Celebrating memories of Charleston this Volunteers’ Week

1-7 June 2020 is #VolunteersWeek, and our charity is lucky to have a wonderful team of dedicated volunteers who give their time, energy and expertise to Charleston throughout the year. In this guest blog, volunteer and supporter Sally Handford recalls how Charleston captured her imagination in childhood and shares what it still means to her today.

The barns from the garden, Duncan Grant (1885–1978), c.1959. © The Charleston Trust / Estate of Duncan Grant, DACS 2020.

Charleston – it holds a kind of magical attraction to many of the visitors and supporters that is not easy to explain.  The house. The setting. The garden.  The interior decorations are all special, but is it much more attractive or interesting than many National Trust houses?

Could it be the story of the people who lived there, much more accessible than those of the lords, ladies, dukes and duchesses who inhabited other homes open to the public.  Maybe it’s the scent of sex, the scandalous goings on, the imagined licentiousness?  Does it conjure up reminders of an England of the early 20th century, before and after the Great War, the writers and commentators, the birth of Modernism?

I believe that the magic of Charleston is that there is a feeling of familiarity.  The house holds a calmness, a sense that it was loved and cherished by its inhabitants, a special place to the friends who visited.  A loving house.

Visitors say this:

            It’s so peaceful.  They must have loved it here.

This is a house filled with colour and life, with decorations and designs; the painted doors, the fabrics, the wallpapers, the rugs and tapestries.  Ceramics potted and fired in the adjoining kiln by Vanessa’s son Quentin.  Paintings by Vanessa and Duncan, their daughter Angelica and those of contemporary artist friends.

It was Virginia Woolf, Vanessa’s sister, who found Charleston Farmhouse for them.  A neglected farmhouse on the Gage estate across the fields from Firle Place, a longer walk from Asham where Virginia and Leonard Woolf were living at the time.

It’s the part of Sussex where I was brought up, with relatives nearby in Lewes, Laughton and Ripe. I must have been about seven when I first heard the name Virginia.  As we passed over the bridge spanning the Ouse in Lewes, my mother would say;

            That’s the river where poor Virginia died.

It sounded as if she was talking about a friend who had died.  But, who was “poor Virginia”?

The river Ouse in Lewes was significant to me.  It meant the journey was nearing an end.  I was a terrible traveller.  In those days there was no by-pass, the road ran through the town and over the hump back bridge.  Somewhere between there and the Wilmington Giant, I was usually horribly sick.  My father mostly knew when this was about to happen.  He would glance at my face from time to time, waiting for the yawns that would precede the throw up – or is it up-throw.

The giant haunted my dreams.  In them he would get up from his hillside and chase me.  So, between poor Virginia drowning and the giant pursuing me and the smell of sick, caught and screwed up in a brown paper bag, the last few miles of that journey were a horror.

Over the years, Virginia Woolf slipped from my thoughts.  Three tries at Mrs Dalloway and I gave up for good. In any case, I was away from England a lot of the time and read whatever I could get my hands on.  Then, in the early eighties I was back and in London.  My mother sent me a cutting from The Argus.  The house that Virginia’s sister shared with Duncan Grant was to be open over two weekends.  There was just a bit about the house, the decorated interior and that it had been lived in by Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell.  I went along with four work colleagues, crammed into my 2 CV, up the lane to this rather nice farmhouse with a garden that had the form that it has today.  The sun was shining, the setting magical with the Downs forming a backdrop, almost framing the house. 

It was to me a strange event.  There were people who all seemed to know each other.  The women dressed in what I learnt to think of in kind of Virginia /Vanessa style layers and men in linen jackets and panamas. An elderly lady (I think Lady Violet Bonham Carter) held court from a lying position in a wicker bath chair. Light illuminated the garden with its tangled flower borders and  the fruit trees in blossom.   Two ponds surrounded by colourful tiles.  I think only the ground floor was open.  The room I remember most is the Studio. A large room smelling of oil paint as if Duncan Grant had just put down his brushes and gone to make a cup of tea.

Duncan Grant’s studio at Charleston © Electric Egg

We were addressed by Vanessa’s daughter, Angelica Garnet.  It was explained that the purpose of the two open weekends was to gather enough support to raise funds to preserve the house and the decorations.  I put my name down to become a supporter.  People were very friendly and the whole event was dreamlike and exciting.  I understood that many of them had known Vanessa and her partner, Duncan Grant, so this felt like  being part of living history. An unexpected event was the disappearance of the Russian wife of one of my colleagues.  He was just back from teaching in Russia and he explained that she was finding the change of country and culture overwhelming and that maybe she had gone somewhere quiet to be alone.  But no, we spotted her talking animatedly to Angelica Garnett.  She had recognised the name Garnett as being that of Constance Garnett who was the first to translate Tolstoy into English.  Her excitement was great at finding this unexpected link in her new country.

Angelica Garnett and Her Four Daughters,
Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), c.1959. The Charleston Trust © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, DACS 2020. ⁣⁣

And so began a second journey in Sussex, stimulated by my mother sending me the information about the opening of Charleston Farmhouse.  Becoming a Friend in those early days led to a close involvement with fund-raising events to support the restoration of the house.  There were long walks on the Downs, a performance of Virginia’s play about her photographer aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, which was held at The Alpine Club.  The Alpine Club another link with Bloomsbury, the sisters’ father, Leslie Stephens, was a member as was George Mallory, one time lover of Duncan Grant.  But I didn’t know that then.  All I remember is that we got horribly giggly on the liberal quantities of wine.

There were many different fund-raising events held to raise the money to pay for the extensive restoration work.  The ones I really enjoyed were the walks on the Downs above Charleston.  Lots of interesting people to talk to and in some cases, hear their memories of Charleston.  On one walk I got talking to Tina, who was organising the volunteers and who encouraged me to come along and help out on Sundays.  So began my involvement with Charleston and its visitors.  In those days, many visitors came to learn about the restoration – it was the days of Jocasta Innes book on decorative finishes, Paint Magic and Charleston provided a wonderful example of ragging, stippling, marbling, stencilling; different ways to transform your living space without spending too much money.  Today, visitors still discuss with their friends and with us Stewards the ideas they will take back from Charleston to try out at home.

The eighties were exciting times at Charleston as the house was transformed through the inspiration of Angelica Garnett and other supporters.  It was painstaking work done with integrity and the desire to be true to the spirit of the house and the artist who lived there.  I’ve continued to be involved since those early days of becoming a friend, despite a twenty year break from volunteering.  My life has been enriched through the events, the Charleston Festival, Small Wonder, always an autumn highlight and seeing the development of the barns and galleries.  More than all these has been being part of the Charleston family and the wonderful group of stewards and guides that I’ve got to know over the years.

Read more Charleston memories from our volunteers here.

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