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Charleston remembered – The first decade

Canvas Issue 16 by Deborah Gage

Deborah Gage recalls the highs and lows of the campaign to save Charleston for posterity

On my return to England after eight years spent living in New York I was offered a property on the Firle Estate, with its sweeping views of the South Downs, and the Trustees arranged for me to view it on a Sunday. The house was Charleston, and the clocks had changed overnight to winter time, so that when I arrived Angelica and her houseguests were taken completely by surprise, thinking that I had arrived an hour too early! My confusion was compounded as I walked through the house with Angelica, in that I realised I was wasting her time: Charleston was hardly the ‘two up two down’ weekend cottage I had in mind!

Reporting back to the Firle Trustees, I told them that in my opinion Charleston should be saved. In reality this was just a hunch, but to cover myself I contacted Richard Morphet at the Tate. He was unequivocal, and the Firle Estate gave us one year to raise the funds to purchase and save Charleston.

The next call was to Martin Drury at the National Trust, who convened several internal meetings, and subsequently reported that the house (already Grade II listed) and its grounds were of particular historical and artistic significance, and that the National Trust would be willing to accept the property, provided it had an endowment of £720,000. What next? ‘Well,’ replied Martin, ‘you simply need to form a committee and raise the money.’ The first step was to ring Professor Bell. Shy by nature, it took all my courage to ring the GREAT professor, and ask for a meeting with himself and his sister, Angelica. We sat around the mahogany table, together with Olivier, sipping tea out of one of Quentin’s earthenware mugs. Quentin reached into the leather pouch hung from his shoulder to fill his pipe, and stroked his beard as he listened to me. ‘Well?’ he said. ‘Well, we need a committee, er – we need a press release, we need a leaflet, can you write something?’ ‘Would you come back this time tomorrow?’ he asked.

I rang the doorbell at Cobbe Place the next day. Quentin handed me a single piece of paper, ‘I hope this is what you want. Good luck.’ I unfolded the note once I was back in my car. In just a few paragraphs Quentin had brilliantly captured the essence of Charleston. The rest is history.

Looking back at our early literature (printed by the Hogarth Press)

I notice how coy we were in presenting our case: ‘Our immediate objective is to raise an initial £350,000….’ We feared the sum of £720,000 required to purchase, restore and endow Charleston, in the early 1980s, in the face of a recession, would have simply frightened off any potential interest or support. This was underscored by the failure of the appeal to save Monkton, Edward James’ home at East Dean, launched at the same time as ours – a chilling reminder of the challenge we faced.

A press release was duly circulated and The Times reported the launch of the campaign. Our foursome, i.e. myself, Quentin, Olivier and Angelica grew, and the new committee took to meeting occasionally in London, and once at Sissinghurst, as well as round the table at Cobbe Place. Quentin became chairman, Piers St Aubyn treasurer, I took on the role of secretary (despite Nigel Nicolson observing that I was illiterate, wincing as he read through my minutes), John Orpen provided legal counsel and wisdom, Helen Lowenthal, Alan Martin, Peter Miall, Peggy Post and Richard Shone formed our first committee. We gathered a distinguished list of patrons, including David Hockney and Roland Penrose, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Kenneth Clark and Henry Moore, who added great lustre to our literature and letterhead. We applied for charitable status, Lindy Guinness hosted a launch party for which Angelica designed the invitations, Anthony d’Offay organised an exhibition and gave us our first significant donation of £1,000 – we opened a bank account! It was amazing how so many marvellous people came to the fore and galvanised our mission in countless ways. In London, Armeda Colt arranged a reading in her home, Peggy Ashcroft a theatrical evening, Peggy Post a symposium at the Victoria and Albert Museum. All these events required notices, usually designed by Angelica; a mailing list was put together, and envelopes were stuffed by a team of boundlessly enthusiastic volunteers led by Geoffrey Simm. In those early, finding-our-way days, the Charleston campaign was virtually run off the top of a kitchen table, or a succession of kitchen tables!

So what was the turning point? First, the extraordinary generosity and foresight of the Bell family, who donated the Charleston Papers to be sold at Sotheby’s, and of Angelica Garnett, who gave the contents and pictures at Charleston. Jennifer Jenkins, chair of the Historic Buildings Council, insisted that their grant be stepped up, on condition that the decorated wall surfaces be conserved; Pierre Matisse donated a Matisse drawing to be sold, and in the US we received the promise of a matching £50,000 donation from Mrs Lila Acheson Wallace, co-founder of Reader’s Digest and a collector of paintings by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, with a particular interest in restoring artists’ gardens (Monet’s garden at Giverney among them).

With these funds in hand we embarked upon the restoration of the house and contents. A talented and sensitive conservation team was established under Pauline Plummer, Michael Brundle provided architectural expertise; Penelope Bardell took on the garden; Huge Lee edited the newsletter and looked after the Friends; Diana Reich took on the visionary task of organising the Charleston Festival, and Simon Watney provided invaluable advice.

And what of lighter moments? In the early 1980s Richard Shone used to spend a good deal of time at Charleston. One particularly wet and dark Sunday in winter he was installed with various guests when early on Sunday morning Sir Hugh Casson phoned to say that he was staying nearby with friends: could he bring them over? Richard replied that he would be delighted to see them around teatime. At about three, finishing lunch, he saw a cavalcade of grand cars stop along the lane outside the garden gate. Taken aback, he threw open the door to Hugh Casson, who muttered, ‘I have the Queen with me…’. Richard looked up (Hugh was short) and sure enough, looming behind him was the Queen! All he could think was ‘Help! Unmade beds upstairs, the remains of lunch on the dining-room table,’ and with a flash of inspiration turned to the Queen with the suggestion, ‘Excuse me, Ma’am, wouldn’t you like to see the garden first?’ Needless to say, the Queen and her friends sportingly picked their way around the puddles while there was a fever of activity inside tidying up the house!

Space does not permit a detailed description of the restoration, described as ‘one of the most difficult and imaginative feats of conservation current in Britain’. Sir Peter Shepheard was appointed as the landscape architect for the garden, which was re-constructed from paintings, photographs and memories, under the direction of Mark Divall, who happily has returned to care for the garden today (see page 3). At last the exciting task of returning the conserved contents to the house was upon us, and we began opening the house in phases from 1986. Paul Mellon provided us with funding to buy and renovate the adjacent cow barn for Charleston’s administration. And we appointed our first full-time director, Christopher Naylor: the Charleston Trust had come of age!

There are two observations I would like to leave with you. Firstly, Charleston is one of the first ‘modern’ houses to be saved in England – and we experienced great cynicism about doing so at the time. However, in our small way we threw a pebble into the pond and the ripples have since spread, resulting in the National Trust taking on properties such as Erno Goldfinger’s 2 Willow Road and John Lennon’s home in Liverpool. Moreover, as I spoke to those interested in the project, I found myself dwelling on the theme ‘preservation vs. change&rsquo$$ in other words there is no point in preserving a place if it is to be changed in the process. Charleston has always been about experimentation and the tempering of new ideas. As I reflect upon the laudable heights the Festival has now attained, I feel immensely proud: Charleston continues to be a platform for current literature and thought, in its inimitable tradition!

I also applaud the work of the leadership following mine to have accomplished the most difficult task of all: to provide for Charleston’s financial underpinning and future stability. Raising money for bricks and mortar is easier than funding for endowment and maintenance! There will always be a need to continue fundraising, simply to cope with rising costs and inflation before one even takes into account the other objectives of the Trust. On this theme, I do have a message. It is my belief that the ultimate ‘litmus test’ as to the integrity of our achievement, and how the future will come to judge our success at Charleston, is the way in which the house is shown, accessed and the number of visitors entering at any one time. What is required is to raise a large enough endowment that there is no need to rely upon income from entry fees. The essence of Charleston is its atmosphere, its quirky and fragile ambience – and this unique experience is only possible if each visitor’s encounter is intimate. Then our real challenge will have been accomplished! Charleston is – and after all always has been – about experimentation.

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