Volunteering at Charleston

As #VolunteersWeek (1-7 June 2002) continues, we’re exploring Charleston through the eyes of some of our brilliant volunteers and finding out what Charleston means to them. In this guest blog, we hear from volunteers Sheila, Chris, Sue, Susan and Carole. 

‘Charleston in Spring’ painting by volutneer Jackie Hurwood.

Jackie Hurwood
I have been a volunteer for six years now and love it, so missing it rather a lot at present. I started as a House Steward and work regularly on Sunday afternoons when the house is open.  I was recruited as a member of the local TAS (The Arts Society-Eastbourne). Since then I have volunteered over Charleston Festival for the last four years and subsequently at other events like The Frost Fair and outings for Friends, especially since the restoration of the barns and other changes gave us scope for more diverse gatherings.
My Favourite thing is meeting visitors and sharing in their enthusiasm for Charleston.  Sometimes people have travelled thousands of miles like an Australian couple I met who had been planning a trip for years and were thrilled to have finally made it here.
I have been a Friend of Charleston since the 90’s and a practicing artist, and having completed an OU Arts Degree some years ago, when we moved closer to this area on retirement, there it was, –   right on my doorstep.  I also had a friend who had been very involved and that drew me in.
I think the fact that Charleston existed as a community by a group of artistic people who dared to be different, and that it still exists in its current form is inspirational.  It is an opportunity to look back at the social and artistic history of past a period through individuals’ experience….  which we see around us and can read about  …  but then can use those ideas and permissions for our own projects, as so many visitors tell us they have been inspired to do.


Charleston volunteers and staff. Photo © Chris Cook.

Sheila Mortimer

I have volunteered at Charleston for about 10 years and have always enjoyed it enormously.  At the beginning I helped with stuffing newsletters and programmes into envelopes – several of us would sit round a table and chat as we worked.  I made several good friends that way.  I also helped in those early days as a volunteer at special events – providing lunches for all day study days, accompanying groups to various venues, and generally helping out.  But my main pleasure has been volunteering at the two annual festivals, particularly the Charleston Festival in May.  It’s such a friendly festival and one meets many of the same visitors every year and also fellow volunteers with whom to share lunch  or tea in the garden.  It’s such a pleasure to be able to hear such stimulating authors, meet up with the lovely car park man in his big hat, share a hug with Alexa in the cafe and browse City Books‘ amazing selection. 


Chris Cook

A double rainbow over the Charleston pond. Photo © Chris Cook.

I think it would have been fifth year of volunteering at Charleston this year as a room steward and occasional photographer. My favourite thing about volunteering is probably introducing the visitors to the amazing interiors. It is such a privilege and honour to be able to spend time at Charleston especially for those moments when you are alone in the room of so many amazing people.

For me, Charleston personifies freedom of expression. The residents and their art and environment and the way they lived allowed them to be free.

The volunteers are so lovely too and friendly – it’s a real family. The last few years have been amazing watching Charleston flourish from the house into the barn and exhibition space and of course through the centenary year. 

During lockdown, I really miss the cake and sandwiches and the banter with other stewards who have an incredible wealth and depth of knowledge born from a deep interest.

It is a thrill to be so immersed by unique art and amazing people. Is there anything better?


Sue Duncan

I have been a Charleston volunteer for 11 years and a visitor to the house since 1993. My main roles 

From putting the house to bed and waking it up, to stewarding on a Sunday and volunteering at Charleston Festival in May. The Conservation aspect has involved invigilating photo shoots too for fashion brands and magazines. 

My favourite aspect of volunteering is the chance to learn and discover more about the house, its visitors, the period and the art. What is as enjoyable is you are doing this with people who share the same interest, curiosity and fervour. Charleston has been a haven; as it was to the original residents and visitors and a wonderful opportunity to escape the madding and maddening crowd and be an individual.  

Volunteers from Charleston and Monks House outside Virginia Woolf’s writing room at Monks House. Photo © Susan Casebourne

Susan Casebourne

I have been a volunteer at Charleston for about ten years now. I have worked mainly as a room steward in the house but have also enjoyed helping with

English art scholar and Bloomsbury group member Anne Olivier Bell. Photo © Susan Casebourne.

workshops and the Charleston Festival over the years and more recently, have done some volunteering in the wonderful new gallery. It has been fascinating to see the changes over the years that I have been there but I know I am a relative newcomer compared with some of the volunteers.

The visitors who come to the house are usually interesting. They like to chat and really appreciate the house. Some have been wanting to visit for years and a good number come from overseas. Occasionally someone arrives who has been something to do with the house in Duncan Grant’s time, once it was a model, once a relative of Grace Higgins.

In 2011 I came to a summer event at Charleston and took some photos of Olivier Bell and other family members in the walled garden. In July 2014 a small group of Charleston volunteers went to meet the volunteers at Monks House who were very hospitable. It was nice to be there when it was closed to the public.


Carole Shaw

I have been a volunteer at Charleston since I retired in 2020. I’ve always been interested in the period of history from the first world war until the present day so Charleston seemed the ideal choice as the social change has been enormous since the end of the Edwardian era. The so-called Bloomsbury group had influence on this change, especially John Maynard Keynes as although he was an economist he also had a keen interest in the arts and bought Post-Impressionist works for the Tate gallery.

One of my favourite things about volunteering for Charleston is talking to the many different visitors from all over the world, and describing the interests of the group that lived in a very homely setting in the heart of the Sussex downs. Charleston means to me a continuation of promoting modern art, ideas, and thinking in a very beautiful setting, and with the renovation of the barns, let’s hope Charleston will continue to promote the arts, plus the book festival for years to come.

The volunteers summer party in Duncan Grants Folly Garden in 2018. Photo © Carole Shaw.

Read more Charleston memories from volunteer and supporter Sally Handford here.

What's on

12 JulWorkshop
Planting a classic cottage garden

Award-winning designer Juliet Sargeant leads an inspirational day of planting design at Charleston.

01 AugMusic
CROWLINK | Shirley Collins

2021. Legendary folk singer Shirley Collins in a unique collaboration with Brian Catling and Matthew Shaw.

16 AugWorkshop
Planting and gardening on chalk

Join Juliet Sargeant to learn about all the chalk-loving plants at Charleston.

06 SepWorkshop
Painting in the Garden | Autumn

Join artist Julian Le Bas for a day’s intensive painting, and lose yourself in the atmosphere of the walled garden.

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