The rooms at Charleston are detailed as per the order of our House Tour, starting on the ground floor with Clive Bell’s Study and ending with Duncan Grant’s Studio.
The art critic and historian Clive Bell married Vanessa Stephen in 1907. They had two sons, Julian and Quentin, but by the time of the move to Charleston in 1916 their marriage had become one in name only and the couple lived apart, although Clive visited frequently.
‘Ours was an elastic home, it never broke’ wrote Quentin Bell of his parents; ‘it is to (their) credit… that they remained amicable for the fifty years or so of their married lives.’
In the early years the room was used as a school room for Julian and Quentin and a family living room, eventually becoming Clive Bell’s Study when he moved to Charleston in 1939. It was here that he wrote his memoir Old Friends, published in 1956.
The room contains some of the earliest decorations in the house. Around 1916-17, Vanessa Bell decorated the window embrasure. In front of it is a tiled table designed in about 1930 by Duncan Grant, a marked contrast to the nineteenth-century Dutch-style marquetry table in the centre of the room (a wedding present to the Bells), but in keeping with the easy-going eclecticism of the house.
The curious hearth designed by Roger Fry also dates from the early occupation. It was intended to throw more heat into the room, in an attempt to combat the bitter cold of the otherwise unheated house. Vanessa Bell decorated the fireplace in the late 1920s.
On the back of the door is one of Duncan Grant’s earliest decorations in the house, a painted door panel from about 1917. The upper panel incorporates motifs from the house at that time, including a jug containing paper flowers from the Omega Workshops. The lower panel was smashed by Vanessa’s sons during a rampageous re-enactment of the Sack of Rome. Grant replaced it with the acrobat design in 1958.
The green distemper wall covering is a late addition, originally executed by Nerissa Garnett, granddaughter of Duncan Grant, under his supervision in 1971.
The books in this room are largely Clive Bell’s art books, journals and catalogues and a range of travel books, as well as Julian Bell’s books of poetry and literary criticism.
The two armchairs are upholstered in facsimiles of fabrics designed by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. To the left of the fireplace is Duncan Grant’s ‘West Wind’, and to the right ‘Abstract’ by Vanessa Bell, both designed in the early 1930s.
This room is one of the few that did not change its use during the family’s long occupancy, although in the early days the children’s lessons were sometimes held here. The family and their guests took their meals at the circular dining table, decorated by Vanessa Bell around 1952, covering an earlier, worn out design from the 1920s. The Charleston artists were unsentimental about preservation. As Quentin Bell put it: ‘Restoration or conservation seemed too dull a solution; it was much more fun to invent something new and change the entire aspect of a room.’
Over the years guests at this convivial table were to include Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, Maynard and Lydia Keynes, T. S. Eliot, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.
‘Vanessa was an excellent, if rather formal hostess. Drink, supplied by Clive, flowed; food, although simple in style, was succulent and appetising. The whole house, before a meal, smelled deliciously of pork crackling or beef roasting, or one of Grace’s inimitable soups.‘ Angelica Garnett
The red lacquer and cane chairs are from the Omega Workshops, designed by Roger Fry in 1913. Vanessa Bell usually sat with her back to the small southern window and served the food. Meals arrived from the kitchen through the curtained doorway, which is hung with an original example of Duncan Grant’s design Clouds, from 1932.
Roger Fry, as so often the architect of Charleston, made the room more spacious by opening up the filled-in fireplace in the mid-1920s. The stencilled wall design was painted by Duncan Grant, Quentin Bell and Angelica Garnett in 1939. These decorations were executed in a spontaneous manner, freehand and with stencils, using impermanent media. The result was not durable, but has a special ‘fresco-like’ quality owing to the white chalk base reasserting itself through the pigment.
The ceramics in this room are typically miscellaneous. On the mantelshelf stands a collection of plates and dishes bought by the painters on their travels in Europe. On the Venetian side-table are plates designed by Duncan Grant for Clarice Cliff in 1934 and soup bowls made by Quentin Bell at the beginning of his career as a potter in about 1938. Over the table hangs a characteristically fanciful light shade also made by Quentin Bell, pierced with small holes which throw patterns of light on the ceiling.
The Staffordshire Figures on the window shelf and in the fireplace niches demonstrate an eclectic taste in ornaments. Vanessa Bell’s fondness for chintz is evident in this room, where the curtains are made from widths of different fabrics which she sewed together.
As was normal for a woman of her class in the early 20th Century, Vanessa Bell always employed servants, in order to give her freedom to paint and spend time with her family. But servant crises occurred regularly, as her correspondence reveals: ‘I hate these domesticities. I can’t conceive what the female mind made of’ she wrote to Duncan Grant after the departure of an incompetent housemaid.
The longest-serving member of Charleston’s domestic staff was Grace Higgens. Grace worked for Vanessa Bell for over fifty years, initially as a nursemaid and eventually becoming housekeeper at Charleston. Her devotion is commemorated by Quentin Bell’s plaque behind the Aga stove. Grace is also the subject of Vanessa Bell’s painting The Kitchen (1943) which hangs on the upstairs landing.
The kitchen remains much the same as depicted there, with its square table and an Aga stove replacing the coal-fuelled range. Grace was a good traditional English cook, although, influenced by her employers’ continental tastes and by visits to France with the family, French ingredients like garlic — which can be seen hanging in a bunch from the ceiling — made their way into her recipes.
On the mantelshelf stands a row of pewter dishes which Julian Bell brought back from China in 1937. The blue and white Nankin porcelain serving dishes came from the Stephen family home at Hyde Park Gate, where Vanessa, her sister Virginia and their brothers grew up.
The boxed-in staircase leads directly to the attic where Grace and her family slept. It was known as High Holborn, a whimsical reference to the thoroughfare which runs to the south of Bloomsbury.
The cupboard doors are one of Vanessa Bell’s later works of decoration, c.1950-55. Victoria Walton, Quentin’s pottery assistant and subsequently the first curator at Charleston, made the ceramic and bead lampshade inspired by the house style.
When the family moved to Charleston in 1916 there was no hot water, and Quentin Bell’s childhood memories were of bathing in a hip-bath before the dining room fire. A bathroom was installed on the first floor in 1919, but it was not until 1939 that the current bathroom was added, in what was formerly a storage space for pictures known as the Green Room.
During the restoration, traces of a similar green colour were found in other parts of the house, and it appears to have been extensively used around 1916-18 to cover wallpapers and paintwork.
The bath panels were painted around 1969 by Duncan Grant’s friend Richard Shone, who based the design on a drawing by Delacroix he had found reproduced in a book at Charleston.
This room had a number of occupants over the years. Clive Bell moved into it in 1939. The fitted carpet, which he brought with him from his Gordon Square flat, is one of the few touches of luxury in the house.
His antique French bed was decorated by Vanessa Bell in about 1950. At his death, he left it to his last love, Barbara Bagenal, who generously returned it to Charleston when the house was restored.
The subtle colour scheme of the room probably dates from around 1917, when Vanessa Bell seems to have used it as a studio, as does the curious decorative panel next to the bed, although the Italian hand-printed papers were a later addition.
The corner cupboard was brought to Charleston in 1925 and decorated by Duncan Grant. The bookcase contains largely French literature. Clive often read in the library chair. Its cushions are covered in a facsimile of the fabric White designed by Vanessa Bell for the Omega Workshops in 1913. The line of pictures above the bookcase were gifts to Clive Bell by a number of French artists whom he visited in their studios.
Maynard Keynes was Vanessa Bell’s most regular guest from the time of her first occupation of Charleston. He was at that time working at the Treasury and although his romantic relationship with Duncan Grant had ended in 1909, he remained on such close terms with the Charleston household – to which he contributed financially for many years – that a room was permanently set aside for him.
Keynes’s presence at Charleston broadened the focus of the household, which without him tended towards purely aesthetic considerations; on his weekend visits he would bring news of friends, of current affairs, of politics and the progress of the war. It was here, in 1919, that he wrote the greater part of his most celebrated polemic, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a denunciation of the Versailles Peace Treaty, whose publication was to make him world famous. Keynes’s marriage in 1925 to the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova brought his occupancy of this room to an end, although he and his wife remained close to Charleston, living at nearby Tilton. The room later became Quentin Bell’s bedroom.
The walls are unusual in being plain, though this was a conscious choice by the artists, who redecorated the room in ‘snow white and pearl grey’ in 1947. The only fixed decorative feature is the unusual stained-glass panel in the door, one of several experiments in this medium made by Quentin Bell in the early 1940s. Another example is to be seen in the wall of the Outer Studio, now used as a café.
There are several interesting examples of early decorated furniture by Duncan Grant in this room. The Lilypond table was designed by him for the Omega Workshops in c.1913; the Morpheus bed, c.1917, depicts the God of sleep and was decorated by Grant for Vanessa Bell; and the lid of the linen chest ‘Leda and the Duck’ (a send-up of ‘Leda and the Swan’ of Greek myth), also from about 1917.
The file boxes were covered in marbled papers by Quentin Bell’s family to hold his copies of family letters. Above the fireplace is a Vanessa Bell painting of the front of Charleston from 1950. To the left of the window is a portrait of John Maynard Keynes by Duncan Grant in the garden at Charleston in 1917. This shows Keynes in his habitual working position, seated in an armchair with a board across his lap; Keynes was drafting a telegram to the US Treasury requesting an essential war loan. On his head he wears a cap from the Omega Workshops.
This was Duncan Grant’s bedroom for over fifty years. Quentin Bell described this room as having ‘the most complete decorative scheme of any in the house.’ The decorations on the wall with the fireplace were carried out in 1918 by Vanessa Bell. Her 1922 copy of Raphael’s St Catherine sits on the mantelpiece and a copy of her 1919 painting Tea Things, is above the mirror.
It was in this room that Vanessa Bell gave birth to their daughter Angelica on Christmas Day 1918. Angelica was brought up as Clive Bell’s daughter until her true parentage was revealed to her by Vanessa after Julian Bell’s death in 1937. Vanessa Bell painted the portrait of Angelica around 1930. The bust of Bell on the chest of drawers was made by Marcel Gimond in the 1920s.
Duncan Grant bought the two nineteenth-century beadwork prie-dieu chairs in Brighton around 1918. Clive Bell is said to have reacted in horror: ‘Now, Duncan, you have gone too far!’
Grant and Bell’s designs for canvas work embroidery feature strongly in this room. The carpet in front of the fireplace is a design by Duncan Grant from 1925. Grant’s design for the musically inspired cover of the square stool and Bell’s design for the chair seat are from the same time. The fitted cover of the window seat was designed by Vanessa Bell in 1943. All of these were originally worked by Duncan Grant’s mother, Ethel Grant.
Quentin and Julian Bell often slept in this room as children. In the 1930s it became a guest room. Vanessa Bell and her daughter Angelica painted the lavender walls and stippled grey columns in 1936. Vanessa wrote that ‘no visitor ever stays long enough to let it get on their nerves (or ought to do so) and we intend to introduce a fantastic note.’ Bell also painted around the windows and the back of the door, while Angelica painted the cupboard door.
To the left of the window hangs Vanessa Bell’s Portrait of Chattie Salaman, c 1940, an actress friend of Angelica’s who often posed for her, in fancy dress. Chattie can also be seen as the Angel Gabriel in Grant and Bell’s murals at Berwick Church, three miles east of Charleston. These murals were their last public work, commissioned during World War Two; here, like the early Italian masters whom they so admired, the Charleston artists were given the opportunity to decorate the interior of a church.
The English dressing table incorporating a mirror was previously at the Stephen family home, Hyde Park Gate, and is mentioned in Virginia Woolf’s memoir, of being taken to see her mother’s deathbed in 1895: ‘I remember the long looking-glass with the drawers on either side … and the great bed on which my mother lay.’
This room was well suited for use as a summer sitting room as its French Windows could be thrown open on warm nights to allow people to wander out and the scent of flowers to enter. It was a room for relaxation and conversation, and was also the setting for some memorable events. It was here in 1918 that Lytton Strachey read aloud to his friends from the manuscript of his most celebrated work Eminent Victorians, during which Duncan Grant, exhausted after a day working on the farm, fell asleep. And here, in the summer of 1937, Vanessa Bell told Angelica that Duncan Grant, not Clive Bell, was her real father.
The room’s decorative scheme of grey stencilled paisley shapes, with freehand white flowers was carried out in 1945. Duncan Grant’s over mantel decoration of two kneeling figures is earlier, dating from 1928, while the central flowerpot design was painted in the early 1930s to replace a mirror that cracked clean across due to the heat of a lamp that Quentin Bell left burning on the mantelpiece.
The three-fold screen to ward off draughts was decorated by Duncan Grant around 1934. To the right of the fire is an early painted log box by Duncan Grant from 1917, during the period when many English artists including Grant were enthralled by the Ballets Russes. In front of the fire is a replica of the Fish Rug designed by Duncan Grant c.1925.
In 1939, when a second world war seemed inevitable, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Clive Bell made Charleston their principal home. This necessitated various alterations to the house, including the conversion of this room from a larder into Vanessa Bell’s bedroom. French windows were added and a bath and sink installed. It was in this bedroom that Vanessa Bell died, aged eighty-one, on 7 April 1961. In Duncan Grant’s old age he occupied this room in order to avoid climbing the stairs.
In a letter Vanessa Bell described the pleasure of feeling so close to the garden: ‘I am sitting at my open bedroom window … it opens down to the ground and I look out on to the lawn … The monthly roses are in bloom. It’s a hot summer evening … the pinks are making the whole place smell …’
The decorated cupboard with its distinct circle motif, is an early decorated piece by Vanessa Bell from 1917. On the French bureau stand photographs of Vanessa Bell’s parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen. Duncan Grant’s four panel screen dates from 1913 and was exhibited at the opening display of the Omega Workshops that year. The curtains are a facsimile of the fabric ‘White’, designed by Vanessa Bell, also for the Omega Workshops in 1913.
‘The studio was the citadel of the house, the sanctuary in which I spent the most treasured hours of my life. It was here, basking in the atmosphere of hard work and concentration, that I felt the most important things would happen.‘ Angelica Garnett
When the artists first came to Charleston, they painted in the house or in an old unheated army hut known as ‘Les Misérables’ which was set up beyond the Walled Garden as a Studio. In 1925 a proper studio was built onto the house, on the site of a former chicken run, to designs by Roger Fry. The artists shared it until 1939 when Vanessa Bell, seeking privacy, adapted an attic bedroom into a north-facing studio.
Duncan Grant continued to work in this studio almost until his death in 1978. The room is much as Duncan Grant left it and still contains many of his painting materials, equipment and the ephemera of his daily life.
The walls are deliberately painted in neutral tones as a background for paintings. The fireplace decorations, a pair of florid caryatids painted by Duncan Grant onto wooden panels around 1935, provide a focus for the room. The tiles behind the stove are by Vanessa Bell, c.1925-30. The figure of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, on the mantel shelf is a cast of a sixth century AD original which was owned by Roger Fry.
In the corner of the room stands an early nineteenth century Dutch walnut cabinet, one of a pair which were once the property of the novelist W. M. Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair. Thackeray’s younger daughter Minny was the first wife of Vanessa Bell’s father, Leslie Stephen. The cabinet contains a collection of glass and ceramics, some decorated by the Charleston artists, including four Famous Women plates from a service decorated for Kenneth Clark in 1932. On the west wall hang two Italian fairground figures bought from a stall in Italy by Duncan Grant in 1913.
Stephen Tomlin’s unfinished plaster bust of Virginia Woolf was made in 1931 when she was forty-nine. She was a reluctant sitter, but Quentin Bell has described it as ‘far more like than any of the photographs.’
Informal reading and discussion group, exploring Bloomsbury texts and themes. First Sunday of every month.
Melvyn Tan will perform alongside Joely Richardson and the Škampa Quartet
CRESSIDA BELL talks to her sister, Virginia Nicholson, about Charleston, her design work and curating ‘In Colour.’