Forever associated with a few streets in central London, The Bloomsbury Group also had a country house. Charleston in East Sussex was the home of key group members Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and from 1916 onwards it was used as a creative refuge for their friends and extended artistic circle. Bell was the sister of Virginia Woolf, a regular guest. Grant was a painter who also decorated the house in distinctive style, and his one-time lover, economist John Maynard Keynes, wrote books in an upstairs bedroom.
The house served for many years as an idyllic retreat. In 1936 Bell described a house “full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes … lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.” It wasn’t just a place for discussing and creating art – the rambling 16th century farmhouse was also itself a canvas, used as a testing ground for the mingling of art and decoration that remains an important part of the Bloomsbury Group’s appeal. As well as canvases Grant also worked in textiles and pottery, and works inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists adorn not just the walls but also doors, windows and furniture.
Today the house is open to the public, as well as hosting exhibitions, workshops and an arts and literary festival every May. Since 2003 a trust, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has been renovating and restoring the building and the collections within it. However it is the house itself, and the seemingly carefree and expressive interventions made in it by its creative inhabitants that still speaks to us today. Although we may not be painting frescos on our own bedroom doors, the mix of historic styles, the sunny palette and insistence that everything within a house can be decorative have all had a huge influence on modern interiors, proving the house is just as inspiring as it was 100 years ago.
Charleston Festival runs from 15 to 25 May 2015. For information on visiting, festival tickets and details of other events visit the website.