Seeds of Hope: Autumn Garden News

By Charleston’s Gardener, Harry Hoblyn

Seedlings in Charleston’s greenhouse this autumn.

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.


The Bloomsbury Look

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…)

The Great Potato Printing Society with Molly Mahon

This potato print by artist Rose Electra Harris is one of the 19 prints available in The Great Potato Printing Society auction which begins on 14 September.

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. 


Rare Duncan Grant bust enters Charleston’s collection and gives fundraising boost

Stephen Tomlin (1901-1937), Head of Duncan Grant (1885-1978), Bronze. Commissioned in 1924 and cast in 1925 Giovanni Fiorini’s Foundry in Battersea. Photos © Abbott and Holder Ltd.





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.


Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddal and the Famous Women Dinner Service

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.


Omega Workshops, 1913-1919

Opening room of the Omega Workshops, 33 Fitzroy Square, London. © The Charleston Trust

On 8 July 1913 the Omega Workshops opened their doors at 33 Fitzroy Square in the heart of bohemian London.

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.


A Garden of One’s Own

By Charleston’s Gardener, Harry Hoblyn

The walled garden in flower this summer. Photo © 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.


Helping to conserve Charleston’s collection

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. 


Volunteering 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. 


Celebrating memories of Charleston this Volunteers’ Week

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. 


Charleston Inspires Artists’ Auction

This painting by artist Teena Vallerine, inspired by Charleston’s kitchen and garden is one of the 165 artworks in the Charleston Inspires auction. 

Since Charleston closed its doors in March and launched an Emergency Appeal, we have been deeply touched by the creativity and generosity of everyone who has supported the charity. (more…)

A spring clean of the kitchen

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!










Charleston needs your help

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.

The newly-planted studio border. Photo © Harry Hoblyn

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. 

Harry’s plan for the restored border. Photo © Harry Hoblyn.

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.


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.

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]