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.
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.
Left: Charleston before Bloomsbury arrived. Right: Charleston as it is now.
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.
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 Maynard 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.
"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."
Left: Stephen Tomlin’s unfinished plaster bust of Virginia Woolf, made in 1931 when she was 49.
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.
Looking much as it did during the 1950’s, Charleston is 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’.
Left: Charleston Festival. Right: Sir David Attenborough, winner of the Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize 2018
What’s on at Charleston
Each year, from March to November, Charleston welcomes a large number of visitors, who come not only to enjoy the property but also the varied programme of events. Alongside creative workshops, talks and outdoor performances, Charleston also hosts two annual festivals: Small Wonder and Charleston Festival.
The Charleston Festival takes place each May, celebrating books, ideas and creativity with an exciting line-up of events including agenda-setting debates and insightful talks. Every year, the content of the festival is tailored towards current political and social events, in true spirit of the Bloomsbury Group, ensuring a lively and impassioned atmosphere that’s not to be missed. To learn more about Charleston Festival, click here.
Small Wonder Festival
Now in its 15th year, Small Wonder Short Story Festival takes place in September with a varied programme of events including writing workshops, spoken word performances and author conversations. Welcoming a variety of authors, Small Wonder is surely one of the best literary festivals of its size in the UK. To learn more about Small Wonder Festival, click here.
New spaces in 2018
In September 2018, Charleston launched its first exhibition space, ready to host three inaugural exhibitions this autumn. There is also a brand new events space, which will be used for talks and performances in support of Charleston’s existing programme of events, as well as a new restaurant, The Threshing Barn. To learn more about Charleston's new spaces, click here.
Image credits: All images except artist portraits are courtesy of Charleston House. | Vanessa Bell - By George Charles Beresford, Public Domain | Duncan Grant - By Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938) (NPG Ax141304) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | John Maynard Keynes - By Official Portrait [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Clive Bell - See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.