On a beautifully warm and sunny day recently I visited Charleston - a rather unique farmhouse situated near Lewes, Sussex. Once the home of artist Vanessa Bell, her husband Clive Bell, her artist friend and lover Duncan Grant, their collective children and countless other creatives of the day, Charleston is perhaps best known as a famous haunt of the Bloomsbury set. Inside, almost every surface of the house is painted with Bell and Grant's signature marks of cross hatch, circles and more. Doors and door frames, fireplaces, walls - even the spines of box files - almost nothing escaped the paint brush and I defy anyone to step through the doors of Charleston and not feel hugely inspired!
Our guide, Angie, was fantastic and really brought the house to life with tales of life at Charleston. Vanessa Bell's sister Virginia Woolf (who lived at nearby Monks House) was a regular visitor, as were other such creatives and visionaries of the era - many of whom are depicted in portraits by Bell and Grant throughout the house. What I particularly loved about Charleston was the feeling that these people were serious about art, but not precious about it. Things didn't have to be perfect - you could see dribbles of paint running from chevrons and lines painted on the walls; shapes didn't have to be precise. A room once used as Vanessa's bedroom (before being turned into a library for Clive Bell), had walls painted black and Indian red - quite a departure for a woman who grew up in a strict Victorian household. Above the window, Vanessa's on-off lover Duncan Grant had painted a cockerel to wake her; below the window a dog to guard her. A tender and fun detail. For me, the highlight of the tour was definitely the art studio - such a wonderfully light space enthused with so much creative energy! I found myself wishing everyone else on the tour would melt away for a while so I could have a good rummage, set up an easel and get painting! I must admit, as soon as I got home I did get my art materials out and start painting for the first time in quite a while.
Photography is not allowed in the house, but the grardens were also beautiful so I hope you enjoy these shots I took . . .
Above: The art studio (at the rear of the shot).
In all, it Charleston is an inspiring place to visit, particularly if you have any interest in art - or unusual old properties. This collection of people clearly lived life as they wanted - they didn't have conventional relationships, rules of house or ways of doing things, and we can only be thankful that this wonderfully painted portrait of the past has been preserved for us to enjoy all these years later.
Related posts: Monks House (home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf).