Following a sombre visit to the home of Virginia Woolf, I continued on with my literary pilgrimage to a magical creative sanctuary that ironically bears my name, Charleston, the eclectic and artistic home of Bloomsbury group artist, Vanessa Bell and her complicated family. By contrast Charleston was entirely different to Monk’s House, bright and airy with a much lighter tone and context. The farmhouse itself is a quaint brick cottage covered in creeping roses and surrounded by a quintessential country garden with spectacular views across the green pastures of the South Downs in rural southern England.
It’s most lovely, very solid and simple, with perfectly flat windows and wonderful tiled roofs. The pond is most beautiful, with a willow at one side and a stone or flint wall edging it all round the garden part, and a little lawn sloping down to it, with formal bushes on it — Vanessa Bell
Charleston is located in the pastoral area of Firle in East Sussex, just 7 miles away from Rodmell between Brighton and Eastbourne. For those not familiar with the history of Vanessa Bell, she was a celebrated artist and member of the Bloomsbury group of creatives, alongside her sister Virginia Woolf. The Bloomsbury Group refers to the social circle of influential artists, writers and intellectuals who met while studying and residing in the Bloomsbury neighbourhood of London during the early twentieth century, consisting of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, David Garnett, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey, plus a host of others who came and went over time. The group are well known for their artistic lifestyles, taboo relationships, and pacifist stance on war. When Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf relocated to East Sussex during the war years, Charleston became a rural outpost and meeting place for the Bloomsbury group.
I spent two very happy hours meandering through the gardens and immersing myself all the intricate details of the creative interior. The house felt just like an art gallery, with every corner of each room decorated so ornately and personally. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted directly onto the walls and furniture, with paintings of Renoir and Picasso intertwined with work of their own. What a beautiful thought that almost every inch of the house tells an enduring story.
Charleston Farmhouse conveniently provided the group (who were conscientious objectors to war) with a creative refuge as “farmers” did not have to serve in the armed forces. Charleston then became a melting pot of intellectual ideas and conversations, and the house survives today as a monument to the lives and brilliant minds that amalgamated inside that house. If only those ornately decorated walls could talk, what interesting tales they would tell of those who passed through. The love triangles and relationships that flourished inside the house are a genuine reflection of the groups liberal approach to relationships, sexuality and monogamy. Gerard Gilbert of The Independent published a fabulous article about the dynamic of the interwoven bohemian relationships within the Bloomsbury group, which was written as a link to the television mini-series that retells the Bloomsbury story, called Life in Squares. You can read the article here.
A kind of time capsule in which the public can examine a world which has vanished – Quentin Bell
Vanessa and Clive Bell were married in 1907 and had two sons together, Julian and Quentin. Their relationship was relatively liberal, with both parties taking other lovers during their marriage, although they remained present in each others life and they never officially divorced. An artist named Duncan Grant was introduced into the group via Lytton Strachey, an integral founding member of Bloomsbury. Many were infatuated with Grant (including Lytton) and attracted to his talent, charm, and good looks. Grant went on to become the most significant love of Vanessa’s life, although he was almost exclusively attracted to men, as depicted in his homoerotic artwork. Grant moved to Sussex with his lover, Bunny Garnett, to pick fruit and they all lived together with Bell in a strange love triangle at Charleston.
Although Grant and Bell shared a mostly chaste relationship, they did engage in a fleeting affair in 1918 that resulted in the birth of a daughter, Angelica. Vanessa raised her daughter as the child of her husband, Clive Bell, and although most of the Bloomsbury circle knew of her paternity, Angelica did not learn the truth about her real father until she was 18 years old. But wait, there’s a major plot twist. Remember Bunny Garnett, the former lover of Duncan Grant? Well, when Angelica was 24 years old, her and Bunny Garnett (who was 50 years old at the time) got married and went on to have four daughters together.
Although their bond was not traditionally romantic, a shared affinity and appreciation for art forged a beautiful connection between Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. Following the demise of their brief romance while pregnant with Angelica, Grant and Bell continued to live together in a platonic relationship for more than forty years, lasting until 1961 when Bell passed away after a short illness. Although somewhat unconventional, I love the thought of sharing your life with somebody on creative terms. Quite poetically, Grant and Bell are buried next to one another in Firle, very close to Charleston and the home they shared together for so many years.
Bloomsbury lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles – Dorothy Parker
Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall is the official patroness of Charleston, and you too can become a friend of Charleston from £37 per year. This very special home is certainly in need of protection as it remains an independent charity that does not receive public funds to cover running costs. The Charleston Trust was established in 1980 to foster the ongoing maintenance and upkeep, which is funded by sponsors, donations, ticket sales and gift shop purchases, as well as the wonderful Charleston Festival that takes place at the end of May each year. The tagline of the Charleston Festival is where books, ideas and creativity bloom, which brilliantly summarises the heart of this special literary festival. The program changes every year with an array of influential writers and speakers attending. The best place to source the most up to date information is the Charleston website, where you will find a link in the main banner to the festival website.
On my drive back to my hotel I stopped by Brighton for a quick visit as I have always wanted to see the Brighton Pavilion, which was just as phantasmagorical as I had anticipated. I then found a cosy Brighton pub for some cod with chips and mushy peas before paying my exorbitant parking fee and then speeding off into the sunset.