SOS! The beautiful Sussex retreat of the Bloomsbury Set needs your help. We outline its history and how to donate to the Emergency Appeal.

‘It’s most lovely, very solid and simple, with perfectly flat windows and wonderful tiled roofs. The pond is most beautiful, with a willow at one side and a stone or flint wall edging it all round the garden part, and a little lawn sloping down to it, with formal bushes on it’. So wrote the artist and writer Vanessa Bell about her country retreat in East Sussex, Charleston Farmhouse. It was her home and that of her lover, Duncan Grant, and they cherished it, making it a bohemian repository of beautiful artwork and interiors.

Bell, Grant and their friend David Garnett – known as ‘Bunny’, also Grant’s lover – arrived at Charleston in October 1916, with Bell’s two sons by her husband Clive Bell in tow. They were conscientious objectors, sensitive souls averting their gaze from the horrors of World War One, and seeking to create an idyll that would chime with their ideals of libertarianism and the eschewal of polite society. More pressingly and prosaically, Grant and Garnett needed to find jobs to avoid arrest for their conscientious objection, which they duly did courtesy of a local farm – roles that appeared to have left them with ample time for their considerable creative endeavours. The fact that Bell’s sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, lived nearby at Rodmell made it the obvious choice. Indeed, it was Woolf who first noticed that Charleston was available to rent, writing to Bell that ‘the house wants doing up – and the wallpapers are awful. But it sounds a most attractive place.’

Almost as soon as this odd trio arrived, they began decorating the house, tearing down those awful wallpapers, painting motifs onto its walls and daubing ample nudes onto its fireplaces (their landlord was, happily, a phlegmatic sort). Bell said, ‘It will be an odd life…but it ought to be a good one for painting.’ And so it proved; their influences were eclectic, drawing inspiration from the post-Impressionists right through to classical Italian art, although always with a touch of English humour. The way, for example, that the statues are dotted around the garden, as if in conversation with one another, undercuts the pomposity that such displays are sometimes stuck with.

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It’s the final day of #MuseumsUnlocked and we’d love to hear your Charleston memories and why the preservation of Charleston is important to you ????? ? 1?? Tweet or Instagram a photo of Charleston and tag us @charlestontrust ? ? 2?? Include a caption with the hashtag #MuseumsUnlocked? ? 3?? Share a link time our website so that people can find out more about our emergency appeal: ? ????: Charleston dining room © Penelope Fewster? ? #charlestontrust #charlestonhouse #charlestongarden #duncangrant #vanessabell #virginiawoolf #bloomsburygroup #bloomsburyart #modernartists #sussexmodern #artdaily #museumcrush #museumfromhome #igdaily #artistshouse #postimpressionism #savecharleston

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Bell and Grant soon invited their friends to visit, and many spent near-indefinite amounts of time at the farmhouse. The most notable of these was the painter and critic Roger Fry, who had had an affair with Bell before she met Grant. Fry’s interest in post-Impressionism translated into bold and unusual design, especially in the form of items from the Omega Workshop, which Fry had founded along with Bell and Grant in the belief that artists should be in charge of their own commercial fortunes. The furniture that decorated Charleston mainly came from Omega Workshops and was a finely designed mixture of the functional and the decorative; Fry had it as his guiding principle that there should be no distinction between the decorative and the fine arts. The products were of very high quality, but expensive and too esoteric for the average home; however, they found their place at Charleston, and remain a testament to Fry’s complex visual imagination.

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What’s your favourite view of Charleston? This weekend (2-3 May), we’re taking part in the #MuseumsUnlocked Fundraiser on Twitter to support our emergency appeal.??? ??? ????Join us! ??? ??? 1. Tweet your favourite photo of Charleston and tag our Twitter account (@CharlestonTrust)??? ??? 2. Tell everyone what Charleston means to you with the hashtag #MuseumsUnlocked ??? ??? 3. Include a link to our website so that people can make a donation ( ?? ? ? And don’t worry if you’re not on Twitter, share away on Instagram instead! ? We can’t wait to see all your photos and Charleston musings ?????? ?? ????: a beautiful springtime view of the garden path by our gardener Harry ?????? ??? #charlestontrust #charlestonhouse #bloomsburygroup #vanessabell #duncangrant #bloomsburyset #charlestongarden #covid19fundraiser #covidfundraising #museumfromhome #artdaily #museumcrush #sussexmodern

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In pre-pandemic times, visitors to Charleston were likely to be struck by the riot of colour that decorates virtually every room, from the Fry-designed studio that Grant and Bell worked in to the murals and hand-drawn stencils that cover the walls. It was soon a very far cry from the ‘awful’ wallpaper that Virginia Woolf had noticed; instead, the emphasis was on replacing the drab Edwardian conformity with a vivid palette and bold imagination, such as the still life that replaced a boring fireplace in the Garden Room, or the painting of Bell’s much-loved lurcher dog Henry, which still decorates the wall of her bedroom.

The house was never intended to be a finished product, but a living, breathing testament to the artistic imagination of Bell, Grant and their friends. That its dining room walls are black, its bathroom mint-green and a dining table is coloured salmon pink might have been a disaster in the hands of less able artists. That it works is demonstration of the deft lightness of touch that Bell and Grant were so naturally possessed of. Charleston quickly became one of the most sought-after invitations in England, a place for simpatico bohemian minds to retreat, armed with a paintbrush or a notebook; notable guests included TS Eliot and EM Forster.

In its afterlife as a public attraction for disciples of the Bloomsbury Group and for interiors enthusiasts, it has attracted thousands of visitors a year, seduced by the rare imagination and offbeat design that epitomised the work of the so-called Bloomsbury Group, a set of British artists, writers and bohemians who changed the way that we think about the country house, and its interiors.

But today, Charleston is in trouble. As with so many cultural bastions, Covid-19 has caused long-term closure to visitors in addition to the cancellation of its all-important Charleston Festival, which usually sees world-renowned thinkers, writers and artists come together to debate subjects ranging from politics to philosophy to history and beyond to art and the media.

If you would like to help save Charleston Farmhouse for future generations, do consider donating to its Emergency Appeal. As it explains, ‘Charleston is a charity which receives no public funding. We value our independence, but we are also painfully aware of how exposed we are. It costs over £1m a year to conserve the house and garden, to give a platform to important conversations, art and ideas through our festivals, events and exhibition programmes, and to open and share Charleston with our visitors.’

High profile supporters include Molly Mahon, Neisha Crosland, Annie Sloan, Cressida Bell (look out for her guest edit, coming soon), Kristin Perers, Lottie Cole and Emily Maude. Let’s share Charleston’s plight and join their ranks. It is, after all, a truly one-off place that, once lost, will be lost forever.

By Nancy Alsop
October 2020


Sign The National Nature Service’s Declaration
Annie Sloan
Molly Mahon

Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.