In the August 2007 edition of Canvas, Colin McKenzie told Charleston’s Friends for the first time about the possibility of the Charleston Trust acquiring the magnificent Sussex barn adjacent to the house. Since then much has been happening behind the scenes to develop the Trust’s vision for what it could achieve through this acquisition and the Trustees and Director are keen to bring Charleston’s Friends and supporters up to date with progress. The Trust has a rare and not to be missed opportunity to acquire and preserve a vital and beautiful part of Charleston’s historic site, something that has been one of the Trust’s charitable objectives since its first creation. It is clear, however, that acquiring and making full use of the barn is every bit as important to the Trust’s ability to thrive in the future as its preservation. As a result of the support we have received from the Firle Estate for our plans and their willingness to sell Charleston a long lease on the barn and adjacent spaces, we are at the start of an exciting new chapter in Charleston’s history which will ensure that this important and historic building is removed from risk, preserved for the future enjoyment of all Charleston’s visitors, and given new uses that will help the Trust to continue to thrive.
The Charleston Barn, with its brick and flint walls and red tiled roof, is a familiar sight to Charleston’s visitors and, though there have been a number of significant changes to its outward appearance since the 1950s, it is still clearly recognisable from Duncan Grant’s painting of 1959 (which today hangs in Clive Bell’s study). Its history is inextricably linked to that of the farmhouse and the surrounding countryside, however, and goes all the way back to the Domesday Book (1086), when there was first recorded a farm on this site. A lease of 1689 suggests that by the seventeenth century Charleston was a substantial farmstead, referring to ‘all that messuage farme commonly called Charleston … with all the barns stables buildings yards gardens orchards and arable lands meadows pastures seedings sheepe downes and pasture for sheepe.’ The house itself, well-built and of handsome proportions, expresses this status.
What is less clear is when the current barn was built. Only a detailed excavation and dendro-chronological tests on the timbers could establish this information for certain but the timber structure suggests that it dates back in large part to the seventeenth or even the sixteenth century. We do know that it was originally intended for the threshing and storage of grain; harvest wagons would enter through the large openings on either side of the building to the threshing floor in the centre, and the sections on either side were used for the storage of grain.
Its recent history, however, has seen it exposed to all the risks commonly associated with agricultural buildings that can’t easily be adapted to modern farming methods. From the start of the nineteenth century (when it seems that large amounts of money were expended on it by the Firle Estate) the barn complex included not only the buildings we see today but a granary. This feature, such an important and beautiful part of the ensemble, was demolished in the 1970s and replaced by a modern open-sided shed (though the roof line of the original granary is still visible on the barn wall). Its disappearance has detracted from what must have been a pleasant sense of enclosure in the farm courtyard, suggested by Duncan Grant’s 1959 painting. Then in 1981 a major part of the barn was severely damaged by a fire which destroyed two thirds of the original timber frame. The damaged sections of the barn were rebuilt with a steel frame but in the years that followed it was used less and less for agricultural purposes.
Its final agricultural use, just seven years ago, was to accommodate calves from the adjacent dairy farm. The barn building very effectively screens Charleston and its visitors from the modern, working farm buildings including cow sheds and milking parlour, still in active use by the Firle Estate. One of the most appealing elements of life at Charleston today is the presence, just over the wall, of a rich agricultural life and particularly of the cows, who have a forceful way of expressing their views of proceedings at the Charleston Festival. For the last five years the barn has been used by Charleston for special events in the summer (such as the Small Wonder Festival and the Quentin Follies) but because it is effectively unconverted and unheated its use, though atmospheric, is strictly limited.
Since the creation of the Charleston Trust in 1981 and the opening of the house to the public in 1986, Charleston has worked hard to maintain, as far as possible, the atmosphere of the house when Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, and Duncan Grant lived there. Its apparent tranquillity and picturesque shabbiness conceal a great deal of hard work and thoughtful reconstruction, in which family descendants have played a crucial part. But this intelligent tradition of preservation has gone alongside an expanding programme of events that have ensured that Charleston remains a vibrant and exciting organisation rather than a mausoleum, successful at attracting and engaging new visitors and supporters as well as providing reasons for its longstanding supporters to return year after year to visit and to support events. And it has been to the other things it does each year that Charleston owes its continued survival, generating through its events, its Friends scheme and its retail operation (to say nothing of its fundraising) the money required each year to run and maintain the house.
Last year the Trust recorded its busiest year ever, and already this season the record for attendance on a single day has been broken twice. This success comes at a price and the original facilities simply don’t meet the requirements of the number of visitors we now receive. The café is crammed into the old wash house, only able to accommodate existing numbers because on sunny days visitors can spill over into the Folly Garden. Special events have to be accommodated in the barn, in a tent or outside, and there is no dedicated space at all for creative workshops or school parties.
So the opportunity to move some of this activity to newly created spaces in the barn, thereby restoring the historical relationship between it and Charleston Farmhouse, is a particularly timely one. The barn is ideally placed in relation to the farmhouse, close at hand but sufficiently far away to have its own life and to operate in a way that doesn’t impact negatively or detract from the remarkably unchanged atmosphere of the house and garden.
Charleston’s trustees and staff are very conscious of the quiet character of Charleston, with its roots in agriculture and the countryside. One of the appeals of the place is the relationship between the sophistication of the twentieth-century inhabitants of the house and the rural heritage they lived with and painted, well within living memory. Retaining this character will be our guiding principle with the barn project and an important part of the scheme will be to reconstruct the form of the old granary, which was demolished a generation ago, and to adapt this form for contemporary uses.
What does Charleston need? It needs, above all, spaces that will allow us to continue to do what we do now, only better. Firstly, practical space. A café that could accommodate special groups of visitors as well as other members of the public, all at the same time. A flexible space that can be used as an auditorium, for smaller Festival activities such as Small Wonder, for meetings and conferences. Proper facilities for visitors, and a place where they can be greeted and where background information about the history of the house can be given.
Secondly, artistic purposes. More room for the expanding collection, both the reserve collection of pictures but also the important donation of the contents of the studio, made by Angelica Garnett (see page 2). These objects are currently uncomfortably stored in the attic of the house. A flexible exhibition space, larger than the present one (but not large enough to be a burden), with suitable environmental controls that would enable us to develop the programme of shows we put on each year, including both loan exhibitions and the display of items from our reserve collection.
Thirdly, space for learning activities, for which there are currently no dedicated space at all: in particular a studio where adults and children could have an opportunity to study art, whether through practical art sessions or the history of Bloomsbury.
In recent months substantial progress has been made towards developing our plans for the barns. As a result of positive discussions with the trustees of the Firle Estate over the acquisition by the Trust of a long lease on the barn, an application was made to the Heritage Lottery Fund and in April of this year we heard that Charleston had been awarded a £69,000 grant towards development funding. This allows us – with the additional help of a very generous grant from the Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement – to start to refine our plans. A feasibility study has been carried out by the architectural firm of Purcell Miller Tritton and this has suggested how the barn and adjacent spaces might be adapted for the uses we have in mind. We hope to select architects through a competitive tender process this summer and to be able to announce the name of the successful architect in the autumn.
There is a long way yet to go. Not least of our objectives is the need to raise some £5 million to carry out the building works. Our fundraising plans are currently being developed and will include a further application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a substantial part of that total. We are also looking to raise a significant endowment for the Trust; and a great deal of thought is being given to the preparation of a sound business plan. The new spaces created by the project will need to be as economical as possible to maintain and run, and will be expected to make a positive financial contribution to the Trust.
As this is a project of such importance to Charleston we want to make sure that we consult as widely as possible about it. Over the coming months we will be consulting with staff and volunteers, and then with our many friends and supporters, to ensure that we keep everyone who is involved with Charleston informed about our progress and provide an opportunity for them to play a part in it. We will welcome suggestions and would like to hear about the sort of facilities that people would like to see at Charleston. The plan has begun well with generous initial support. We hope very much that it will continue to run, if not always smoothly (that is a lot to expect) then certainly vigorously and successfully.
Future issues of Canvas will, we hope, take the story further!
This article is indebted to the historical research undertaken by Judy Woodman for The Charleston Trust in 2008.
Take a one-of-a-kind tour of Charleston with designer Annie Sloan and curator Dr Darren Clarke at this virtual fundraising event.
2021. Legendary folk singer Shirley Collins in a unique collaboration with Brian Catling and Matthew Shaw.