Threadbare vintage lace panels, sumptuous Art Deco velvet coats, and old glass jars overflowing with Bakelite buttons in quirky, avant-garde shapes; these are the exquisite delights that awaited me each morning when I walked through the front door of the antique shop where I worked back in my early twenties. Oh, how I loved it! I felt like a big kid let loose in a magical dress up box and every working day was just heavenly. Rows of glamorous silky gowns languished on wooden coat hangers as though they had not a care in the world, while delicate hand embroidered blouses hung artfully from hooks placed here and there around the room. The entire space heaved with old world charm, and I became swept up completely in the decadent atmosphere of a bygone era.
I began reading about the fashion designers and artists of those times; I wanted to absorb every detail, to be transported to another world. Everything was so delightful. I was mesmerised by images of Aubrey Beardsley’s fluid black ink drawings of the late 1800’s depicting the decadence of the Art Nouveau era. The tiny hand stitched pleats on Fortuny’s Delphos gown practically leapt out at me from the pages of glamorous fashion magazines, begging me to caress the silky, shimmery fabrics – if only I could have! Vibrant textiles in swathes of sky blues and olive greens awash with feathery motifs and delicate blooms designed by London’s infamous Bloomsbury Group dazzled my senses with their unorthodox colour combinations and wild, painterly style. I gazed at photos for hours imaging what life must have been like for artists and writers such as Vanessa Bell and her sister, the author and essayist Virginia Woolf. I understood very little about their lives, or the mysterious allure that seemed to surround the Bloomsbury set. I liked the paintings, the vivid colours and expressive motifs they used in their collective works inspired me. How beautiful and colourful they were and what a treat it must be to observe them in real life.
Nestled amongst the bucolic landscape of the South Downs National Park in Sussex is the 17th century stone farmhouse that in 1916 was to become the home and artistic residence of the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Over the years following the First World War Charleston became the focal point for the artists, writers, and intellectuals who formed what is now known as the Bloomsbury Group, named for their collective attachment to the Bloomsbury neighbourhood in central London, where many of the group lived and studied. The house became a living work of art as Vanessa and Duncan set about transforming the dark, damp interior into a mass of swirling patterns and colour. Every surface was treated as a blank canvas which were soon transformed with murals depicting curvaceous figures, abstract floral motifs, and swathes of vibrant hues. The house attracted many of the avant-garde thinkers of the day such as the English economist John Maynard Keynes, as well as literary greats such as E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. The works and outlook of the Bloomsbury Group deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality. Between them the group represented the radical end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the liberal generation of the 20th century. The evolving group of friends, colleagues, and partners blurred the lines between the norms of conventional living which sparked their contemporary, the American poet Dorothy Parker, to famously state “they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles“.
‘Leonard went over it, and says it’s a most delightful house and strongly advises you to take it . . . It has a charming garden, with a pond, and fruit trees, and vegetables, all now rather run wild, but you could make it lovely.’
– Virginia Woolf’s description of Charleston in a letter she wrote to her sister Vanessa Bell in 1916.
The artistry extended outwards into the adjacent walled garden where classical sculptures were interspersed between dense thickets of greenery, and whimsical mosaic pathways snaked passed garden beds filled with riotous displays of colourful blooms. Designed by the English painter and fellow Bloomsbury Roger Fry, the garden was an artistic haven in the summertime allowing the residents to paint en plein air as they watched nature unfurl before them. ‘The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes…lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples,’ wrote Vanessa Bell in 1936.
‘The house wants doing up and the wallpapers are awful.’ Said the sisters when they first saw the house. Since its construction sometime in the Seventeenth Century the house had become home to a succession of tenant farmers until Virginia Woolf and her husband, who lived nearby, recommended to Vanessa that she take up the lease. A world away from the overcrowded streets of London, the verdant, wide-open landscape of East Sussex was a startling and welcome contrast for Vanessa and her family. Looking for a wartime refuge for her unorthodox household of two little sons, Quentin and Julien, her lover and fellow Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant, and his boyfriend David ‘Bunny’ Garnet, the place seemed ideal. As conscientious objectors, Duncan and David set out to avoid conscription by looking for ‘work of national importance’ and started as labourers on local farms.
When I moved to London, almost fifteen years after I worked in that glorious little antique shop back in Brisbane, the fist destination I jotted down on my To Visit list was Charleston. I looked at Google Maps to determine how far away the house was from my new home in West London- could I get there easily without a car? No matter, where there is a will there is a way!. Dan and I caught the train down just before Christmas to coincide our visit with the annual Christmas Maker’s Market and the retrospective exhibition of paintings by Duncan Grant. The closest train station to Charleston is Lewes (pronounced Lewis not Loos as I kept calling it) a historical undulating hillside town full of half beam houses and wonky doors. During my research I read that the easiest way to get to Charleston from Lewes was by Taxi. Fortunately for us Bernie the taxi driver, an old punk rocker from way back, was parked outside the train station and eager to regale us with stories of Lewes and the surrounding countryside for the sixteen-minute drive to our final destination.
Bernie drove us down a long and winding dirt road until we reached the edge of the property where a staff member was waiting to direct visitors in through a metal gate whose sign read Private Property. As we stepped out from the taxi into the crisp morning air it was hard to believe we had been standing in the center of the city only hours before. I began to understand why the Bloomsbury Group had sought refuge here, away from the bustling city life; the changing landscape must have been an evolving source of inspiration for the creative minds that resided here.
To visit the interior of the house you must make a prior booking online for a time slot. The trust only allows a limited group of up to 12 people to enter the house at a time. Fortunately for us our tour booking was for 12:45 when everyone else seemed to be enjoying a leisurely lunch at the nearby café, therefore our only companions were a lovely mother and daughter duo and the slew of friendly and informative guides who occupied each room. Therefore, we could wander through the house easily within the 50 minute allocated time slot without ever feeling rushed. The vivid objects that I had only previously seen in photographs suddenly became a reality; bold, vibrant fabrics and thick, luscious oil paintings were now a wonderful reality. The overwhelming urge to reach out and brush every tactile surface with my fingertips was unrelenting.
Each room was more colourful and beautiful than the last and I could feel my head spinning from the sensory overload. My greedy eyes darted around the scenery trying desperately for somewhere to focus my attention, only to become instantly enticed by something else as equally inspiring. I tried my best to listen attentively to the guides’ well-rehearsed and very informative litany of information as it streamed into my consciousness, but to no avail. I was transfixed. This must be how actors feel when they first step foot inside a movie set. When Vanessa first moved her family here during the First World War the scene would have been very different to todays romanticised view of Charleston House. The residents lived for decades without hot water or an indoor loo, and central heating only arrived in the late 1930’s when Vanessa’s former husband the English art critic Clive Bell paid to have radiators installed throughout the house when he came to permanently reside at Charleston in 1939.
A lovely meander through the garden was our last view of Charleston and even in the throes of winter the grounds were still so beautiful. Photos taken during the warmer months show images of statuesque purple hollyhock amidst swathes of unrestrained daisies, potent jasmine, and exuberant rambling roses all encouraged to run wild. This was a painter’s garden, and as such reflected the aesthetics of the house; nothing here was supposed to be too refined or over controlled. The garden was joyous, and the energy of the interior spilled outdoors so that in summer the two spaces became one continuous artist’s studio. The garden as it was during the Bloomsbury heyday has been faithfully restored in recent years by Sir Peter Shepheard who ransacked paintings, photographs, and correspondence to provide evidence of how the grounds used to look. The garden had seen many transformations over the decades since Vanessa and Duncan first arrived at the property in 1916 when vanessa’s sister Virginia had warned them previously in a letter saying ‘a charming garden….now run rather wild’.
It delighted Vanessa to see her garden flourish and become an oasis for her children and their friends. In the summer of 1930 Vanessa wrote to Roger Fry:
‘The garden is incredibly beautiful, it’s full of reds of all kinds, scabious and hollyhocks and mallows and every kind of red from red lead to black. Pokers are coming out. It’s all in very good order and we have masses of plums and apples. I have of course begun by painting some flowers, it seems the inevitable way to begin here’.
I hope you enjoyed exploring Charleston with The Sunday Londoner. Have you ever visited this marvelous piece of English history? If you ever fortunate enough to travel to England I would highly recommend that you pop Charleston House and Garden at the very top of your must-do list. Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
Lewes BN8 6LL
How to get there
(as noted on Charleston’s website)
There is a regular service from London Victoria to Lewes which is seven miles from Charleston.
At Lewes there is a taxi rank and advance booking is not necessary unless arriving early in the morning or late at night.
Onward journey information from Lewes station can be found on the National Rail website.
The closest station to Charleston is Berwick, which is around four miles away. There are hourly trains from Brighton and Eastbourne to Berwick.
There is no taxi rank at Berwick.
There are signs to Charleston from the A27 Brighton to Eastbourne.
From the A27, you reach Charleston along a narrow country lane. There are deep ditches on either side and a very bumpy surface. Please take care!
Parking is free: follow the signs to the main car park. This is about 200m away from the entrance to the house.
There are a number of accessible spaces closer to the house (a 50m walk). Please follow the accessible parking signs.
Note: some sat navs get confused about the location. To avoid ending up somewhere unexpected, please refer to the directions above.