds shot in their classrooms. Jailed writers and murdered journalists. Men locking up girls in sheds for untold years. The legislation of identities and bodies. The desperate turned back at borders, arrested at borders, shot at and spat on at borders. Children in cages. Black people shot for the crime of being black. Animals hunted as though we had a surplus of them. Proxy wars where the number of dead has crossed a threshold after which the mind can no longer conceive of them as real people.
To quote Libyan poet, Khaled Mattawa, from Fifty April Years, it is,

as if the world had stopped calling,
as if we had emerged
from the whirlpool of its demands
with a wild mixture of cowardice
and courage to say unto others
“I wish you did not exist.”

We are a mystery to ourselves.

Humans spend their lives delineating themselves and the world around them, forging identities and religions and nations, constructing imaginary borders, building and tearing down walls—where do you end and I begin?—as though the world were nothing more than a set of neatly-labeled pigeonholes for us to slot ourselves into.

The world is a frightening place. Smaller now, and perhaps all the more frightening for it. The internet, social media, ease of travel, they’ve all made it so that it feels as though we are occupying a tighter and tighter area on this little rock hurtling through space. Yes, it’s great that I can find some obscure artist in Brazil at the click of a few keys, and I can stream a Beck concert as it’s happening, and I can follow my favorite writers and see what they’re thinking every day. But it also sometimes feels as though we’re trapped in this tiny room with screens on every wall screaming the world’s tragedies at us all the time. We become desensitized to it, feel powerless against it, scroll past it to the next story.

I channel it into fiction. Frustrated by the limitations and hypocrisies of my society, I attempted to work through them in The Pact We Made. Heartbroken by the war in Syria, disgusted by the rise of Islamophobic/xenophobic rhetoric, and horrified by the refugee crisis, these elements form the central axis around which the second book I wrote pivots. In fiction I can find some resolution to seemingly insurmountable problems. I can address issues no longer (or never) spoken of.

It’s the purview of fiction, to hold a mirror up to society, to the world, showing its failures and realities. It provides the means to view all the fragmented intricacies of life from a multitude of angles. It creates in the mind the capacity to hold opposing thoughts while retaining, as Fitzgerald said, the ability to function. It is, in short, a conduit of, and for, empathy.

I came to Charleston looking for an eradication.

Home and haunt of key members of the Bloomsbury set, Duncan Grant, Clive and Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) settled here to escape society and the war. I came for an escape of my own, to walk their gardens, breathe their air, and see the world through their windows. This is where they lived and loved and wrote and painted and threw themselves into as many shapes as they could conceive of—all of it done without malice, without judgment, without fear.

What I found was a place distinctly unbordered, a place with no lines in the sand, a place unstuck in time and space—where Orlando, ninety-years-old now, still gamboled across the downs like some Shakespearean sprite, where Zanele Muholi’s series of Faces and Phases of black LGBTQIA+ lives in South Africa could sit comfortably beside Bell and Grant’s 1932 collection of dinner plates depicting notable women, from the Queen of Sheba to Emily Brontë. Here, Sylvia Plath could, for one night, return from the dead to let a hushed audience in on an unhappy marriage. It is a place for writers, artists, poets, and great minds to sit around a kitchen table discussing narrative and publishing and censorship and the frustrations of academia, and where I, a Kuwaiti author, could trudge across yellowed fields (with only a map to guide me) to a tiny village where the largest concern revolves around a newly-installed and deeply unpopular traffic light.

It’s a place of magic, whose ethos I wish I could bottle and export.

In lieu of that we could construct little Charlestons of the mind. Little rooms of our own where we approach the world through lenses of plurality, tolerance, and humanity. In Kuwait, already, there are pockets of Charleston, private spaces where there is freedom to be and think. But I’m reminded always that it’s not enough. It’s not enough until the 4,500-plus books that have been banned in Kuwait in the last five years are unbanned. It’s not enough until everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality or religious affiliation, enjoys civil liberties. It’s not enough until we can say what we want without the prickle of fear that maybe we’ve crossed a line we never knew existed. We have a moral obligation to fight suppression, to resist assaults on our intellectual freedom, to live and breathe our principles so as not to be dragged into battles that have already been fought.

I carry Charleston with me. It’s a part of me now—a dream, a comfort, an answer.


Virginia Nicholson announced as President of The Charleston Trust

Virginia Nicholson has today been announced as President of The Charleston Trust.

Virginia Nicholson is the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell and elder daughter of Quentin Bell and former Charleston President, the late Anne Olivier Bell. Virginia spent her childhood holidays at Charleston, and for a number of years has been a trustee of the House. She is also the author of a series of acclaimed social histories and in September 2018 a new edition of her first book, Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden, (1997, co-authored with her father) will be released.

Virginia Nicholson, President of The Charleston Trust said: “I’ve known and loved Charleston all my life, and my most treasured memories go back to my childhood holidays spent here with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. With Charleston entering the most exciting phase of its history, I can’t think of a more rewarding time to be stepping into the role of President. It’s an honour to succeed my dear mother, and I’m grateful to the trustees for their faith in offering me the Presidency of the Trust.”









The announcement of Virginia’s presidency coincides with the 8 September launch of Charleston’s new exhibition space, events space and restaurant. The 570m2 new development will see Charleston open all-year-round and enable it to present major exhibitions for the first time, as well as talks, performances and its existing programme of literary festivals and events.

Michael Farthing, Chair of The Charleston Trust said: “I and the other Charleston Trustees are delighted that Virginia has responded with such enthusiasm to our invitation to follow her mother, Olivier, as our President. Her background, knowledge and incredible drive to continue Charleston’s development make her a perfect fit for the role. The next few years will bring exciting times to Charleston and we all look forward to working together as a team to maximise its potential.”


This autumn Charleston will launch its first exhibition space, as well as an events space and new restaurant. This 570m2 new development will enable Charleston to present exhibitions for the first time and see it open all-year-round. The exhibition space will be housed in a new building designed by Jamie Fobert Architects, while the events space and restaurant will be situated in two 18th-century farm buildings, restored and redeveloped by Julian Harrap Architects.

The development will launch on 8 September 2018 with the inaugural exhibition ‘Orlando at the present time’, which will present a contemporary response to Virginia Woolf’s renowned novel Orlando: A Biography. The exhibition will be accompanied by two additional displays, ‘Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases’ and the first museum showing of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s Famous Women Dinner Service.

The building of the new exhibition space and the restoration of the barns have been made possible thanks to £2.44 million of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) – thanks to National Lottery players, £650,000 from Coast to Capital LEP, £250,000 from Arts Council England and major grants from the Wolfson Foundation, Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement, the Monument Trust, the Foyle Foundation and The Ashley Family Foundation, as well as a group of generous individuals.

The Sussex home of artists Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) and Duncan Grant (1885–1978), Charleston farmhouse is the only completely preserved Bloomsbury interior in the world and is considered one of the Bloomsbury group’s finest works of art. Since opening to the public in 1986, its delicate painted interiors and eclectic collection of furniture, textiles, books and ceramics have been enjoyed by over half a million visitors.

The ideas and radicalism of the artists, writers and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury group will be at the heart of Charleston’s new programme, which will interrogate the contemporary relevance of those who lived and worked at Charleston over 100 years ago. Through a mix of contemporary and historic exhibitions, new programming will explore their experimental and international creativity, which pioneered controversial ways of living and of making art. The scope of the group’s specialities, encompassing novelist Virginia Woolf, biographer Lytton Strachey and economist John Maynard Keynes, will allow for a naturally broad range of themes including gender and sexual politics, pacifism and internationalism, interior design and fashion.

The opening exhibition will bring together contemporary artistic responses to Virginia Woolf’s landmark novel Orlando: A Biography and will mark 90 years since its original publication. Works by artists including Kaye Donachie, Paul Kindersley, Delaine La Bas and Matt Smith will be shown alongside rarely seen letters, photographs and objects pertaining to the original publication of the novel. Orlando’s innovative use of a protagonist who appears to change gender has made it an important reference point for those interested in gender and feminist theory and its re-examination at Charleston this autumn will connect both with the Bloomsbury group’s queer history and the ever-increasing interest in discussions about gender.

‘Orlando at the present time’ will be accompanied by two further displays. ‘Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases’ will present a selection of black-and-white photographic portraits from the artist’s well known series documenting black lesbian and transgender individuals from South Africa and beyond. The works on show in this iteration of the series have been specially selected by the artist in response to ‘Orlando at the present time’, in which two of Muholi’s works from the series will also appear.

Also on display will be the first museum showing of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s Famous Women Dinner Service. This unique set of 50 plates depicts famous women throughout history, from Cleopatra to Mary Queen of Scots, Jane Austen, Greta Garbo and others. The dinner service was commissioned by Kenneth Clark in 1932 and was made by Bell and Grant during their time at Charleston. The plates will be shown alongisde a number of prototypes and drawings from Charleston’s collection.

The new building by Jamie Fobert Architects has been constructed in cross-laminated timber, making reference to the wooden structure of Charleston’s historic barns yet employing modern fabrication techniques. The building will house a suite of galleries and a retail space. The three cubic galleries echo the proportions of the main living spaces of Charleston farmhouse, communicating a sense of balance and familiarity between the old and the new.

Using traditional techniques, Julian Harrap Architects has restored two adjoining 18th-century farm buildings which were substantially damaged by fire in the 1980s. The Hay Barn will become a flexible events space, which will enable Charleston to present talks and performances, as well as its existing programme of literary festivals and events. The other, the Threshing Barn, will house a new restaurant of that name.

New contemporary farmyard courtyards, allowing visitors to Charleston and the South Downs National Park the opportunity to eat al fresco, have been designed by Tom Stuart-Smith Ltd, who will also oversee the landscape construction over the coming months.

Nathaniel Hepburn, Director and Chief Executive of the Charleston Trust said:

“These new facilities will make Charleston into a public centre for thinking, making, writing and working. Much like the artists who lived here, our programme will be radical, unconventional and international.”

Further information on the opening exhibitions

Orlando at the present time Wolfson Gallery 8 September 2018 – 6 January 2019

Orlando: A Biography is considered one of the most progressive and formally inventive works of fiction of the 20th century. A satirical biography, it describes the adventures of a fictional poet named Orlando whose fantastical travels span four centuries, from the Renaissance to the 1920s. Inspired in part by Woolf’s close friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, who was gender non-conforming, Orlando sees its protagonist change gender from man to woman halfway through the narrative. The novel’s resultant exploration of identity and gender – and its implicit challenge to rigid identity binaries – has made it a crucial reference point in gender theory, from its publication to the present day. First published in 1928, this year marks 90 years of Orlando’s influence.

‘Orlando at the present time’ will explore Virginia Woolf’s problematisation of gender, as well as the continued contemporary relevance of the gender issues raised by the novel and its other themes, such as colonialism and exoticism. New works of visual art responding directly to the text have been commissioned from Paul Kindersley and Delaine La Bas, whilst other works offering thought-provoking reflections on the novel’s concerns will also be on display, by Kaye Donachie, Matt Smith and Zanele Muholi.

Unusually for a novel of this period, Orlando incorporates a series of illustrations and a number of the new commissions respond directly to them. Also on display will be photographs by Annie Leibovitz taken at Monk’s House, Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s country retreat, and Sissinghurst, the home of Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson.

The exhibition will also examine the history of the novel itself, its controversial reception and its relation to Virginia Woolf’s own life. Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West, called it the ‘longest and most charming love letter in literature’, whilst Vita Sackville-West’s mother attempted to besmirch Orlando in order to quell rumours of an affair between her daughter and Virginia Woolf.

Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases South Gallery 8 September 2018 – 6 January 2019

‘Faces and Phases’ (2006– ) is an ongoing series of black-and-white photographic portraits by Zanele Muholi, commemorating and celebrating black lesbian and transgender experience. Muholi embarked on this project in 2006, taking portraits of women from the townships of South Africa. In 2008, after the xenophobic and homophobic attacks that led to the mass displacement of people in that country, Muholi decided to expand the series to include photographs of individuals from different countries. Collectively, the portraits can be seen as an act of visual activism.

Describing the project, Muholi has said that ‘Faces and Phases’ is an “insider’s perspective that both commemorates and celebrates the lives of the black queers I have met in my journeys. I set out to establish relationships with them based on a mutual understanding of what it means to be a black member of the LGBTQIA+ community today.”

The Famous Women Dinner Service Spotlight Gallery On display until summer 2019

Charleston will host the first museum display of Vanessa Bell and Duncant Grant’s Famous Women Dinner Service since it was created for Kenneth Clarke in 1932. After this the plates disappeared from public view and their whereabouts was unknown until very recently. The plates were created by Bell and Grant when they lived at Charleston and each plate depicts one famous woman, featuring figures as various as the Queen of Sheba, Sappho, Nell Gwyn, Emily Brontë and Elizabeth I. There are 50 plates in the set, with the final two depicting Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the only man in the series.

Anne Olivier Bell: 1916 – 2018

It is with great sadness that Charleston has learned of the death of Anne Olivier Bell.

Not only was Anne [known to close friends as Olivier] Charleston’s President, she helped found The Charleston Trust in the 1980s and was an acknowledged expert on Bloomsbury and on Charleston’s original collection and interiors.

Anne Olivier Bell
Ph: Axel Hesslenberg

Anne Olivier Bell trained as an art historian  at the Courtauld in the 1930s. She worked at the end of the war as part of a special international unit to repatriate works of art displaced by war. She first came to know Charleston in 1950 and in 1952 married Vanessa and Clive Bell’s son, Quentin. Then had three children and continued to visit Charleston regularly. She received honorary doctorates from Sussex and York Universities for her work editing the five volumes of Virginia Woolf’s diaries. In 2014 Anne Olivier Bell was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List for services to the arts and literature.

Her incredible contributions to Charleston and to the study of Bloomsbury remain a glorious memorial to her.

Further reading: [Paywall]


The line-up for the 15th Small Wonder Festival, the UK’s only festival dedicated to short stories, is announced today. Running from 28 – 30 September in the bucolic landscape of Charleston in Sussex, the festival features a mix of home-grown and international authors, poets and artists. Small Wonder is a part of Charleston’s burgeoning programme of exhibitions, events and festivals. The ideas and radicalism of the artists, writers and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury group will be at the heart of Charleston’s new line-up, which will interrogate the contemporary relevance of those who lived and worked at Charleston over 100 years ago.

This year’s Small Wonder hinges on the idea of transformation. Reflecting this theme, the Festival will be housed in Charleston’s newly restored 18th century Hay Barn, opposite a brand new suite of galleries. Highlights include recent works which resonate with dualities and transitions by short story writers Sarah Hall, Eley Williams and Lucy Wood, plus playwright, director and author Neil Bartlett.

In the year we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A biography, writer Olivia Laing (author of Crudo) and performance artist La JohnJoseph will read Laing’s Small Wonder commissioned composition, The Something-Nothings, a passionate dialogue with Woolf’s seductive, shape-shifting text. This will be followed by a conversation, together with artist Sarah Wood, about how the gender-defiant novel still crackles with radical possibilities nearly a century on.

Charleston is giving audiences a sneak peek of The Something-Nothings. From 8 – 23 September Olivia Laing and Sarah Wood’s collaborative installation ‘An Artist’s Bed’ will be on display in the Hay Barn. The installation, based on Duncan Grant’s bed in the farmhouse, encourages immersive interaction. Visitors can lie back and enjoy whisperings of The Something-Nothings recited by poets and performers. Above them, projected from the ceiling will be a film created by Sarah Wood.

Olivia Laing

Seventy years since the arrival of Empire Windrush, author and historian of Caribbean Studies Colin Grant presents a session looking at writing from the perspective of migration. Grant is joined by poets Daljit Nagra and Kate Clanchy. On Saturday, Booker Prize winning novelist Ben Okri explores the power of poetry as a vehicle of protest and will read from and discuss the impact of his compilation ‘Rise Like Lions: Poetry for the Many’

Ben Okri Small Wonder 2018

Ben Okri

On Sunday the focus shifts; author and former journalist Tom Rachman’s latest short story collection provides an early literary look at Trump-era America. He is joined by author and journalist Lionel Shriver who will be discussing her first collection of short stories – Property, which examines both senses of the word: real estate and material belongings. 

Lionel Shriver

Chiming with the unique Charleston history and the anniversary of the first steps towards women’s suffrage, we celebrate a diverse troupe of women’s voices. Imogen Hermes Gowar presents her gender-charged parable of Georgian London, AL Kennedy performs a dramatic female voiced monologue in partnership with champion of women’s writing MsLexia. We commemorate our glorious female forebears, Muriel Spark in her 100th year and Sylvia Plath as the second volume of her Letters hits the press. Kicking off the Festival, author Kate Mosse discusses the new anthology I am Heathcliff, her curation of 16 short stories examining the romance and pain of the infamous literary anti-hero. Mosse is joined by contributors Juno Dawson (activist and author of seven novels including current bestseller Clean) and Louise Doughty (Black Water and number-one bestseller Apple Tree Yard).

I am Heathcliff panel – Juno Dawson, Kate Mosse and Louise Doughty


The BBC National Short Story Award, the UK’s most prestigious short story award, returns to Small Wonder with exclusive readings from previous winners and some of this year’s shortlisted authors plus insights from former judges into how prize juries really make their decisions.

For the fourth year running, Charleston and the British Council are welcoming an international writer to soak up the inspiration and respond to Small Wonder. This year Layla AlAmmar from Kuwait, whose debut novel The Pact We Made will be published in March 2019, will be joining events and responding to the festival in writing. Layla AlAmmar said: “I’m thrilled and honoured to have been chosen as the 2018 British Council International Writer in Residence at Small Wonder. The world will never stop needing stories, and Small Wonder consistently brings together some of the most scintillating storytellers of our time. I’m eager to share and learn with my fellow writers and readers.”

The Charleston-Bede’s Award for a Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction.

Charleston is delighted to announce the distinguished author AS Byatt as recipient of the 2018 Charleston-Bede’s Award for a Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction. Now in its sixth year, the award celebrates writers with a strong track record in publishing short stories of outstanding quality, previous recipients being William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Jane Gardam, Ali Smith and Penelope Lively. On hearing the news, AS Byatt said, “I am very happy to be about to receive the Charleston-Bede’s Award for Short Stories. I have always had a great admiration for the Small Wonder Short Story Festival and it is wonderful to be honoured by it. Thank you all very much.”

Diana Reich, artist director of Small Wonder said: As Small Wonder celebrates its 15th birthday, we rejoice in the fact that the short story form is receiving far greater recognition from writers, publishers and readers than when the festival was launched. In order to draw attention to the long-standing creativity of the form, we launched what is now the Charleston-Bede’s Award for a Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction to mark Small Wonder’s 10th anniversary. We are delighted that this year’s recipient is the internationally renowned author Dame Antonia Byatt, whose short stories exemplify the vigour of the form. We are proud that Small Wonder has been in the vanguard of stimulating renewed interest in the history and contemporary impact of the short story.”

AS Byatt

Small Wonder Fringe

The Festival runs a wide programme of workshops and events supporting new generations of writers. Activities for 2018 include; creative writing workshops with BBC National Short Story Award winner KJ Orr; BBC Producer Liz Allard on Writing for audio; acclaimed novelist Benjamin Markovits leading a creative workshop focused on structure. The Small Wonder SLAM and Reading Group returns for 2018. New for this year are the Courtyard Readings, a chance for writers to read their own short fiction aloud to the friendly festival crowd.


Tickets go on sale on Thursday 19 July. See the full line-up here.