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Charleston House: Meeting Place of The Bloomsbury Group

7th June 2024

Located in the beautiful village of Firle in East Sussex, Charleston House served as a home and meeting place for some of the 20th century’s most avant-garde minds. Among these were the founding members of the celebrated ‘Bloomsbury Group’, including Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell, who utilised the house as an artistic residence for over sixty years. With such a dazzling decorative country home right here on our doorstep, we step inside to seek some artistic inspiration...

History

The first Bloomsbury members to occupy Charleston House were Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant who, along with their friend David Garnett and Bell’s two children Julian and Quentin, arrived in 1916 at the height of the First World War.

Nestled in the Sussex countryside, the house provided a perfect base for Grant and Garnett, who, as conscientious objectors, had to find important work on local farms or risk being sent to prison, however Charleston’s idyllic setting also served as a bohemian hideaway for many artists, writers and creative thinkers who moved within the Bloomsbury circle. Frequent visitors included Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell (though their marriage had become more of a friendship by this time), Virginia and Leonard Woolf, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and celebrated authors T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster.

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Left: Charleston before Bloomsbury arrived. Right: Charleston as it is now . Image credit of Charleston Farmhouse by Penelope Fewster 2012, courtesy of the Charleston Trust

With so many innovative minds under one roof and an endless influx of visitors from all over the world, the house became a place of great artistic liberty, in which to gather inspiration, discuss new ideas and debate the most pressing matters of the day. It also came to embody the subversive and experimental way of life associated with the Bloomsbury Group, in particular their modern approach to feminism, pacifism and sexuality, as well as their belief in the importance of art in pursuing a knowledgeable and meaningful life.

Charleston residents

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)

Vanessa Bell was an artist, interior designer and the sister of Virginia Woolfe. She produced a number of Post-Impressionist and Abstract paintings in her lifetime, as well as designing fabrics, furniture and ceramics, many of which can be seen throughout Charleston today.

Duncan Grant (1885-1978)

Like Bell, Duncan Grant also experimented with decorating textiles and ceramics as well as designing theatre sets, however he is perhaps best known as a painter. He became interested in art from a young age, undertaking a formal artistic education before studying under the French painter Simon Bussy.

John Keynes (1883-1946)

John Maynard Keynes wrote his celebrated book The Economic Consequences of the Peace while staying at Charleston. Despite a background in economics, he had a great appreciation for art, providing financial support and advice to the Bloomsbury Group as well as helping to set up the Arts Council of Great Britain.

Clive Bell (1881-1964)

Clive Bell was Vanessa’s husband and father to her two children, Quentin and Julian. Though their marriage had become more of a friendship by 1916, the two remained friends, and Clive moved to Charleston permanently in 1939. 
 

Art & Interiors at Charleston

The defining characteristic of Charleston House is the incredible decoration it underwent at the hands of its inhabitants. From the moment they moved in, the artists set about putting their own unique touch on the house, applying paint, embellishing furniture, and covering every available surface with books, sculptures and the varied collection of objects they’d created or acquired throughout their lives.

This also extended to the property’s walled garden, which, under the direction of Vanessa Bell, came alive with flowers, vegetables and fruit trees alongside a mosaic piazza made from broken crockery. The result is a completely unique property that stands as a work of art in itself, offering a rare glimpse into the lives of these imaginative minds, and their important artistic contributions.

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"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."

Quentin Bell

Charleston today

When the house and property fell into disrepair after Duncan Grant’s death in the late 1970’s, The Charleston Trust charity was established with the aim of restoring their former glory. Work was completed in 1986, when Charleston reopened to the general public.

More than a museum, with Quentin Bell hailing it as ‘a kind of time capsule in which the public can examine a world which has vanished’, Charleston house and garden are presented to look as they would have done in the 1950s. Visitors are encouraged to feel that they are guests in a living home; objects are not roped off and there are no informational texts around the rooms. This approach continues into the garden, where visitors are able to explore the various spaces at their own pleasure.

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Image credits: Charleston House| Interior imagery by Lewis Ronald | Vanessa Bell - By George Charles Beresford, Public Domain | Duncan Grant - By Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938) (NPG Ax141304) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsJohn Maynard Keynes  - By Official Portrait [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsClive Bell - See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons