Posts Tagged ‘Lytton Strachey’

I’m so excited. I’ve just had two books delivered. They arrived on the doormat bound in tantalisingly plain brown cardboard packaging. I can’t wait. Having persevered over the summer, reading novels on my ipad and coming to the conclusion that it really is no substitute, I decided to get back to the real thing. There’s nothing like a proper book, is there? I like a nice cover, the feel of a book; I like the non back-lit, kinder-to-the-eyes off-white pages; I like flicking back and forth to check things – maybe make a wee note or two – but I’m not ruling out e-books completely: they’re a convenient way to take reading material on holiday. However, unwrapping my parcel felt like welcoming in an old friend.


Not that the books themselves are familiar- that would be pointless – but the tempting little stack they are making makes me want to get stuck in straight away. The first is Grayson Perry’s ‘Playing to the Gallery’ which is mostly the transcription of his highly entertaining Reith Lectures, broadcast on BBC’s Radio 4 programme last year. I shall enjoy dipping in and out of that one. The second is a biography of the Bloomsbury Group sisters, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. I was prompted into buying this one after a visit to the most extraordinary house during my summer break when I became fascinated with the relationship between these two highly creative yet completely different characters and wanted to find out more.

Charleston is the rambling old farmhouse nestling comfortably beneath the South Downs in Sussex that was home to artists Vanessa Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant. They moved there in 1916 after Virginia Woolf, who was already living in a village a few miles away had written to her sister declaring that “it’s a most delightful house” although she warned that there was no hot water and “the house wants doing up – and the wallpapers are awful.” Vanessa became interested in the idea of a farm as this would give Duncan Grant the guise of farmhand, allowing him to escape jail as a conscientious objector during the First World War. Apparently, during the height of the shelling across the channel, the windows at Charleston would shake.

The bohemian household soon became a magnet for other artists, writers and musicians of the era. Vanessa and Duncan hosted parties and the likes of Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, E.M Forster, Benjamin Britten, T.S. Eliot and Clive Bell – Vanessa’s estranged husband – would stay for weeks to enjoy and take advantage of the creative atmosphere.

Vanessa and Duncan set to improving the house and stamping on it their own inimitable style. They painted every possible surface in bold, glorious colours – walls, ceilings, floors, mantelpieces and furniture, for not only were they artists, they were designers. Their work was to be seen on textiles, wallpaper and crockery designed exclusively for Harrods. Some of their fabric designs have recently been revived by Laura Ashley and can be seen on some of the upholstery in the house.

The couple lived at Charleston for the rest of their lives, with her two boys Julian and Quentin, and their own daughter, Angelica. Vanessa died in 1961 and Duncan remained at the farm until he died in 1978 at the age of ninety-three. He was still entertaining artists like David Hockney at Charleston well into his eighties.

In 1980, The Charleston Trust was set up to preserve this wonderful property and share it with the world by opening its doors in 1986. A major restoration program was undertaken to restore some of the rooms to their former glory. Being an old building, there was no damp-proofing. On the day I visited, I was lucky to have the most informative guide who explained that the walls in the dining room, hand painted by the couple, had suffered substantial damage. The restoration team had to lift the walls off in sections – fortunately held together by layers of the awful wallpaper that Virginia had first mentioned to her sister – where after they were taken to London and treated. During this time, a proper damp-proof course was put into the house and the walls duly replaced in all their original glory. Only a very small section, to the left of the fireplace, is reproduction.  Sadly, photography inside the house is not permitted but there are pictures on the  Charleston Trust’s website.

The Charleston Trust continues to improve the old farm. There are plans to restore the historic old farm buildings and create educational facilities. With the support of their patron, HRH Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, Charleston will continue to flourish. This year the house hosted its 25th annual literary festival where ‘books, ideas and creativity bloom.’ Authors and artists arrive at Charleston to give talks and lectures and to mingle with their admiring public – carrying on the vision created by its extraordinary owners almost one hundred years ago.

The following pictures of the garden are mine. Here too a restoration is underway,  getting the outside of the property back to how it was in its Bloomsbury heyday.


Front door to Charleston


Through the gate to the compost heap!


Spot that butterfly …


Herbaceous borders – a jumble of glorious colour


A tranquil little spot in a sunny corner

And now to my reading pile …



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