Charleston Farmhouse, the country home of the Bloomsbury Group, is a unique example of Vanessa Bell and Ducan Grant’s decorative style within a domestic context, and it represents the realization of over sixty years of artistic creativity.
In 1916, the two artists moved to the village of Firle, in East Sussex, with their unconventional household. Inspired by the Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists, they decorated the walls, doors and furniture at Charleston. The walled garden was redesigned in a style reminiscent of southern Europe, with mosaics, box hedges, gravel pathways and ponds, but with a touch of Bloomsbury humour in the placing of the statuary.
Charleston became the country meeting place for the group of artists, writers and intellectuals that were the members of the Bloomsbury group – Garnett, Clive and Vanessa Bell, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Maynard Keynes, Desmond MacCarthy, Lytton Strachey and Virginia and Leonard Woolf, among others. Some lived in Charleston for considerable periods of time, while others, despite not living there, were frequent visitors.
The rooms on show form a complete example of the decorative art of the Bloomsbury artists: murals, painted furniture, ceramics, paintings and textiles. The collection includes works by Auguste Renoir, Picasso, Derain, Matthew Smith, Sickert, Stephen Tomlin and Eugène Delacroix.
Charleston Farmhouse’s walled garden was created by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to designs by Roger Fry. Together, they transformed vegetable plots and hen runs, essential to the household during the First World War, into a quintessential planted garden, mixing Mediterranean influences with cottage garden planting.
In the 1920s, a grid of gravel paths gave structure to beds of plants chosen by Grant and Bell for their intense colour and silver foliage. These became the subject of many still lives over their long residence at Charleston.
Dora Carrington wrote of the garden, “Never, never have I seen quite such a wonderful place! … What excellent things there will be to paint in that garden with the pond and buildings.”
However, part of the garden’s sense of luxuriance and surprise comes not from its flora but from the variety of sculptures it contains. Classical forms sit side by side with life-size works by Quentin Bell, mosaic pavements and tile edged pools. Above all, this was a summer garden for playing and painting, an enchanted retreat from the busy London life.
As Vanessa Bell wrote in 1936, “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.”
Learning about Charleston and the members of the Bloomsbury group who inhabited this incredible place made me want to visit it one day and become inspired, if not by the same sightings and landscapes that also inspired these artists, then for the artwork they left there.