By Charleston’s Conservation Cleaner, Kathy Crisp
While Charleston has been closed over the last few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we haven’t been working on our collections. However, gratefully funded by Historic England, I have continued working to keep the house and collections safe and secure.
In November, the rest of the curatorial team, Darren and Emily returned from furlough and we were able to work together on an urgent project, fixing the studio blind. During October the nylon pull cord from the highest blackout blind suddenly snapped. There was now no way of closing it and keeping out the daylight which can be damaging to the collection. The challenge was, it was very high up. To reach it safely we had to move all the objects and furniture away from that side of the room so we could carefully bring in the enormous platform step ladder from the galleries.
Tables were set up for the purpose of moving the collection of objects and art materials off the newspaper-covered table under the studio window. Another sturdy table was used for the several large pots from the studio windowsill. We moved the painter’s table — which is actually screwed to the wall — so there was room to place the ladder. These movements then allowed for the inspection and cleaning of the floor beneath, and the walls behind.
Darren went up the ladder first and replaced the cord successfully. I was eager to get up there afterwards and vacuum several years’ accumulation of dust, dead flies and cobwebs. Subsequently, I cleaned those generous panes of glass which flood the studio with diffused north light.
This high vantage point gave me such an unusual view of the room, I had to take some photographs. It felt like I was looking down into a doll’s house version of Charleston!
When I vacuumed the thick layer of dust at the top of the wall, I uncovered some pencil writing from two carpenters who signed their names in 1984. Probably done back when the windows were replaced during the restoration of the house.
The wonderful collection of large pots and vases were then checked over and tiny spots of fly and spider excrement were removed with a touch of water and a cotton wool swab. Many of the ceramics in the house were repaired during the 1980s which makes them extremely fragile. To avoid the risk of damage, we move them as seldom as possible.
The ladder needed all three of us to fold it down safely and slowly manoeuvre it out of the studio door into the garden and then back up to the galleries where it lives. The assortment of artist’s supplies was then cleaned and condition checked before restoring them to the newspaper-lined table.
The blinds are now working correctly, blocking out the light when the house is closed. Too much light, artificial or natural, even with the UV protection, can cause irreversible damage to the collection. The new cord should remain strong for many years to come.
When Charleston can finally welcome back visitors, my first morning task will be to open the binds and shutters, bringing the house to life.
By Charleston’s Gardener, Harry Hoblyn
We have had few visitors to the garden this season, fewer still to the house. Yet, the promise of spring is gradually awakening at the forefront of any gardener’s mind, and the recent generosity of Charleston’s supporters, demonstrated through the favourable outcome of our Art Fund Art Happens campaign, signifies a change in fortunes. The house and its garden will be open to visitors again in April 2021.
What is the ‘Bloomsbury Look’? Charleston’s former curator Wendy Hitchmough reveals how the Bloomsbury group generated its avant-garde, self-fashioned aesthetic through art, photography and dress in her captivating new book. (more…)
A week before Charleston launches a crowdfunding campaign to raise the final funds needed to reopen, an extraordinary gift of hitherto unknown drawings has been given to the charity as the current owner appeals to the public to ensure that Charleston can reopen its doors.
Block printing extraordinaire Molly Mahon has launched #thegreatpotatoprintingsociety! Molly, and an incredible lineup of artists have each created a potato print for an online auction to raise funds for Charleston during these challenging times.
A rare bust of artist Duncan Grant by sculptor Stephen Tomlin has entered Charleston’s collection, with an edition of 15 bronzes cast from the original to support the charity’s emergency appeal.
Today Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862), or Lizzie as she was styled and commonly known, would be celebrating her 191st birthday.
Siddal was an English artist, poet, and artists’ model whose beauty, talents and life were recognised by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in their playful, yet groundbreaking project: the Famous Women Dinner Service.
It’s National Nude Day! A great opportunity to draw your attention to one of my all-time favourite paintings in Charleston’s collection — Standing Male Nude (c.1935) by Duncan Grant — and have a brief look at the trajectory that nude painting took in Grant’s oeuvre.
Founded by painter and art critic Roger Fry (1866-1934), the Workshops employed some of the most radical avant-garde artists of the day, with Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and Duncan Grant (1885-1978) as co-directors. Their anti-establishment approach paired with Post-Impressionist experimentalism produced modern designs and items for the home, from printed fabrics and textiles to ceramics, furniture and clothing.
Last week the government announced that museums can open again on 4 July; but there is a long way to go before Charleston can reopen, and significant funds still to raise.
The intimate experience of exploring the house’s interiors is something visitors normally cherish; but small, heavily furnished rooms make it impossible to create a socially distanced experience that would be safe and enjoyable for our staff, volunteers, and visitors. We have explored all other options, including just opening our galleries, café and shop, but with significantly reduced visitor numbers we simply cannot afford to reopen this year.
Charleston has survived this crisis thanks to thousands of donations from around the world to our Emergency Appeal, grants from Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, everyone who donated their Charleston Festival Tickets, and the extraordinary endeavours of artist Emily Maude who has raised over £55,000 through an artists’ auction on Instagram. The decision to remain closed has not been an easy one, but will enable us to build a stronger, more beautiful, more resilient, and more sustainable Charleston for the future.
While our doors are closed, we will continue to share Charleston’s house, garden and collections with our audiences digitally, and our online shop will remain open. Following the success of Charleston Festival at Home, we will deliver more digital programmes including a weekend of talks and events to mark Small Wonder Festival, 25-27 September 2020. We are also working to open our beautiful garden in July as a place of creativity and wellbeing. We will share the full details shortly so please keep an eye on our social feeds, website, and e-newsletter.
Thank you for your continued support and patience as we continue to navigate these challenging times.
Director and Chief Executive, The Charleston Trust
By Charleston’s Gardener, Harry Hoblyn
The first weeks of June have finally brought us some rain; the sky undulating between an ominous spectral grey, and that bright-eyed, azure clarity so generous throughout the previous months. All this time I have been gardening in privileged, paradisiacal isolation, left for the most part to my own devices, nurturing a sanctuary that has seen few visitors.
In our final guest blog post for #VolunteersWeek (1-7 June 2002), Charleston’s conservation volunteer Diana Marriott takes us behind the scenes of museum conservation work and writes about some of the projects she’s worked on at Charleston.
As #VolunteersWeek (1-7 June 2002) continues, we’re exploring Charleston through the eyes of some of our brilliant volunteers and finding out what Charleston means to them. In this guest blog, we hear from volunteers Sheila, Chris, Sue, Susan and Carole.
1-7 June 2020 is #VolunteersWeek, and our charity is lucky to have a wonderful team of dedicated volunteers who give their time, energy and expertise to Charleston throughout the year. In this guest blog, volunteer and supporter Sally Handford recalls how Charleston captured her imagination in childhood and shares what it still means to her today. (more…)
Charleston is one of 70 projects to benefit from Historic England’s Covid-19 emergency grants to help the recovery of the heritage sector. The charity has been awarded a grant of £25,000 to help preserve its hand-painted interiors and unique collection of art, furniture, textiles and ceramics by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and their contemporaries.
While Charleston’s doors are closed, our conservation cleaner Kathy Crisp continues her vital work looking after the house. Here she writes about a recent spring clean and an important find!
Following a flood in the house attic last year, significant restoration work has been undertaken to repair the damage to the areas of the house that were most affected. Fortunately, the costs of the restoration work have been covered by Charleston’s insurance.
As part of the project, just before Charleston closed its doors to visitors, the kitchen was repainted with Farrow & Ball distemper. Part of the ceiling and the central beam were badly stained by flood damage and the plaster ceiling has been reinforced by building conservator Ben, who is rebuilding the ceiling in the spare bedroom.
The tidy up then began! Volunteer Jane and I spent a long time removing all the decorating dust and finally mopping the floor. I then cleaned all the ceramics and polished the glass bead supports for the light shades. The plates and platters, bowls and jugs were all returned to their positions.
Grace Higgens’ cookery books were dusted and returned to the shelf. The cacti and spider plant were fed and placed back on the window ledge. I even discovered the lost knob from the coffee percolator, hiding in the dust at the back of the table drawer!
The room looks so fresh and clean. I hope everyone will be able to see it soon, when the house can spring to life with visitors again!
As a charity that receives no public funding, our current closure is financially devastating for Charleston. Please consider making a donation to our Emergency Appeal to help secure the charity’s future.
Trainee Gardener, Harry Hoblyn, writes about his project to restore the garden’s studio border at Charleston.
During my year spent at Charleston as trainee gardener, I have widened my knowledge and understanding of horticulture, and developed my skills as a gardener. Fiona Dennis’ mentorship has been invaluable. Inspired by her passion for researching the garden’s heyday, I can begin to visual its Bloomsbury era makeup with more clarity. The garden was (and still is) a setting alive with colour, scent, and form; the perfect muse for a painter’s palette.
It therefore seemed apt that for my final project here I would undertake to restore part of the studio border leading down from the upper terrace. We chose this border because it had begun to lack character, plant diversity, and depth of colour. Certain herbaceous perennials (Acanthus mollis, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, Iris orientalis, Solidago ‘Goldenmosa’) were dominant, and pernicious weeds (ground elder and bindweed) crept through the garden wall.
Taking inspiration from Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s paintings of the border, I felt that the atmosphere conjured on leaving the studio should be light, bright, and transparent, evoking an ethereal quality, and one that would be accommodating to an afternoon spent with needlework in the sun. This, however, was not the case. Rosa ‘Ballerina’ and low-lying perennials nudged their way onto the terrace, while tall aforementioned perennials and a triffid-like cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) blocked one’s view into the garden. My objectives were therefore fourfold:
• Remove pernicious weeds and curb the influence of over dominant herbaceous perennials.
• Open up the vista to recreate the feel of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s paintings.
• Redesign the border using artwork as a stimulus and incorporating Bloomsbury era plants.
• Introduce more cohesion and greater diversity to the border.
Primary steps involved mapping out pre-existing plantings, removing undesirables, and pruning back trees and shrubs. Rosa ‘Ballerina’ was pruned hard to give it a lighter quality, while an unhealthy ornamental cherry was removed altogether. Removing strands of bindweed and ground elder, and the deeply spreading rhizomes of Iris orientalis, took longer than anticipated. I was left with a blank canvass, except for a few species, which remained in place on account of merit (these include Astrantia major, Lupinus polyphyllus, Papaver orientalis ‘Beauty of Livermere’, three Paeonia(s), and Iris germanica).
During rainy moments, I took to the office to research heritage plants, inspect artworks, and work on design plans. Certain focal points were identified from paintings: pink phlox, towering hollyhocks, striking spires of red, and a golden-apricot double rose blooming profusely across the wall. Research led me to replicate these plants with heritage cultivars, thus introducing Phlox paniculata ‘Tenor’ (1939), Lobelia cardinalis ‘Queen Victoria’, and Rosa ‘Gloire de Dijon’ (1853). Other plants introduced include Geum rivale ‘Leonard’s Variety’ (1923), Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ (1930), Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ (1918), Leucanthemum x superbum ‘T.E. Killin’, and the only pre-1945 Delphinium I could find on the market (‘Blue Lagoon’).
Further important Bloomsbury era plants, such as Alcea rosea (hollyhocks), the silver-foliaged Senecio cinererea, Eryngium bourgatii (sea holly), Lunaria annua (honesty), Hesperis matronalis (Sweet Rocket), Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’ (monkshood), as well as other plants and bulbs were (re)introduced.
Time will tell how the border develops. Since planting up the border with Fiona in early December, spring has begun to take hold, and I am gratified to see that leaves and bulbs are beginning to strikethrough the layer of organic mulch which was added after planting. I look forward to returning to the border throughout the flowering season, and hope that staff, volunteers and visitors will also gain inspiration from a fresh atmospheric quality of lightness and tranquillity on leaving through the studio doorway.
The following is taken from the eulogy read at Henrietta Garnett’s funeral at St Peter’s Church Firle, on 24th September 2019 by Mark Divall, who gardened at Charleston for 16 years between 1985 and 2017…
We are excited to announce that Susannah Stevenson is joining Charleston as Artistic Director of the Charleston Festival, Small Wonder Festival and Literary Programmes.
Susannah is a literary programmer and arts producer who has worked at some of the UK’s most prestigious arts venues, including the British Library and the Southbank Centre, home of the London Literature Festival. As Cultural Events Producer for the British Library, she curated the literature programme and seasons such as the European Literature Focus, Food Season and Harry Potter: A History of Magic.
Susannah will lead on the artistic planning and delivery of the year-round books, discussion and debate strand of Charleston’s growing what’s on programme. The centerpiece of this strand is the interdisciplinary Charleston Festival of books, ideas and creativity, which runs over 10 days every May. Charleston Festival’s founder and Artistic Director, Diana Reich, stepped down after the 30th anniversary of this pioneering festival in 2019 but will continue to programme Charleston’s sister festival, Charleston to Charleston, which takes place in South Carolina every November.
Through Charleston’s literary programmes, Susannah will explore the relevance of the Bloomsbury group’s ideas and legacy in contemporary society to provide a forum for conversations and bring new work to enquiring audiences. Charleston’s existing portfolio of festivals also includes Small Wonder, the UK’s only festival dedicated to short stories, which has been running for 15 years and will return to the programme in autumn 2020. Her role will also support the discussion and debate strand of Charleston’s wider programme including new festivals for children and young people, Queer Bloomsbury, Music & Word and other spoken word events, both at Charleston and with partners in the region and further afield.
Susannah sits on the selection panel for the European Writers’ Tour and was the Founding Chair of the Gender Equality Network at the British Library. She is also a reviewer, editor and researcher, and was a Clore Emerging Leader in 2015.
Nathaniel Hepburn, Director and Chief Executive, The Charleston Trust, said:
“We are all really excited to welcome Susannah to Charleston, where she will become the custodian of our very special literary festivals and the innovator of new programmes. I look forward to working with her to build on Diana’s formidable legacy with Charleston Festival and Small Wonder, while also exploring new ideas for our year-round programme to attract new audience to experience extraordinary literature and radical ideas in the unique setting of Charleston’s Hay Barn. ”
Susannah Stevenson, Artistic Director: Charleston Festival, Small Wonder and Literary Programmes, The Charleston Trust, said:
“I am delighted to be joining The Charleston Trust as their new Artistic Director for Charleston Festival, Small Wonder and the wider literary programme. It is an honour to step into the rich tradition of literature and radical ideas which Diana Reich has established here in this unique and special place. It is a tradition embodied by the Bloomsbury Group, whose work and lives provide an endless well of inspiration and a call to challenge the status quo at every turn. I look forward to building on the incredible work that has come before me to explore and celebrate extraordinary ideas and voices, ensuring that Charleston remains relevant and loved by audiences old and new.”
Next year’s Charleston Festival will take place from 15 to 25 May 2020.
We are thrilled to announce that a beautiful portrait of Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant has entered Charleston’s collection through the Arts Council’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme, and will be on public display here at their Sussex home in the new year.
The full length portrait of Vanessa Bell was painted by Duncan Grant around 1916. It is a rare example of Grant’s use of collage and demonstrates his skill in using facets of bright, luminous colour to build up the picture surface. The abstract background is reminiscent of designs for Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops and adds a dynamism to the composition. The portrait is oil and collage on wood, possibly a table top or door.
Grant completed three paintings of Bell wearing an evening dress made of red paisley fabric. In the version in the National Portrait Gallery, London, the pattern of the material and the construction of the dress have been recreated in paint, Grant echoing “the rhythm of the drapery,” emulating its folds and shadows. In a second version Grant introduces sections of the actual material that the dress was made from. The version to be displayed at Charleston recreates the design in paint and collage.
The long and at times intimate relationship between Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant can be charted in the numerous portraits they made of each other. This portrait comes from a particularly important period of that relationship, one that includes the beginning of their sexual relationship, their imminent move to Charleston and the setting up of a domestic and working space together.
The painting is quintessentially a Charleston painting. A portrait of an artist by an artist, of a friend by a friend and of a lover by their lover. Painted during the uncertainty of wartime, quite possibly at Charleston itself, it marks the development of a friendship into a love affair while defining the development of an artist’s individual style.
Nathaniel Hepburn, Director and Chief Executive, The Charleston Trust, said:
Arts Minister, Helen Whately, said:
Edward Harley OBE, Chairman, Acceptance in Lieu Panel said:
The portrait will go on permanent display at Charleston, initially as part of a wider exhibition programme in February 2020 in the museum’s new galleries, before being hung in Clive Bell’s Library at Charleston. The Library was originally Vanessa Bell’s Bedroom and contains some of the earliest decorations in the house. It became Clive Bell’s Library when he moved to Charleston just before the Second World War.
The portrait was given to Anne Olivier Bell, who was married to Quentin Bell, by the artist in circa 1973.
Asham, or Asheham House as it was originally called and named in Virginia Woolf’s diaries was near the village of Beddingham in Sussex. Between 1912 and 1919 while her sister Vanessa Bell was nearby at Charleston with Duncan Grant, Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf stayed at Asheham for holidays and weekends before they moved to Monks House.
Legend has it that Asheham was both haunted and haunting. According to Leonard Woolf, it seemed as if each night two people walked from room to room, opening and shutting doors, sighing, whispering. In his autobiography he remarks:
It was Asheham and its spooky footsteps and whisperings that inspired Virginia Woolf’s short story, ‘A Haunted House’, which first appeared in her collection ‘Monday or Tuesday’ in 1921; and later in Woolf’s 1944 collection of 18 short stories which was produced by Leonard Woolf after her death, although in the foreword he states that they had discussed its production together.
The story tells the tale of a ghostly couple who glide through the rooms of their well-loved home at night. Read on (if you dare)…
Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.
“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room . . . ” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”
At Charleston we’re thrilled to be named among the UK’s top places to visit by Lonely Planet in their #UltimateUKTravelist of the most memorable, beautiful, surprising and compelling experiences to be had across Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands.
The only complete preserved Bloomsbury interior in the world, Charleston’s individually designed and hand-painted rooms were inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists. Visitors can take a tour around the unique spaces and explore the stories and lives of the artists, writers and thinkers who made it their home. Alongside the house, Charleston runs a programme of exhibitions, workshops, talks and events throughout the year, as well as a portfolio of literary festivals.
Charleston is one of just 34 attractions from the South East of England to make the Lonely Planet’s ‘Ultimate United Kingdom Travelist’.
The UK’s four constituent countries and countless small islands comprise a powerhouse of history, culture and intrigue. Now for the first time, Lonely Planet’s community of travel experts have chosen the best sights and experiences and ranked them in order of their brilliance in Lonely Planet’s ‘Ultimate United Kingdom Travelist’.
Lonely Planet’s VP of Experience, Tom Hall, said:
To create Lonely Planet’s ‘Ultimate United Kingdom Travelist’, the Lonely Planet team compiled every highlight from the Lonely Planet guidebooks for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Every sight, attraction and experience that had caught their writers’ attention over the years were included. Everyone in Lonely Planet’s London office, plus 20 leading figures in the country’s travel sector, were then asked to reveal their favourite spots and experiences before the voting began. Everybody in Lonely Planet’s UK community was asked to vote for their top 20 experiences. With hundreds of votes cast, Lonely Planet ended up with a score for each of the 500 experiences in the book.
14 September 2019 – 19 January 2020
100 years after the Omega Workshops closed their doors in the heart of bohemian London, a major exhibition exploring their radical approach to modern design and living is set to open at Charleston where the Workshops’ ideals found their most convincing expression.
Established by the painter and art critic Roger Fry in 1913, the Omega Workshops were a design enterprise that employed many of the most avant-garde artists of the day. Inspired by the new, vital spirit of Post-Impressionism they created thrillingly bold, colourful and abstract items for the home that challenged the social sensibilities of Edwardian Britain. In 1913, Fry remarked to a journalist:
Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops will feature the largest display of Omega objects in more than 30 years, with around 200 works on show. The exhibition traces the Workshops’ philosophy and beginnings through to their pioneering experiments in interior design.
Drawing on loans from the V&A, The Courtauld Gallery, a number of private collectors and Charleston’s own collection, the exhibition will showcase some of the finest examples of the Workshops’ furniture, ceramics, printed fabrics and textiles, including many works on public display for the first time. Works on paper that reveal the vision and design processes of the artists who worked at the Omega Workshops will also feature.
Fry viewed art as a necessary facet of everyday life and, through the Omega Workshops, sought to remove what he saw as the false division between fine and decorative art. This experimental moment in design history sparked a change in British taste and style that still resonates today. At its height, artists working at the Workshops included Paul Nash, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Frederick and Jessie Etchells, Nina Hamnett, Henri Doucet, Edward Wadsworth and Wyndham Lewis.
Well ahead of their time, the Workshops’ expressive, colourful and bold designs pioneered many of the trends which became wildly fashionable in the fabrics and ceramics of the 1920s and 30s. Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats and E.M. Forster; as well as high society figures like Lady Ottoline Morrell and Maud Cunard were among the customers at the Workshops’ premises at 33 Fitzroy Square, London. Even Gertrude Stein paid a visit.
As the former home of the Omega Workshops’ co-directors, Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Charleston is a fitting setting for the exhibition. The House’s playfully painted interiors, brightly decorated furniture and embroideries make it the living embodiment of a Post-Impressionist inspired home. When Bell and Grant moved to Charleston in October 1916 they brought an array of Omega items with them, and today Charleston’s collection includes the tableware the Bloomsbury group ate with and the chairs they sat on.
Dr Darren Clarke, Head of Collections, Research and Exhibitions at Charleston who has curated the exhibition said:
Spanning the Wolfson, Spotlight and South Galleries, Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops is the latest exhibition to be staged in Charleston’s new galleries which opened last September. From Cubist-style lampshade holders and rugs to Fauvist-inspired textiles, the exhibition will give visitors a taste of what it must have been like to step inside the Omega Workshops’ studios and showrooms, with a diverse range of items being made and sold.
The Omega Workshops managed to stay open throughout the First World War, eventually closing in 1919. Although short-lived, this visionary group of design disruptors had a far-reaching influence and paved the way for more expressive forms of representation in decorative art that retained the artist’s touch.
Post-Impressionist Living: The Omega Workshops
14 September 2019 – 19 January 2020
Wednesday – Sunday/Bank Holidays: 10am – 5pm.
Chanya Button explains why Orlando is important to her and an inspiration behind the bold retelling of her new film, Vita & Virginia. To coincide with the film’s release, Charleston and the Depot in Lewes are holding a Q&A session with Chanya and Charleston’s Reader in Residence, Holly Dawson, following the film’s 17:30 screening on Friday 5 July. Tickets available here.
Before I loved Virginia Woolf, I was transported by Greek mythology. Aged 7, I precociously interrupted a tour guide during a school trip to the National Gallery, to share with my bewildered classmates, my (strong) views on the narrative behind Titian’s portrait of Bacchus and Ariadne. Unsurprisingly, the incident did not do much to improve my chances of survival on the unforgiving social battlefield of the under 10s. However, the embryonic feminist fury I felt, aged 7, at Ariadne’s powerlessness – deserted by her lover on a remote island, with her only hope of rescue offered by the grace of a nubile male god – did crystallise something for me about the explosive potential of history, and myth. In turn, this shored up my conviction that Virginia Woolf is the nimblest of assassins. Orlando both honours history, and disrupts it; as it too honours and disrupts its subject, Vita Sackville-West. Re-appropriating the terms of ancient social contracts as tools of satire, Woolf empowers artists who march behind her to use the bonds that confine them as weapons to fight back. It is Woolf herself, in that sense, who offered me the tools with which we made Vita & Virginia. Tools with which we both honoured her history, and challenged perceptions of her. In the pages of Orlando the details of history become arrows, shot from Woolf’s bow at the contemporary reader, to provoke, and to challenge injustice. Woolf simultaneously surgically re-orders a conventional approach to biography, and crystallises Vita Sackville-West’s deepest truths, without ever writing a word about her. We too, attempted to re-order an approach to the bio-pic, empowered by Woolf’s own expressionistic approach. On one of my first trips to Knole, Vita Sackville-West’s family home, I noted a photo of Vita as a child with a warm conspiratorial glow. Pictured in the gardens of a house she will never inherit, this mournful but vivid child somehow summons a glower that embodies centuries of exhausted disapproval. This is the look I remember wearing as I stared, with impotent solidarity, towards a naked, stranded Ariadne. Perhaps Virginia Woolf saw this photo too, and perhaps it planted a seed of empathy for the young Vita, whose sex alone constituted the reason she could not inherit her ancestral home. A novel in which Woolf captures the essence of a woman who beguiled and intoxicated her, whilst taking an exacting blade to the boundaries between gender and power, using humour to denounce them as arbitrary. By way of Ariadne, Vita Sackville-West and my 7 year old self – standing in the National Gallery bewildered by centuries of female disempowerment – we arrive at Orlando. In Orlando Woolf offers us a potent fuel; a fuel we burned brightly in the making of Vita & Virginia.
Orlando makes a case for Woolf as one of literature’s inaugural punks. With its time-travelling gender-fluid protagonist, Woolf’s novel boldly projects into a future where science fiction would take shape. Woolf’s Orlando and David Bowie’s androgynous alter-ego Ziggy Stardust share more with each other than Virginia’s hero, who turns into a heroine, does with other protagonists thrust into the literary landscape of 1928. Despite its telescopic focus on the future, I believe it is no mistake that the 16th Century is where Woolf’s novel explodes into life. It is an era rabid with fascination around the rebellious poetry of myth; a language with which Woolf’s readers would have been familiar. Orlando begins with a languid, androgynous Elizabethan courtier whose simultaneous exhaustion with, and thirst for, a life outside the bounds of his own experience catapult him through time — setting him on a collision course with the contemporary reader – one in which our protagonist lands as a bold, Edwardian woman. One wonders what grammatical gymnastics Woolf could have performed if she had been here for the pro-noun revolution; would Orlando have been he, she or they? Perhaps Orlando would have revelled in performing and exploring all three? One wonders the same about Vita Sackville-West, whose relationship with Woolf signals the deep roots of her androgyny. Were Vita able to shake off the shackles of the aristocracy, would she have been empowered to take up arms against the confines of male and female, in moving between pronouns herself?
Orlando is rooted in the past, hurtling with adrenalised forward motion into the future. A future which holds the potential to free the woman who inspired it, from the confines her gender and class constructed around her. Like Orpheus who, as he led his lover Eurydice out of the underworld, kept his eyes locked forward lest he look back and lose his love forever, Woolf moves unflinchingly forward, leading Vita out of the darkness towards an imaginative plane where she can live and love in whichever way she pleases. What a contemporary audience has most to gain from Orlando is in plugging in to this powerful forward motion, and celebration of boundary defying androgyny. That’s why I am utterly convinced of its value as a work that remains vividly resonant, and relevant today. It is progressive in form, in theme, and in process. It honours the conventions it simultaneously disrupts. Virginia could have written a biography of Vita, but she didn’t. She was surrounded by biographers; her Father Leslie Stephen was the first Editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and Woolf admired her close friend Lytton Strachey’s developed theory of biography across his works, including Eminent Victorians. Rather than engage with the genre on pre-established terms, she chose to eschew its focus on the facts and fragments that make up the things that happen to a person, and instead chose to try and distill Vita’s deepest truths. It is therefore Virginia the literary rebel, who shares traits with all great rebels – an eye trained on the future; the future of form as well as content. What Virginia saw in Vita was “the strength of a man, and a woman’s grace”. She saw a woman with the softness and empathy we associate with femininity, with the sexual appetites we more traditionally associate with masculinity. To use contemporary terms, Woolf’s understanding of gender fluidity and creative eye staring unblinkingly ahead, mean that as an artist I would argue she has more in common with David Bowie, than she does with Charles Dickens. Dickens wore history like a cape around his shoulders, using its detail to embroider and enrich his narratives – embedding them even further into the moment in which he lived and wrote. Woolf uses history and convention as rocket fuel to blast her up and out of the time into which she was born. She is always looking forward; in theme, in form, in process. Bowie and Woolf also seem to share an understanding of their intuitive approach to writing. Perhaps Bowie shared Woolf’s view that “once the mind gets hot it can’t stop”; saying in an interview in 2002 – of his songwriting – “it’s an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you ”. Woolf answers; “how extraordinarily unwilled by me but potent in its own right, by the way, Orlando was! As if it shoved everything aside to come into existence”. Indeed, Woolf also commended that To The Lighthouse was written in “a great, apparently involuntary, rush. One things burst into another”.
In writing Orlando, Woolf purged herself of an experience that threatened to overwhelm her. Vita’s relentless pursuit of Virginia, one which resolved in Virginia giving herself to Vita emotionally and sexually, came to its conclusion when Vita’s attentions fell on another – Mary Campbell. Whilst everyone around Virginia was braced for Woolf to disintegrate in response to Vita’s betrayal, Woolf performed a rescue on herself. Her profound genius arrived to rescue her, as she used her pen to exorcise the intoxicating intensities of her relationship with Vita. In the end, this allowed Virginia to understand with the greatest empathy Vita’s deepest truths, and allowed their relationship to last for the rest of Woolf’s life. Vita wrote in 1927;
“I have come to the conclusion that solitude is the last refuge of civilized people. It is much more civilized than social intercourse, really, although at first sight the reverse might appear to be the case. Social relations are just the descendants of the primitive tribal need to get together for purposes of defence; a gathering of bushmen or pygmies is the real ancestor of a Teheran Dinner Party; when the wheel comes full cycle, and your truly civilized person wants to get away back to loneliness. If all my life went smash, and I lost everybody, I should come an live in Persia, miles away from everywhere, and see nobody except the natives”.
Understanding Vita as the child who grew up alone at Knole, betrayed by the confines of her sex, allowed Virginia to empathise with Vita’s need to forever isolate herself. Perhaps it also offered an explanation for why Vita pulled away from Virginia. This was not the first time Woolf used her craft as a form of psychological digestif. In A Sketch of the Past, Woolf speaks about the process of writing To The Lighthouse, as an intuitive means of grieving for and purging herself of the spirit of her Mother; “I suppose I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest”. I would argue that the way in which Woolf engaged her craft is also representative of a revolutionary attitude towards managing mental health, one that she and her husband Leonard shared. Together they constructed a routine within which Woolf could live and work, in defiance of her emotional and psychological challenges. I think it is no co-incidence that the Hogarth Press were the first to publish Freud’s work in the English language; their understanding of mental health was detailed, and incredibly progressive in some ways. The very existence of Orlando is proof that Virginia is a survivor of profound emotional and psychological challenges. She used her genius to survive, for as long as she possibly could. She is not someone who succumbed without a fight. She was not someone who was conventionally fragile.
Woolf did all of this whilst retaining an essential unknowability herself. Two of the portraits Vanessa Bell painted of her sister were faceless, speaking to Woolf’s a deep ineffability. Stephen Finer’s 1994 portrait of David Bowie shares that quality too: a faceless figure, alive in technicolour oils, more texture than likeness. Both Woolf and Bowie seem to be pointing their successor towards capturing a deeper kind of truth, one she searches for in Orlando:
“The trumpeters, ranging themselves side by side in order, blow one terrific blast: — ‘THE TRUTH! at which Orlando woke. He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete
nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess — he was a woman”.
The facts of Virginia Woolf’s life have been forensically documented. In making Vita & Virginia, an expressionistic exploration of the story behind Orlando, I have come to feel that a shred of a diary entry, a flying fragment of a letter alone – cannot allow us access to Virginia Woolf’s essential truth. That is a deeper pursuit, and in Orlando, Virginia perhaps gives us a code for how to perceive that truth. It is in looking under the surface, and keeping our eyes trained on the future.
We were honoured to receive a visit from our Patron, The Duchess of Cornwall today (Thursday 16 May) who officially opened our restored barns and new galleries following the completion of the Charleston Centenary Project and iewed Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s Famous Women Dinner Service which has returned to Charleston following our ‘adopt a plate’ campaign. The visit took place on the eve of the 30th Charleston Festival – an annual celebration of books, ideas and creativity. The Duchess met Diana Reich, the Festival’s founder and Artistic Director with 2019 marking Diana’s last Festival.
The Duchess of Cornwall has been Patron of the Charleston Trust since 2013 and hosted a tea for the supporters of the Charleston Centenary Project in March 2017. The Charleston Centenary Project was launched to safeguard Charleston’s heritage, and marked the centenary of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s arrival at Charleston. On 8 September 2018, Charleston opened its doors to a new exhibition, events space and café/restaurant. This 570m2 development has enabled Charleston to present exhibitions for the first time and to open all-year-round. The exhibition space is housed in a new building, while the events space and café/restaurant is situated in two 18th-century farm buildings which have been restored.
Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s Famous Women Dinner Service is a unique set of 50 plates depicting famous women throughout history, from Cleopatra to Mary Queen of Scots, Jane Austen, Greta Garbo 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. The Dinner Service was commissioned by Kenneth Clark in 1932 and was made by Bell and Grant during their time at Charleston. After this the plates disappeared from public view and their whereabouts were unknown until recently.
One of the plates has been adopted in The Duchess’s honour. The plate depicts Jane Austen. The plates were purchased by The Charleston Trust with generous grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund; as well as donations from a circle of remarkable women.
The Famous Women Dinner Service will be on public display in Charleston’s Outer Studio from June 2019.