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Charleston Farm House

The Bloombury set is inextricably linked with that part of London once Thoby Stephen, brother of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, moved to 46 Gordon Square. Its actual origins are to be found at Trinity College Cambridge which Thoby Stephen, Clive Bell, his cousin Lytton Strachey all attended at the turn of the nineteenth century.

However Charleston House near Lewes was as important as fulcrum for this artistically creative group that defied the social, sexual and artistic conventions and codes of Victorian England.

Virginia Woolf had already moved to West Sussex and in 1912 urged her sister Vanessa to move to nearby Charleston House. She moved there in 1916 though her husband Clive remained in Garsington the home of the Morrells as their marriage was over and Vanessa cohabited there mainly platonically with the gay painter Duncan Grant who moved his lover David Garnett in.

The Bloomsburys did not do divorce – they reorganised – and by all accounts she enjoyed a happy relationship with Clive and an artistically fulfilling one with Grant for 60 years though bizarrely she had a daughter by him (Angelica) who married his lover David Garnett.

After Vanessa died in 1961 Grant and Bell lived on in the house. It now has had a gallery and cafe recently added to it and yesterday I led a National Rust party to visit.

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were attracted to Charleston initially in 1916 as he could avoid conscription through arduous agricultural labour in the farm owned adjacently by Lord Gage. His gathering of raspberries in the previous home did not qualify.

It is a remote house on a dirt track needing repair off the A27 near to Firle. The house is small and pretty with a pond and walled garden. Vanessa had to undertake much refurbishment as the previous tenants kept animals in it. It was cold and had neither electricity nor phone. It was a bleak existence which the housekeeper Grace Higgins, who resided there for 50 years, did her best to alleviate. However arduous the existence of Charleston might have been the ambiance must have been warmed by the fascinating visitors.

T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Benjamin Britten and Clive Bell and his lover Mary Hutchinson, Lytton Strachey with his male lover Ralph Partridge and his female one Dora Carrington would dine at 8.00pm at the circular table with murals painted by Bell and Grant, ceramics by her son Quentin.

More than any famous house I have visited I felt the presence of its inhabitants.

The nearest I got to this feeling was the bedroom of Anne Frank whose picture of Ray Milland is still on the wall.

Our tour guide was excellent. In the kitchen she showed us photos of the key characters. We were moved by her telling of the sadness of Vanessa when her beloved son Julian was killed as an ambulance driver in 1937 on the Republican side.

Grant lived to the ripe old age of 93. Both were keen art collectors. Clive Bell coined the phrase “post impressionist” and Vanessa’s erstwhile lover Roger Fry put on two ground-breaking exhibitions at the Grafton Gallery which reshaped the Victorian loathing of French art.

Both Fry and Bell were the leading art critics of the age and Bell and Grant both had a fine eye. Bell and Grant acquired some of them including a Picasso of which they kept a copy and sold a Poussin to Anthony Blunt.

The strong message for me is that an artistic spirit can and does flourish in an “anything goes” ambience. The cooperation of 60 years between Grant and Bell was one of the most enduring ones in art. You can feel this in the studio where they set out their easels together listening to music with the views over the garden.

Apart from a display of plates honouring great women created by Bell and Grant commissioned by Kenneth Clark, the other exhibit of photography in the Gallery was underwhelming.

About Nancy Bright-Thompson

A widely-respected travel editor, Nancy is a past president of the Guild of Travel Writers (GTW). She and her husband Phil now run a horse sanctuary in East Sussex. More Posts