In 1916, on Virginia Woolf’s recommendation, the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, his friend and lover David Garnett, and Vanessa Bell’s two sons, Julian aged 8 and Quentin aged 6, along with Henry the dog, moved to Charleston, an ordinary farmhouse in East Sussex. Dating from the late sixteenth century and altered in the nineteenth century, it had previously been used as a boarding house. It was to be occupied and brought to life by the family and their friends for the next sixty-four years.
In March 1916, at the height of the war, conscription had been introduced. Duncan Grant and David Garnett, as conscientious objectors, needed to find ‘work of national importance’ on a farm or face going to prison. Charleston was in an ideal location, in an area that the artists knew and with the relative seclusion that would empower them to continue exploring intense, unconventional, artistic lifestyles.
Vanessa Bell had previously stayed at Little Talland House in Firle, and at nearby Asheham House which Virginia and Leonard Woolf still leased. Clive Bell, whose marriage to Vanessa had by this time developed into a friendship, spent the war years doing farm work at Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire, the home of Sir Philip and Lady Ottoline Morrell.
This anti-war stance was one common to nearly all of the friends who became known collectively as ‘Bloomsbury’, and Charleston immediately provided a country outpost for this group of artists, writers and intellectuals. Many of them had met around the turn of the century as students at the University of Cambridge, and subsequently gathered from 1904 in the Bloomsbury district of London, at the home of Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian Stephen, children of the eminent Victorian man of letters, Sir Leslie Stephen. Vanessa Bell, who instigated the initial move to Bloomsbury, wrote of that time: ‘We did not hesitate to talk of anything … you could say what you liked about art, sex and religion’.
These conversations found a new home at Charleston during the war years. Despite its discomforts – there was no hot water, and the house was icy – guests swelled the household. Clive Bell, sometimes with his long-term companion Mary Hutchinson, was a regular visitor; so was Roger Fry, eminent art critic, organiser of the pioneering Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 and founder of the Omega Workshops in 1913.
John Maynard Keynes came so frequently that he was allocated his own room in which, after returning disillusioned from the post-war Peace Conference at Versailles, he wrote the book that was to make him famous, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). Other visitors over the years would include T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.
Here Julian and Quentin, Vanessa and Clive Bell’s unruly young sons, grew up in an atmosphere of freedom, roaming the downs, sailing flotillas of toy boats on the cattle pond and digging for clay in the mud of its banks. At Charleston on Christmas Day 1918 Vanessa gave birth to her daughter by Duncan Grant, Angelica.
Almost from the moment they moved in, the artists began to transform the house with decoration. This process, and the accumulation of paintings, furnishings and objects, continued throughout their lives.
David Garnett described in his autobiography how ‘one after another the rooms were decorated and altered almost out of recognition, as the bodies of the saved are said to be glorified after the resurrection’. The garden too was gradually developed under the guidance of Roger Fry. The wealth of visual art to be seen here contradicts the presumption that Bloomsbury was predominantly literary. The three chief painters of Bloomsbury, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, now occupy a significant place amongst the new movements in British art of the early twentieth century. The painting of Bloomsbury is unthreatening, domestic and full of sensuous beauty. French Post-Impressionism touched both their easel painting and decorative art, while the influence of Mediterranean culture is apparent in the uninhibited colours and patterns of walls, ceramics and furniture decorations.
During the inter-war years the house was largely used by the family as a much-loved holiday home, a period which has been described by Quentin Bell as ‘the golden age of Charleston’. This world was shattered in 1937 with the death in the Spanish Civil War of his elder brother Julian. In 1939, with the outbreak of another World War, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Clive Bell moved to Charleston permanently.
Vanessa Bell died in 1961, Clive in 1964. Duncan Grant continued to live at Charleston almost until his death in 1978. His daughter Angelica then lived there alone until 1980, when The Charleston Trust was formed. Today the house appears as it was in the 1950s, representing a way of life in which beautiful surroundings and harmonious objects and paintings were of more importance than creature comforts. Charleston has become, as Quentin Bell wrote, ‘a kind of time capsule in which the public can examine a world which has vanished’.
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