The painted house
On a visit to Charleston — home to eminent artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell — ANURADHA ROY basks in the aesthetics of everyday life embodied in the heritage building.
Photo: Anuradha Roy
The Charleston Farm
Ninety-three years ago Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister Vanessa Bell: “I wish you’d leave Wisset and take Charleston … it has a charming garden, a pond, & fruit trees, and vegetables, all now rather wild, but you could make it lovely… The house is very nice with large rooms…”
Today, Charleston, 2 hours away from London and 7 miles from Lewes in Sussex, is advertised as “An Artists Home and Garden”, and on this flower-filled June afternoon there are students bent over etchings at a workshop in one part of the house while the rest of it, restored as a museum, is open to visitors. In the kitchen, the only room still in its original use, women sit chatting, the big white Aga is warm, and lines of colourful mugs hang from the wall. It has the feel of a common room, far removed from the bohemia of its original occupants.
In January 1916, two years into the First World War, Britain passed a conscription bill. All able-bodied unmarried men were required to enlist. By this time the Bloomsbury Group — a title retrospectively given to friends of the Woolfs who gathered to discuss art at their house in London’s Bloomsbury — included E. M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, J. M. Keynes; the majority were conscientious objectors to the war and fought to avoid conscription. Vanessa, married to Clive Bell, with whom she had two children, now lived with the homosexual artist Duncan Grant and his lover David Garnett. Grant and Garnett were exempted from military service provided they became full-time agricultural workers. Charleston was ideal: it was a house attached to a farm that could provide work to the two men.
The valley of Charleston sits under the shoulder of the Downs which separate it from the English Channel. It is still mainly agricultural, as it was when Vanessa moved there to the spartan 17th-century farmhouse of flint and brick, with a hand-pump for water and no electricity or telephone. When Virginia Woolf first visited her sister at Charleston, she found “nothing but wind and rain and no coal in the cellar”.
Photo: Anuradha Roy
Monk’s House from the side.
In time, the house became a hub for the artistic activities of the Omega workshop, Roger Fry’s London design studio. Omega believed in introducing art into the domestic. Textiles, ceramics, furniture, rugs, tiles, clothing, even book covers came within its ambit. The covers — often unsuitable and clumsy — that Vanessa Bell designed for Virginia’s books share a curious kinship with the decorated fireplaces, bedheads, and bathtubs at Charleston. Over the years, as Grant and Bell painted the rooms and furniture, the house itself became an Omega artefact, embodying an approach to life that sought out hedonism, wit, beauty and play.
There is not a table, bathtub, lampshade, cupboard or door that does not tell a story at Charleston. The walls are hung with paintings by members of the Bloomsbury group or gifts from visitors. There are many artists here, Renoir, Sickert, and Picasso among them, and the collection is constantly renewed by the Charleston Trust. Near the house is the tiny Berwick Church, which feels more playful than sacred because of the bright murals by Grant and other Bloomsbury artists that decorate its arches.
About four miles from Charleston is Monk’s House. One morning in 1919, Virginia Woolf stormed out of Charleston after a quarrel with her sister and, in what must surely be an unusual response to annoyance with a sibling, she bought a nearby windmill. The Woolfs had been looking for a house to buy, but Virginia’s husband Leonard, though gentle about his wife’s impulsive purchase, was firm about not living in a converted windmill. On their way to it they looked with longing at “an unpretending house, long and low, a house of many doors” in a village called Rodmell, a few miles from Charleston. They had often peeped into the garden of this house, over the wall that separated it from an ancient church. This time they noticed, the house was for sale.
Today, Monk’s House too is a museum and when you look over that wall, you see exactly what the Woolfs did then: a part of the house, and acres of the garden that Virginia had described in a letter to her sister: “raspberry bushes with pale little pyramids of fruit….the lawn a refuge in cold and storm.” It was in the garden that she eventually got a lodge built for herself to sleep and work in, so that she could look at the stars on sleepless nights.
Virginia did not always approve of Omega, though she patronised it. She disliked their “stripes of the vilest kind…which almost wrenched my eyes from the sockets”, and once bought bright yellow chair covers with a “painful staring check” which she later hated so much that she would not allow people to visit her until she had acquired fabric to cover them with. Even so, Monk’s House came to be furnished and decorated much as Charleston was, and its curtains, upholstery, crockery, all came from Omega.
Yet in character the two houses were quite distinct. Charleston was a large, unruly household, with Vanessa, Grant, Garnett, a governess and her lover, five children, a cook, kitchen maid. In contrast, at Monk’s House were dogs and books, and a regime governed by Leonard to protect Virginia’s fragile mental health. “It was disorderly,” Vanessa’s son Quentin Bell says of Charleston, where he grew up, “and might fairly be called disreputable; but the atmosphere was congenial and in some moods, comparing it with her own … irreproachable domesticity, Virginia could find it enviably romantic.”
Photo: Anuradha RoyPhoto: Tony Tree@ Courtesy of The Charleston Trust
Duncan Grant’s studio, fireplace and chair
Romantic and disreputable it was: it had a succession of eminent visitors, from Keynes and Roger Fry (who designed its glorious garden, filling it with flowers, sculpture, ponds and paths) to Lytton Strachey. It was the location for liaisons between the same set in seemingly inexhaustible combinations. Watching from a distance, Virginia Woolf yearned for the happy clamour of her sister’s life even though she was exasperated by the “cursed shrill voices” of children at the school next door to Monk’s House. In moments of gloom those voices, “saying the multiplication tables in unison”, made her brood over her own childlessness.
As Charleston’s walls filled with murals, Virginia Woolf was thinking out answers to the question that must strike most of its present-day visitors: did your manner of living, the aesthetics of your cups, plates and chair covers, the books you read and pictures you liked, embody your attitude to life? Woolf’s biographer Hermione Lee has an interesting section on this in her book, where she points out how Woolf’s novel, Night and Day, is full of thoughts about interiors and homes.
Roger Fry died in 1934, leaving an enormous emptiness in all their lives, especially Vanessa’s, who had once been his lover. To Virginia, who later became Fry’s first biographer, it seemed as if her sister had been widowed by his death and “a thin, blackish veil” had been spread over everything. In 1941, the year after her biography of Fry was published, she had another nervous breakdown. “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again… I cant [sic]fight it any longer,” she wrote in a note to Leonard a day before she killed herself. After Vanessa’s death twenty years later, Duncan Grant spent his last years confined to the studio at Charleston, leaving the rest of it to decay. He died in 1978 and was buried next to Vanessa. Their house was rescued and restored years later, in the 1980s, as was Fry’s garden, now once more an explosion of scent and colour.
Today, Charleston has the touch-me-not feel of a home that has been turned into a relic. Where every rug and fireplace is a work of art, you have to step with the greatest care, avoiding bits of precious carpet and fragile doors. A sense of intruding on private lives hangs in the air: to peep at still-plump beds that once saw such swift turnover, at dining tables that seem just-vacated. And it is hard not to feel at Monk’s House the frequent unhappiness of being Virginia Woolf, with the landscape of the village apparently unchanged, and, close at hand, the river Ouse that she drowned herself in. As if to rub in the continuity, a flock of chirruping infants from a school next door run past Monk’s House as I look at it over the wall, just as the Woolfs had when they first saw their future home.
Despite the artistic richness of Charleston, it is a relief to flee into sunlight and open air. Firle Beacon, commanding the Sussex Downs, is two miles away. It is a hillocky vantage point from which you can glimpse the different blues of sea and sky towards Brighton and the tip of the Glyndebourne Opera house. There are shades and shades of green meadowed slopes in between, dotted with bleating white sheep and black cows. A gusty wind whips words and breath away and brings the day into the freshly-minted present, out of the haunted past.
Photo: Tony Tree@ Courtesy of The Charleston Trust
The Garden Room, armchair and screen
Charleston is open in 2009 from 1 April to 1 November. It is best to check http://www.charleston.org.uk for travel details and opening times and days before planning a trip.
For Monk’s House, please check http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-monkshouse
Anuradha Roy’s novel An Atlas Of Impossible Longing has been shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2008.
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