Posts Tagged ‘Vanessa Bell’

Haven’t been blogging much of late. You might have noticed. Due to major engineering works on my train line into London during the whole of my long summer holiday,  I was effectively grounded. They may well have been improving the platform lengths at Waterloo but this caused my cultural growth to be temporarily truncated. I wanted a break and I didn’t particularly want to write so I turned my focus homeward and spent my entire summer decorating, gardening and up-cycling old furniture. I had a thoroughly enjoyable five weeks, rolling out of bed straight into painting clothes, hair unbrushed and just getting on with it. More about that another time – I really must get back to some writing now the darker evenings  are drawing closer – but for now, here’s a post I found yesterday, semi-forgotten and half written in my WordPress draft box. 

And so it came to pass that, with temporary membership in hand, I left Sissinghurst (see previous post) and wended southwards to Lewes. Now Nationally trussed and fully paid up with guide book in glove compartment, I decided to check out Virginia Woolf’s house.

The journey took me through some stunning Sussex countryside and as I bowled happily along the A27, listening to my Rolling Stones compilation with my intended destination only a few miles away, I remembered somewhere else I needed to see first. A couple of years ago I visited Charleston – the beautiful home of Bloomsbury Group artist Vanessa Bell and, not so coincidentally, the sister of Virginia Woolf.  The place was so enchanting that I ran out of time to see nearby Bewick church, the interior of which was decorated by Vanessa, her son Quentin Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant.

I turned off the main road down a very narrow country lane and found the tiny church behind an old stone wall.

There was no one about; I had the place to myself.

From the outside, the building looks pretty much like any other small rural country church, but inside is a wonder to behold.

Not only are the walls adorned with these fantastic murals, the pulpit also retains its original Bloomsbury design. 

Pleased I’d made the minor detour, I sallied forth (I’ve always wanted to say that: it seems to fit in here) to the tiny village of Rodmell, just south of Lewes in East Sussex. It was devilishly difficult to find. Usually there are plenty of brown signs indicating a tourist attraction but there were none.  I’d consulted the map before I’d set off. When I say map, I mean a paper one. I don’t have or want a Sat Nav although I do use Google Maps to help plan a journey beforehand but on the road I stick to my trusted old, much thumbed, AA version that is unravelling from its spring binder. The old-fashioned way worked a treat. At the end of a narrow village lane, encrusted with soil deposited by recent tractor wheels, I discovered Monks House, the 17th century country retreat of Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard.

The house is small and unassuming, set in a garden which was a riot of colour when I visited. Bought by Virginia and her husband during the 1920’s as a bolthole from their increasingly busy London life, the couple added to and improved the house over the years until in 1940, they began living there full time after their London apartment was damaged during wartime bombing.

The living room is a mismatch of colour, pattern and styles…but it works.


The delicate painting on the backs of these dining chairs is the work of Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell.

And I can’t resist a jumble of plates and miscellanea on an old dresser.

Virginia’s bedroom is approached by its own door from the outside – an extension to the original building. One immediately gets the sense of her own private domain. It is a shame that none of the books filling the shelves actually belonged to Virginia – especially as the volunteer guide cheerily informed me that when the Trust took the place over the house was crammed full of the couple’s reading material: it literally was stacked all over the place, their shelves having long since proved inadequate. On closer scrutiny of the books  displayed, I discovered that most of them were titles printed after Virginia’s death. This kind of lack of attention to detail really infuriates me so when, later on, I was wandering around the garden and another kindly volunteer, dressed as who I can only assume was supposed to be Lytton Strachey, asked me if I’d like to listen to his reading of part of one of Virginia’s novels, I declined.

Above – two views of the stunning garden and out to the orchard behind. Beyond this is the river where, on 28 March 1941, Virginia drowned herself by wading out, her pockets filled with pebbles.

This painting of Virginia by her sister, Vanessa Bell, hangs in the living room of the house. I wondered what her state of mind was when it was painted. She has a troubled look doesn’t she? She struggled with depression all her life.

As I left the peaceful village of Rodmell and drove home on a glorious early summer evening, I pondered the link between depression and the highly creative. It seems to haunt so many people who have brought great art (in whatever form) to the world. I found this article which made interesting reading.

There is, it seems, a high price to pay for prolific creativity.

Now back to my furniture…










Read Full Post »

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 …



Read Full Post »