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Studio Shelf Charleston

Photograph with permission from The Charleston Trust

Charleston: Past, Present and Future

In September, Virginia Nicholson, granddaughter of the Bloomsbury Group’s Vanessa and Clive Bell, will be giving a talk at the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery, Charleston, Past, Present and Future, raising funds for local charity, The Sara Lee Trust. HOT’s Zelly Restorick spoke to her about her personal connections and recollections.

In 1916, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant became tenants at Charleston, a farmhouse in Firle, Sussex, unaware that in later years, their home would be attracting 35,000 visitors a year. I asked Virginia how they might have felt about this phenomenon.

“I don’t think my grandparents or friends would have had any idea of Charleston as it is today. It would have been impossible for them to imagine it open to the public. They’d be incredibly surprised and I hope they’d be tickled that it’s been such an extraordinary success. I think people who come to Charleston respond really powerfully to their creativity and their pioneering way of living.”

Virginia Nicholson

Photo with permission from Virginia Nicholson.

I mentioned the following quote from Virginia’s website, referring to this pioneering spirit and qualities and ideas, as pertinent and as much-needed today as they were a century ago.

“I was brought up to accept much of what Bloomsbury stands for… tolerance, reason, freedom of speech, non-violence, equality, friendship. I continue to admire many of the values represented by my grandparents’ generation. They were pioneers. I think that Vanessa Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and their associates were in many ways ahead of their time – and in certain respects, the world has still not caught up with their ideas.”

“One tends to think that the world progresses,” said Virginia, “but it doesn’t. It swings from progress to Puritanism and back again. One would like to think that the human race becomes more liberal and understanding, but unfortunately reactionary forces are still alive and well today. So it’s important that Bloomsbury’s legacy is kept alive.”

The unconventionality of the relationships at Charleston is a much-discussed theme. I asked about the importance of friendship to the group, in maintaining their deep connections.

“Friendship is the key to understanding them. The Bloomsbury Group wasn’t a club, it was a loose-knit group of people who got on with each other. They admired each other, and were fascinated by each other. They shared so many views in common and worked to maintain them. Many of them were writers and journalists… Conversation – and setting down one’s thoughts – is how ideas are maintained and cemented. Friendship was very deep in them.”

Virginia Nicholson

Photo with permission from Virginia Nicholson

Virginia is herself a writer of social history, choosing to write books about Charleston, the home where she spent many of her summer holidays, and about the Bohemians – exploring the subculture of those who ‘declared war on Victorian conformity, the rebels and free spirits of the artistic community from 1900–1939. She has also written about subjects unrelated to Bloomsbury, such as the phenomenon of the ‘surplus women’ of WWI, and the experiences of women during WWII.

Vanessa Bell wasn’t one of WWI’s ‘surplus women’, marrying Clive Bell in 1907 and having two children. What part did this war play in their lives? Was Charleston a place where conscientious objectors worked?

Charleston House

Photograph with permission from The Charleston Trust

“Duncan Grant was a conscientious objector, as was Clive Bell and my uncle, David Garnett and Lytton Strachey. They were all adamant pacifists. They had to explain to a tribunal their reasons and were sent to do ‘work of national importance’, which was their reason to go to Charleston, as it was a farm. They’d been working on a fruit farm in Suffolk, but decided to move to Sussex, partly to be nearer to Virginia Woolf, [Vanessa Bell’s sister]. It was Virginia Woolf who found the house, writing to Vanessa ‘I wish you’d take Charleston… It’s a most delightful house [with] a charming garden, but you could make it lovely.’ They moved there in 1916, and Grant and Garnett worked on the nearby farm. The work was extremely tough; the men suffered from malnutrition, lost weight, and were exhausted… It wasn’t the easy option.”

I asked how the local residents had treated them. Were they ostracised?

“They really were in the middle of nowhere. There was nobody really within reach to disapprove of them.”

Was it this remoteness that had enabled them to live as they did, away from judgement and criticism?

“It wasn’t deliberate to be remote. The minute the war was over, they went back to London and they still went their own way. My father [Quentin Bell] said that he always knew his parents’ way of life was totally different to other people’s. When he was growing up in Gordon Square, theirs was the only house with a red front door.”

How long had her family actually lived at Charleston?

“They took on the house in 1916. And then in the early 1920s, Vanessa Bell negotiated a long lease on the house, because they loved it and it was used for holidays. They spent most of their summers there in the years between the wars. With the Second World War and the Blitz, they moved to Charleston permanently… Vanessa Bell was bombed out of her studio in Fitzroy Street and Charleston became her primary base until her death. And Duncan Grant stayed there till his death in 1979.”

Levitating lady

Photo with permission from The Charleston Trust

“Vanessa Bell died when I was six,”, continued Virginia, “but Duncan Grant died when I was in my twenties. He was someone who was always young at heart. He didn’t stagnate or fossilize. He remained open to new ideas – and he loved young people. He certainly wasn’t one of those who sat around harrumphing about the younger generation.”

I asked how it feels to have had private and personal experiences of Charleston and yet now it is a museum, open to an increasing number of visitors?

Virginia Nicholson

Photo with permission from Virginia Nicholson

“It’s strange, but I’ve become very used to it. I give it a lot of my time. I’m Deputy Chair of the Charleston Trust. I stay as involved as possible. As well as being open to the public, we hold festivals and workshops and have visitors coming from all over the world… And yet it still is the Charleston I’ve always known. The house even smells the same… of oil paint, turpentine, and old books. We deliberately have no labels, signs, or ropes… The rooms are exactly the same as they’d been left. Duncan Grant’s cigarette butts are still in the stove in the studio. It feels to me just as if they’ve popped out and will be back soon.

“And I believe we’ve achieved something remarkable in creating this feeling. When restoration began, the place was infested with dry rot, wet rot, death watch beetle… All of the rooms had to be dismantled, bit by bit and then everything was put back, exactly as it had been. For example, the hand-painted wallpapers were painstakingly removed and stored in London. At the time, it was thought to be one of the most extraordinary feats of restoration in the UK.”

And the project is ongoing. Charleston is expanding, explained Virginia. “We want to carry on doing what we’re doing, just more and better. £7m is needed for the new building and restoration work included in the Centenary Project. The Heritage Lottery Fund have granted us £2.4 million, and we’ve now raised a total of £4.2 million. But of course, any of your readers with a spare million should get in touch’, she added playfully.

Charleston is certainly an incredibly atmospheric place to visit – and inspirational, filling your heart with ideas for decorating furniture, painting walls something other than a single flat colour and seeing your home as a palette for your unique, personal creativity.

Virginia’s talk raises money for the Sara Lee Trust, an independent local charity providing complementary therapies, counselling and creative therapies for people in Hastings and Rother living through cancer and other serious illness with support for families and carers.

Virginia Nicholson

Photo with permission from Virginia Nicholson

Charleston – Past, Present and Future
Tuesday 17 September, 2pm
Hastings Museum and Art Gallery,
John’s Place, Bohemia Road
Hastings, TN34 1ET
Tickets cost £10 and include a glass of sparkling wine

To book, please email
or call Maria in 01424 456608


For further information:
Virginia Nicholson here.
Charleston here.
The Charleston Centenary Project here.
Hastings Museum and Art Gallery here.
The Sara Lee Trust here.


Posted 21:09 Monday, Sep 2, 2013 In: Arts News

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