House of Love
Words Mark Hooper
Photographs Amber Rowlands
The artistic HQ of the Bloomsbury set opens its doors once more to the magical art of conversation… Nestled at the foot of the South Downs near the East Sussex village of Firle, Charleston has, over the past century, become something of a pilgrimage site for fans of the influential collective of artists, writers and thinkers who gravitated there. It was the artist Vanessa Bell who first settled here in 1916, together with the artist Duncan Grant and his lover, the writer and publisher David ‘Bunny’ Garnett (Vanessa’s husband, the critic and historian Clive Bell, arrived later, in 1939).
As members of the Bloomsbury group – together with Vanessa’s sister, Virginia Woolf – Bell and Grant’s home has come to stand for a certain type of freedom and unconventionality, with a magical hold for many. Among the extended Charleston ‘family’ were the writers Lytton Strachey and EM Forster, the artist and critic Roger Fry and the economist John Maynard Keynes. The circle was truly revolutionary in its thought: Keynes wrote his seminal The Economic Consequences of the Peace while staying here. Fry was largely responsible for introducing the work of Gauguin, Matisse, Van Gogh et al to largely unimpressed British audience in his 1910 exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists (a phrase he coined).
The open-mindedness extended to sexuality in a society still recovering from Victorian mores. Vanessa Bell had affairs with both Fry and Grant: the latter fathered her daughter Angelica – a fact she didn’t discover until she was 18, having been brought up believing Clive Bell was her father. To further confuse matters, Angelica eventually married Garnett – her real father’s lover. The death of her son Julian in the Spanish Civil War affected Bell deeply, but her other son, Quentin, established his own reputation as an artist, ceramicist and art historian.
Over the years, the house has often been photographed in celebration of its unique, hand-painted interiors, its furniture (much of it designed by Fry’s Omega Workshop) and its seductive walled garden.
But in the spirit of Charleston, we thought we’d try something a little different: inviting a unique gathering of inspiring people, each with links to the house, to sit around the kitchen table and discuss what this enchanting house means to them…
‘Bloomsbury is almost as famous for its sexual intrigue as it is for its enormous influence in the art world.’
Mark Divall, Charleston head gardener
The late Anne Olivier Bell, widow of Quentin and Monuments Men member
MD: When I first came to Charleston, we were told that the gardens and the house were supposed to look how they did in the 1950s, which I think is the time you first arrived here, Olivier?
OB: When did you come?
MD: Oh not then! My first sight of Charleston was 1985. So you pull rank on me there.
OB: You’ve been here longer than anyone else except me! I came first in 1950 as a visitor to sit for Vanessa Bell, and stayed for a weekend. I was in the Arts Council and met Vanessa at a party in London. I’d been told she never wanted to speak to anyone she didn’t know, but she was absolutely charming and delightful. I think Duncan Grant met me at the station, I was terrified!
I sat by the window and Vanessa started painting. Quentin sat outside the window and had a lump of clay and started to model me, too. That happened for two mornings and all the rest of the day I used to sit in the garden reading books. Then we’d have a nice lunch or perhaps a little walk. I must have come two or three times. And of course in the end I married Quentin.
MD: Of course! I suppose when you came all of the french doors and windows would be open; it wouldn’t be divided between house and garden, the two would have flowed in together. Which you obviously can’t have now. The scent of all the flowers would be wafting throughout the house.
OB: We always had flowers in the drawing room, at either end of the mantelpiece; those lovely blue vases, always full of flowers. Now of course they don’t allow it in case a bit of water drops onto the mantelpiece.
MD: Yes, we now have four designated areas that are allowed for flowers!
OB: Not on the drawing room table? It loses a good deal of the feel of the house.
MD: Of course it comes from good intentions. We have to cut the male bits off lily flowers too so they don’t brush off on anyone or stain anything!
I hope you don’t mind me saying – I have a wonderful memory of [Olivier and Quentin’s daughter] Virginia’s wedding; all these tables wonderfully laid out, with the flowers in Quentin’s vases, and bit by bit one noticed that the water was seeping out onto the tables – because he wasn’t terribly good at waterproofing them was he?
OB: No, he wasn’t a very competent potter! But you had to change the garden back to how it used to be didn’t you? Because it had been changed and simplified during the past years?
MD: Yes. There was a certain compromise, because everyone had to try to remember how the gardens used to be and of course people remember things differently.
OB: And it’s quite different depending when in the year you visited.
MD: Indeed. People would be quite emphatic. [Former head gardener] Peter Shepherd had to draw something for us to work with, it couldn’t all be amorphous.
OB: He was very keen that nothing should be later than the 1950s. He didn’t like the modern varieties of the plants that we had had here.
MD: I understand Duncan loved Mediterranean plants; he thought England was too grey.
OB: Yes, he liked colour anyway, didn’t he? The end of the lawn behind the pond had a terrific display of dahlias. And behind them were sweetpeas, which came out earlier, on sticks; which they used to pick and put on the dining room table.
MD: I’m just off to plant some now in fact. Everything is sourced locally as much as we can – except for the bamboo canes, of course, which come from China.
OB: I think Peter Shepherd had a different view about how borders should look. He was very keen on blocks of colour and I think he was much more conventional. There was a rather formal bed of roses, which Vanessa used to clamber over and cut to bring into the house.
MD: He left me two things: he said avoid neatness at all costs and, in the summer, never show soil; you want everything billowing. The plants would grow out over the path. And then come the autumn it all dies and gets cut back, so it has this wonderful renewal when you can change things.
OB: I think Angelica [Garnett] changed it quite a lot when she was here, and we unchanged it after her.
MD: You can become too self-conscious, thinking ‘what would someone do here?’ You channel all the things you’ve heard and the paintings and photographs you’ve seen, and the memories of people like yourself. Angelica came shortly before she died and walked around the garden. Visitors always ask, ‘Was it really like this?’ and so I thought, well I’ll ask Angelica. So I said to her, ‘What do I say when people ask?’ and she replied, ‘Just say “Yes!”’
Peter Cole, great-grandson of Roger Fry
Henrietta Garnett, daughter of David and Angelica Garnett and granddaughter of Vanessa Bell
PC: You must have clear memories of Vanessa Bell; how did she strike you?
HG: She died when I was 16, so she was very much part of my life. Her public reputation was rather a cold one, after her son Julian died in the Spanish Civil War, which I think – apart from the death of Roger – was the greatest tragedy of her life. Because she was very much in love with Roger, you know. After she called off their affair, which practically destroyed him, they did remain very, very good friends. And you don’t do that with lovers – I know from my own experience – unless you are very much intertwined with them. You see I could have been Roger’s granddaughter!
PC: Yes, we could have been much more closely related!
HG: There’s no telling what went on in this house! Bloomsbury is almost as famous for its sexual intrigue as it is for its enormous influence in the art world. But they never did it in public. My grandmother thought it was very important not to shock the people who worked for her. Of course they all knew what was going on; but you had to be in your own bed. What you did in your own time was your own business. And I think that’s quite right. But I adored Vanessa. I know that’s an over-used expression, but I loved her very dearly. Because, although she froze in a way in public after the death of Julian, she kept her relationships and her extraordinary, slightly bawdy sense of humour very much alive within the family. This was a magic place. If ever I had a nightmare, I would think of Charleston and the nightmares would vanish. Of course I had to be painted every morning.
PC: How do you mean? One portrait a day?
HG: Yes. They were very quick painters. I had to stand stock-still. And we were paid sixpence an hour. I remember thinking, we should make it sixpence from each of them. Terribly mercenary! But it was so beautiful here, and we didn’t make a much of a mess. Because from very early on I was given a strong sense of aesthetics. It makes me miserable if I’m anywhere ugly. I mean truly; almost seasick. Does it you?
PC: I’m afraid I’m very insensitive to my surroundings.
HG: Are you? Well they used to say that Roger was colour blind didn’t they?
PC: Yes. Julian Fry [Roger’s son] definitely was. He had to take a colour test with the traffic lights for his driving licence, and he was failed because he said the amber was a different colour. And afterwards Roger admitted to him that he’d had difficulty too.
HG: What are those things you make? Little mannequins? Is that what you call them?
PC: Plastic figures.
‘If I ever had a nightmare, I would think of Charleston and the nightmares would vanish.’
HG: So in a way you’re following in the family tradition. Whereas I am a writer. My aunt used to call me an ‘ornament to society’.
OB: Which aunt?
HG: You! My aunt Olivier. Well I had a daughter when I was very young and I just stayed in. I didn’t bring her up very conventionally. I sort of gambolled around; I’m a late developer. A lot of Stephens are. Even Virginia was. It was very easy to have fun even if you didn’t have any money in the Sixties. And I had panache.
OB: Yes you did!
HG: My uncle Quentin said to me he couldn’t understand how I could be happy without work. I didn’t understand that ethic until I started writing: and when I did I became infinitely happier. I’m rather empty if I’m not writing now. My next book is on Lady Strachey and her daughters. I discovered that a Lady Strachey comes into Twelfth Night. When Malvolio gets a bit above himself, and gets it into his noddle to marry Olivia. Everybody is taunting him, and he says, ‘Lady Strachey married the yeoman of the wardrobe!’ which was obviously beneath her.
I don’t mean my Aunt Olivier.
Lady Strachey was born a Grant, she was Duncan’s aunt. They all thought Duncan was a dunce, because he didn’t do very well at school. He spent his whole time drawing. He was supposed to go into the army, which would have been fatal. He couldn’t shoot for nuts anyway, and he didn’t approve of it – shooting humans. So they sent him to the Westminster School of Art, because drawing was the only thing he was good at. Except making omelettes.
Dr Darren Clarke, Charleston curator
David Herbert, Omega collector and expert
DC: How did a young man growing up in Australia discover the work of the Omega Workshop?
DH: It was when I read Frances Spalding’s book on Vanessa Bell in 1983. I used to collect pots from when I was 14, and the woman in the bookshop said it had some good pots in it. There weren’t many good pots in it, but it was a brilliant book, and from that moment I was hooked. I first came to Charleston in 1989, and what I remember most was the beautiful colour palette of the interiors, as I had mostly only seen black and white images before then.
My approach to the Omega aesthetic is that of a passionate collector. The pieces in my collection were made to be lived with, to be used and enjoyed, and I continue to use many of them on a daily basis – much to the horror of many curators!
DC: I’m not a collector. So I don’t have that ‘collecting bug’. As a curator, you’re looking at difference – and how it fits into the whole oeuvre. Art wasn’t just their job [at Charleston] but their whole life. It was very much a conscious decision when it was being restored to make it feel very unlike a National Trust house – to give the sense that it was lived in.
DH: That moment of discovery is at the heart of the collecting process for me. How do the acquisitions occur at Charleston?
DC: We’ve got a really strict policy for how we show the house. We only show objects that could have been – or were – in the house. There are some things we’d never get back; a Picasso or Matisse would be nice, but that’s never going to happen!
We’ve had some really nice gifts this past year – a woman gave us the Foley tea set, designed by Duncan Grant, which her mother bought in Harrods in 1934 and kept her whole life. And we also have a letter she wrote to Duncan Grant saying how much she enjoyed it – and he replied saying how pleased he was because so much of it ended up broken. In fact there’s bits of the same design in the walled garden, in the mosaics.
But we don’t take everything; it has to be appropriate to the house. It’s different for you of course, because you’re the collector: anything you choose to collect for your house is appropriate.
DH: There must be challenges to keep it authentic? Sometimes I just want to move the chairs a little or turn on the radio…
DC: It is very quiet and it is quite tidy, but there is that risk of going too Disney, with an old radio playing in the studio and a cigarette burning. I want everything to last as long as possible. And every day, everything dies a little bit. Every time you open the curtains. It’s a very slow death, and my job is to ensure that death is as slow as possible. But it’s also to ensure there’s enough life in the house. It’s striking the balance between it feeling as if it’s lived in, but making sure it isn’t lived in! People might sometimes think the colours don’t go together – for instance the Foley tea set on the dining room table – but you have to say, well the artists sat here and drank tea, so it does work together.
DH: And every time you come, you see something else.
DC: What item from Omega would you give your right arm for?
DH: There’s so many things! There’s a particular Duncan Grant rug design I love. Failing that, I’d like an Omega screen: there’s one here…
DC: That would never come up! Would you walk on it?
DH: You know the answer to that question. I’d have to! I don’t want my home to be a museum. Like you say, things die a little every day – they just die a little quicker in my house!
Charleston Farmhouse; charleston.org.uk