TOAST Magazine

Walking to Charleston Farmhouse


Grace Linden tells the story of Charleston Farmhouse, and the Bloomsbury circle that inhabited in it...

Vanessa Bell first began to spend time in East Sussex Downs on the recommendation of her sister, Virginia Woolf, who, with her husband Leonard, had been leasing Asheham House near Beddingham since 1910. For a while, the two sisters and their families spent much time there together, where, in spite its remoteness, they received a steady stream of visitors from their Bloomsbury circle of artists, writers, philosophers, and intellectuals. 

By 1915, Vanessa had started to search for her own countryside retreat though it was the Woolfs, however, who would find Charleston, a house which possessed ‘a garden [that] could be made lovely’. Its only noticeable drawbacks were the decaying bathroom, lack of hot water, and a cesspool which overwhelmed the tennis court.

Like Asheham House, Charleston was equally isolated and inconvenient to reach, surrounded by tall trees, flint walls, wide, turfy fields, and far from prying neighbours; in addition to her family, which included her husband Clive and children Quentin and Julian, Vanessa was also living with Duncan Grant and his partner David Garnett. (Two years later, at the end of World War I, Angelica was born, the daughter of Vanessa and Duncan who, in true Bloomsbury form, would go on to marry David.) 

The bathroom and hot water problems were somewhat remedied after the war ended. As for the rest of the house, almost immediately, Duncan and Vanessa began to paint the walls in vivid geometries and floral patterns. The rooms were filled with paintings by Picasso and Renoir, plus objects from the Omega Workshops, the initiative opened by Roger Fry which sold the designs of the Bloomsbury Group. In the upstairs bathroom, the tub is decorated in Delacroix-inspired panels.

Vanessa and Duncan’s studio, which was added in 1925, was the heart of the home. Angelica called it a ‘citadel’. ‘It was here,’ she remembered, 'that I felt the most important things would happen’. The large, bright room was painted neutral tones so as not to interfere with the artists’ work. Still the space is far from spare. 

Ornate caryatids flank a tiled fireplace. Shelves overflow with ceramic and glass figurines. Like many of the other rooms, there are books everywhere. The studio led directly onto the garden which had been designed by Roger Fry, who, along with John Maynard Keynes, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey, was among Charleston’s many visitors. For almost four decades, the house was the boisterous heart of English bohemian life.

‘Unless you are a pedestrian,’ Quentin noted, ‘it is almost inevitable that you will come to Charleston by the Lewes-Eastbourne road, turning south towards the hills at the junction known as Swingates,’ Improbably, however, we came to Charleston by foot, having spent the morning hiking along Firle Beacon, and so approached the house from the back, swooping down into the blooming greens and pinks of the garden. 

When Vanessa moved into the house in 1916, the land around Charleston was uncultivated, and walking reinforced this sense of wilful seclusion: the sounds and smells were of a leafy sort, what Angelica called ‘the sounds of the country…which were not only visible but could be felt’. It was spring and the hyacinths had just begun to wilt and fade. But there were primroses, cowslips, tulips, and daffodils, Bowl of Beauty peonies, Byzantine Gladiolas, and Eleanor Roosevelt irises. Soon apple and pear trees would blossom. The weekend was warm, bathed in the kind of sunshine that feels heavy.

Vanessa died in 1961 and Clive just three years later. Duncan continued to live there until 1978 and Angelica until 1980, whereupon the Charleston Trust was formed to restore and maintain the home as both a time capsule and testament to a bygone world. Today, each room has been meticulously restored, every knickknack and sticky paintbrush faithfully arranged as if a throng of guests and residents were about to burst through the dining room door. 

In Maynard’s bedroom, a colourful chest overflows with linens, while the cubbyholes of Vanessa’s desk house papers, a camera, and photographs of her parents. Charleston pulses with life. It is a sensation perhaps best summed up the writer Francis Partridge. When asked to about her visit to the farmhouse, she said, ‘I can only try to evoke the impression I got on first entering the hall as a visitor – the strong feeling of life being intensely and purposefully lived, of animated talk, laughter, brilliant colour everywhere, youth’.

Words by Grace Linden. 

Imagery by Penelope Fewster, Axel Hesslenburg and gardener of Charleston Farmhouse, Harry Hoblyn. 

In series 3 of the TOAST Podcast, you can listen to the life and story of pioneer Vanessa Bell. Laura Barton meets the curator of Charleston Dr Darren Clarke, head gardener Fiona Dennis, and Bell’s granddaughter, the writer Virginia Nicholson.

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