As well as being home to artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Charleston was a meeting place for members of the wider Bloomsbury group. Eminent Charlestonians and visitors included Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes and Vanessa Bell’s sister Virginia Woolf. [Duncan Grant and John Maynard Keynes pictured at Charleston above.]
Best known as a painter, Vanessa Bell was also a prolific designer of fabrics, carpets and embroidery, and a decorator of ceramics, domestic items and furniture. In 1905 she founded the Friday Club, dedicated to encouraging and exhibiting the work of young modern painters. Between the wars she was involved in the London Group, the London Artists’ Association and the Euston Road School, and in 1949-50 served on the committee of the Abbey Trust Fund for mural painting.
From childhood intent on being a painter, she completed her artistic training at the Royal Academy Schools where she was taught by John Singer Sargent. In 1907 she married Clive Bell and they had two sons together. Four years into the marriage she had a liberating affair with the critic and painter Roger Fry and became co-director of Fry’s Omega Workshops from 1913. But the most enduring relationship of Vanessa Bell’s life was with the painter Duncan Grant. Together they moved to Charleston in 1916 where two years later Vanessa gave birth to their daughter Angelica. The house remains as witness to the long and creative partnership between these two significant British artists.
The eldest child of the Victorian man of letters Sir Leslie Stephen and his second wife Julia Jackson, she was at the centre of the group of friends known as ‘Bloomsbury’. Her son Quentin described her as ‘the firm pillar of our existence … sensible, practical, imperturbable, at times filled with a gentle gaiety, always morally and physically beautiful’.
Duncan Grant came into contact with Bloomsbury through his cousin, Lytton Strachey. He soon found himself in kindred company with the artists Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry. Until his death at the age of ninety-three Duncan retained his innocent charm and perennial youthfulness. His daughter Angelica describes him as ‘a man of instinct, [which] was what made him so different from the rest of Bloomsbury’.
Grant trained to be a painter in Paris, studying for a time under Simon Bussy. With Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell he became a co-director of the Omega Workshops in 1913. He was a prolific artist who experimented in textiles, interior decoration, ceramics, murals, illustration and theatre design. It was he who in 1918 persuaded Maynard Keynes to extract government money for the purchase of paintings from the Degas sale, some of which are now in the National Gallery, London.
In his early life Duncan Grant had affairs with Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes and Adrian Stephen, and he continued to have homosexual affairs throughout his life. However, his longest relationship was with Vanessa Bell, with whom he lived and worked from 1914 until her death in 1961. Their daughter, Angelica, was born at Charleston in 1918.
Born into a rich philistine family, he was educated at Cambridge where he met Thoby Stephen. He was to become an influential art critic in the avant-garde of modern aesthetic theory. He worked closely with Roger Fry on the organisation of the two Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, and in 1914 he published his book Art in which he coined the term ‘significant form’. In 1907 he married Vanessa Stephen; they had two children, Julian and Quentin. Thereafter, although he and Vanessa remained friends, the marriage ceased to exist except in name. He had a number of affairs, the most enduring being with Mary Hutchinson. Clive’s personality contributed a worldly note to the bohemian atmosphere of Charleston, where he became a permanent resident in 1939.
Keynes’s contribution to economics is recognised worldwide through the theory that still bears his name. His Cambridge friendships brought him into Bloomsbury, where his impressive mind and conversational skills made him a welcome addition to the group. His close friendship with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant extended to giving them both considerable financial assistance. During World War One Keynes was working at the Treasury but spent weekends at Charleston. He was the Treasury’s chief representative at the Paris Peace Conference but, disillusioned with the negotiations, he resigned and retreated to Charleston where he wrote his celebrated polemic The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). In 1925 he married the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova and settled at Tilton, just a few hundred yards from Charleston. He spent much of his personal wealth on collecting books and pictures and financing the Cambridge Arts Theatre. He was also instrumental in setting up the Arts Council of Great Britain, of which he became the first Chairman. In 1942 he was created Baron Keynes of Tilton.
A poet and the elder son of Vanessa and Clive Bell, he was an optimistic, argumentative and enthusiastic character. At Cambridge he associated with left-wing circles, and though opposed to Communism became friends with Anthony Blunt, who was publicly exposed in the 1970s as having been a Soviet spy. In 1935 Julian Bell travelled to China to take up a post as Professor of English at the National University of Wuhan. He returned in 1937 to take part in the Spanish Civil War and was tragically killed while driving an ambulance six weeks after his arrival in Spain. His Essays, Poems and Letters were published posthumously in 1938.
The second of Vanessa Bell’s three children, Quentin Bell described himself as ‘pig in the middle’. His achievements were, however, to make him a respected figure in art and letters, achieving the rare distinction of University Professorships without ever sitting an examination. A modest and lovable man, he was a painter, potter, teacher and art historian. His many books include an acclaimed biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf. He was the first Chairman of the Charleston Trust. He married Anne Oliver Popham in 1952; they had three children.
Vanessa Bell’s daughter by Duncan Grant, she was born at Charleston on Christmas Day 1918 and raised as Clive Bell’s child. She was not told of her true parentage until she was eighteen. She trained initially as an actress, but later turned to painting and other arts (mosaic and sculpture). In 1942 she married David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, who had been living at Charleston when she was born; they had four daughters. Her autobiography Deceived with Kindness is an exorcism of the ghosts of her Bloomsbury childhood, in which she writes of her early days at Charleston as ‘a precarious paradise’. Angelica died at her home in the south of France in 2012.
A publisher, editor and the author of eighteen novels, of which the best-known are Lady into Fox and Aspects of Love (since adapted as a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber). An explosive and passionate character, Bunny had an intense relationship with Duncan Grant at the time when they were both conscientious objectors during World War One, working on the neighbouring farm to Charleston. He was present at the birth of Vanessa and Duncan’s daughter, Angelica, who was to become his second wife after the death of his first, Ray (the sister of Frances Partridge). After this marriage disintegrated in the 1970s Bunny spent his old age in France, writing, cooking and bee-keeping.
Born in Norfolk, Grace Germany joined Vanessa Bell’s household as a domestic servant at the age of sixteen. Eventually becoming cook-housekeeper at Charleston, she lived here with her husband Walter Higgens and their son John until her retirement in 1970. Her relationship with Vanessa Bell was one of mutual respect and dependence, and her role as ‘the angel of Charleston’ is commemorated in a plaque over the kitchen stove. Vanessa Bell’s large painting of her at work in the kitchen hangs at the end of the first floor passage.
Associated with the circle of Augustus John and Henry Lamb, she married the Russian mosaicist Boris Anrep in 1917. In 1926 she began a serious affair with Roger Fry. Warm-hearted and argumentative, she was ideally suited to Fry with whom she lived until his death. She was a frequent visitor to Charleston and often sat for Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. A painting of her, seated in the Dining Room at Charleston, hangs in Maynard Keynes’ room.
Trained as an art historian, she worked as a civil servant during the war and afterwards for the newly-formed Arts Council of Great Britain. She was invited to Charleston to sit for Vanessa Bell in 1950 and thereafter was a frequent visitor to the house. She married Quentin Bell in 1952 and then, initially to help him with his biography of Virginia Woolf, spent the best part of twenty years on the meticulous documentation and annotation of Bloomsbury, which culminated in her five-volume edition of The Diary of Virginia Woolf for which she was awarded two honorary doctorates. Her knowledge of Charleston has made her an invaluable member of the Charleston Trust since its inception.
Simon Bussy, described by Quentin Bell as ‘a pugnacious looking little man with very bright, intelligent eyes’, studied painting alongside Rouault and his close friend, Matisse. Duncan Grant was taught by him, and it was on Bussy’s advice that Grant came to regard painting as a daily commitment. A number of works by Bussy hang in the house. He married Duncan Grant’s cousin Dorothy Strachey in 1903 and they lived mostly in France. Their daughter, Jane Simone (‘Janie’) Bussy (1906-60), also a painter, frequently visited Charleston.
A sophisticated painter of great psychological depth, she disliked her Christian name and insisted on being called just Carrington. Her letters reveal a talented and original woman with a fresh and witty view of the world. From 1917 she lived with Lytton Strachey; it was also in that year that she first visited Charleston. In 1921 she married Ralph Partridge, with whom Lytton Strachey was in love. The complexities of this ménage have been depicted in a film Carrington (1995). After Lytton Strachey’s death Carrington found she could not bear life without him; seven weeks later she shot herself.
The American-born poet was a close friend of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who published his most important long poem, the kaleidoscopic expression of modern disillusionment, The Waste Land, in book form at the Hogarth Press in 1923. The visit to Charleston in 1935 of this arch-modernist intellectual was made memorable by Vanessa Bell accidentally doubling the quantities of grouse needed for dinner. Eliot was astonished but entertained; he was ‘funny, charming, yet still somehow impressive’, according to Quentin Bell.
A good friend of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the author of novels Howard’s End and A Room with a View visited Charleston on several occasions; on one of these his unassuming aspect caused him to be mistaken for the plumber. Although Forster stopped writing novels after A Passage to India was published in 1924, he continued to write criticism and was actively involved in liberal and anti-fascist causes. He was the first president of the National Council for Civil Liberties. Both Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted him at Charleston in 1940.
Already established as an influential art historian and critic by the time he met Clive and Vanessa Bell in 1910, Fry was to become their close friend. ‘He … lived with such variety and generosity and curiosity’ wrote Virginia Woolf after his death. His book Vision and Design (1920) influenced the aesthetic taste of an entire generation. Fry’s organisation of the first and second Post-Impressionist exhibitions in London in 1910 and 1912 ensured his enduring significance in the history of modern art, as does his founding of the Omega Workshops in 1913 which he started to help young artists by employing them in the field of applied arts. Fry’s marriage ended tragically when his wife became incurably insane. In 1911 he fell deeply in love with Vanessa Bell, and although their affair did not last he never, despite a long and happy partnership with Helen Anrep, quite resolved this passion.
Clive Bell’s elegant and sophisticated companion was a cousin of the Stracheys, married to the barrister St John Hutchinson. With Clive she was a frequent early visitor to Charleston, popular with the children for her lavish gifts of chocolates. She published a volume of short stories with the Hogarth Press, and was a close friend of T. S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley. Vanessa Bell painted her portrait, now in the Tate Gallery, in 1915.
Lydia Lopokova trained as a ballerina at the Imperial School of Ballet in St Petersburg. Her appearance with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1918 took London by storm. Maynard Keynes became captivated by her childlike gaiety and idiosyncratic English, and after the failure of Diaghilev’s company, arranged accommodation for her in Bloomsbury. Four years later, in 1925, she became his wife, an event that upset the equilibrium of Vanessa Bell’s and Duncan Grant’s close friendship with Keynes. Despite this, the couple moved to Tilton, less than a mile from Charleston, where Lydia continued to live after her husband’s death.
‘[Desmond] had only to speak … to fill one with delight’ wrote Quentin Bell. An enthralling conversationalist who visited Charleston frequently with his family, MacCarthy was painted there by both Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and a bust of him by Quentin Bell can be seen in the Library. Although as a journalist and literary editor he was successful, his ambitions as a novelist never bore fruit. He became president of the English P.E.N. Club, and was knighted in 1951, but his talent for talk left little for posterity.
Educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, she worked at Birrell and Garnett’s bookshop in Bloomsbury where she came into contact with Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf and their circle. Her love affair with Ralph Partridge made her the fourth element in the polyamorous arrangement at Ham Spray in Wiltshire which consisted of Partridge, Carrington and Lytton Strachey. After Carrington’s suicide she married Ralph Partridge; after his death in 1960 she lived alone in London. Their only child, Burgo, married Angelica Garnett’s daughter Henrietta in 1962; he died in 1963.
Beginning with A Pacifist’s War in 1978, Frances Partridge published several volumes of diaries and memoirs which describe with humour and honesty her wide-ranging interests and friendships.
The youngest of the four Stephen children, Adrian felt overshadowed by his father’s favourite, Thoby (who died in 1906), and by his talented sisters Vanessa and Virginia. After Sir Leslie Stephen’s death in 1904 the four siblings set up home together in Bloomsbury. Their house in Gordon Square became the nucleus of the Bloomsbury group.
In 1910 Adrian had a love affair with Duncan Grant. It was also in that year that they both participated in the famous Dreadnought Hoax, described by Adrian in a dryly humorous account published in 1936. In 1914 he married Karin Costelloe, and their two daughters, Ann and Judith, were both frequent visitors to Charleston as children. After the World War One Adrian and Karin became interested in Freud and were among the first English psychoanalysts. Two portraits of Adrian Stephen by Duncan Grant, both dating from c.1910, now hang at Charleston.
The second child of Leslie and Julia Stephen, Thoby was at the centre of the group of friends who first met at Cambridge, and afterwards at his ‘Thursday evenings’ in Bloomsbury. Strikingly handsome, cerebral and original, his friends and family were left wondering what he might have become after his tragically early death from typhoid, contracted on holiday in Greece. Perhaps in an attempt to resolve her speculations about her brother, Virginia Woolf based the central character of her novel Jacob’s Room on Thoby.
A frequent and welcome visitor to Charleston, he was a cousin of Duncan Grant and a contemporary of Clive Bell at Cambridge. The publication in 1918 of his iconoclastic biographical collection Eminent Victorians was to bring him overnight fame.
Strachey was an easy subject for caricature with his effete manner and attenuated figure, but his penetrating wit, learning and unconventionality assured him a key position not only in Bloomsbury but also in English literary life. His ménage-à-trois with Ralph Partridge and Carrington has been portrayed in the film Carrington (1995); it was Strachey’s death from cancer that propelled the heartbroken Carrington into suicide.
With his wife Virginia, Leonard Woolf ‘discovered’ Charleston in 1916. The Woolfs remained permanent country neighbours and in frequent contact with the inhabitants of Charleston, first at Asheham and later at their home in Rodmell.
A contemporary of Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey at Cambridge, Leonard worked in the Ceylon Civil Service from 1904 to 1911. He gave this up to marry Virginia Stephen in 1912. Together they founded the Hogarth Press in 1917 which published, among many others, Freud, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster and Vita Sackville-West. Over the course of his long life Leonard was a literary editor and journalist, a political writer, active in promoting the League of Nations and on various Labour Party committees. He was also the author of two novels, books on international relations, and five volumes of autobiography.
Before drowning herself, Virginia expressed her recognition of his stoical love in her farewell note to him: ‘I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good.’
Now recognised as one of the most imaginative and creative writers of the twentieth century, she became a prominent figure on the London literary scene, where the originality of her writing and the brilliance of her conversation commanded both admiration and antagonism.
A Londoner, Sussex became her second home from 1910. She lived in Firle, at Asheham, and finally at Monk’s House in Rodmell from 1919. After her sister Vanessa settled in Sussex, Virginia and her husband were frequent visitors to Charleston which, with its bohemian domesticity and rabble of noisy children, came to represent much that she felt she lacked in her own life.
Virginia Woolf’s novels are known for their psychological perspicacity, experimental forms and shifting perspectives, especially in To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway and The Waves. Also popular is her fictional biography, Orlando, which comprises a satiric survey of English literature, following the travails of a genderfluid, multi-century spanning hero, inspired by the aristocratic poet Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf was also a prolific literary critic, diarist and correspondent. Her feminist polemic A Room of One’s Own is regarded as a seminal work.
Virginia Woolf suffered periodic nervous breakdowns throughout her life, and in 1941 drowned herself in the River Ouse near Rodmell.
Saxon Sydney-Turner was one of the original members of the Bloomsbury group, attending Trinity College, Cambridge with Thoby Stephen, who thought him a genius, and he was elected an Apostle in 1902, the same year as Leonard Woolf and Lytton Strachey. In 1904 he entered the Civil Service in the Estate Duty Office. On 16 February 1905 he became the first visitor to Thoby Stephen’s Thursday Evenings at 46 Gordon Square.
After eight conscientious years as a civil servant he was promoted and moved to the Treasury in 1913, where he remained until retirement after the Second World War. As a young man he wrote poetry, reputedly composed an opera, and was held in awe by his contemporaries for the twin profundities of his silence by day and of his talk after midnight. Virginia Woolf at times mocked his remarkable memory for what she regarded as useless facts.
Paul Roche’s accidental meeting with Duncan Grant while crossing Piccadilly Circus in 1946 began a friendship that would last until Grant’s death over 30 years later. Unbeknown to Grant, Roche was an ordained Catholic Priest. He soon left the church.
Born in Mussoorie, India, Roche was a poet, novelist, and professor of English, a critically acclaimed translator of Greek and Latin classics, notably the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Sappho, and Plautus.
He used his translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to write a screenplay for a film version of the work released in 1968 with Christopher Plummer in the title role. Roche played a small role in the Greek chorus.
One of the Bloomsbury Group’s first literary successes was Lytton Strachey’s biographical work Eminent Victorians. Published in 1918 Strachey reassessed the lives of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon, puncturing the pomposity of the traditional, reverent biography with irreverence and wit.
For a full account of the book read Paul Levy’s article in the Guardian
In 1923 a special edition of the Charleston Bulletin was produced. Influenced by Strachey’s work, Eminent Charlestonians had text by Virginia Woolf and illustrations by Quentin Bell. In a series of satirical short scenes, the adventures and misadventures of many of the Charleston residents, including Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, the donkey Jesebel and the dog Henry were recorded.
The Charleston Bulletins are now in the British Library and have been published in a fully illustrated volume, available from the Charleston shop and online
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.’