After a long summer organising activities for the children I was seized by a strong impulse to organise something for myself, and so I booked tickets to visit Charleston, home of Virginia Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell and home-away-from-home for various members of the Bloomsbury Group. In fact visiting requires a bit of advance planning because the house is limited to five visitors at a time, and I bought a ticket for several weeks ahead.
Some weeks later the day came and by that time I wasn’t feeling impulsive at all but still I set off early from London, hoping to avoid roof-insulation enthusiasts on the M25. Two hours and few detours later (I enjoy driving but do tend to go to pieces at major junctions and when presented with a choice nearly always seem to pick the wrong road) I was in Eastbourne. I had time for a quick dip in the sea, a coffee and a bacon brioche (from the excellent Urban Ground) on the shingle and a few pages of the book I had grabbed to bring with me, The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West. I’m pretty sure Kazuo Ishiguro must have used it as the source material for The Remains of the Day, it all seemed so familiar. I love Vita, she can’t write a dull sentence even when she is rambling about the hierarchy among the servants in a grand stately home. I now know why Debretts Peerage was useful, too. Turns out you needed it to figure out who sat where at dinner.
Then it was off to charge the car, and then the sat nav took me to Charleston via the Seaford Road – with views across the Downs so beautiful I nearly drove off it several times. I ended up following a tiny country lane through isolated villages fully expecting Starkadders to come hopping out at any moment, and then finally the sign for Charleston farmhouse.
Being by myself I’d worried it would be a bit of a lonely experience, but what happens is there is a guide in every room and you get handed from one to another as you go through, so you always have company. Also due to their Covid bubble system one group tours at a time, and as I was on my own this effectively meant a private tour. The guides were all delightful and mines of information. There’s a lot to take in. Chintz curtains are next to painted chairs with canvases in the walls and decoration and books and objects scattered everywhere and yet everything has a wonderful chalky harmony.
I loved the collection of Quentin Bell’s mugs in the kitchen. He also designed some sort of ceramic upside-down colander lampshades that feature in all the rooms. The first time you see one you will think it’s daft. By the time you leave you’ll want one of your own! (I forgot to photograph one in the house, but they had one hanging up in the Charleston shop.)
It doesn’t quite feel as if the inhabitants just stepped out – the house is too well-trodden for that – but you do have a vivid sense of how they inhabited the space, the life that went on in these rooms that still seem to retain a sense of the creative energy that was here for so long, particularly the things people would have held or touched.
Loved the books of course, anywhere and everywhere, just as they should be. They had to usher me out of Clive Bell’s book-lined study
With strategically placed gin.
Garden flowers in Clive Bell’s bedroom, upstairs.
One of Vanessa’s paintings (right, of the pier at Brighton) in the room Maynard Keynes used when he came to stay.
And below it rows of Quentin Bell’s collection of box-files containing correspondence; here between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.
Upstairs a book on the bedside table in Duncan Grant’s room, and a glimpse into his dressing room. I love that he and Vanessa couldn’t see a door without painting something on the back of it.
The sitting room at Charleston, where they huddled around the fire because it was so cold (it was only when Clive Bell began to spend more time there that he installed central heating and updated the plumbing).
Can’t think of many more atmospheric things than a Bloomsbury writing desk
In the centre of the fireplace sits a 15th-century lion. Charleston is full of fascinating objects, including a cast of the ears of Michelangelo’s David in the studio.
Virginia Woolf looks serenely down in this painting by Vanessa Bell, showing her in her London home, Tavistock House.
The last room you come to is the studio, which doesn’t disappoint. I particularly loved the mantelpiece with pin-holes from all the things that had been pinned up there over the years.
A bust of Virginia keeps a watchful eye on the vodka.
And another lovely mug.
And then it was outside into the garden, beautifully planted and maintained by volunteers and a haven for bees, butterflies and birds.
Freshly picked dahlias.
The studio, seen from the garden.
And the view from the gates past the farm buildings to the fields beyond.
There’s also a gallery, currently showing a re-creation of an exhibition of Duncan Grant’s work from the 1930s. Here’s Vanessa Bell in one of his paintings, sitting outside her studio in that classic Bloomsbury pose, in a chair with a book. One of my favourite things about this group of people was the way they prioritised sitting around in deckchairs reading.
And then my adventure was at an end and it was time to head back to London.
Selected Charleston reading list
Over the years I’ve read many a Bloomsbury book, from fiction to biographies to letters – I’m not sure why I find the Bloomsbury Group so fascinating but I think it has a lot to do with the social dynamics between them, and their love of a cup of tea, deckchair and book. For Woolf try Mrs Dalloway or Orlando, but also don’t miss To The Lighthouse, a more challenging but utterly rewarding read. Her diaries are mesmerising, as are her letters, you feel she’s sitting next to you when you read them. Her essays are always excellent, A Room of One’s Own is a must (and you can buy a beautiful Persephone edition). Genius and Ink (with a foreword by Ali Smith) is an enjoyable collection of her literary criticism – she doggedly wrote reviews for years, pleased to be earning her way. I recently read Love Letters: Vita & Virginia, the new collection of letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West, full of detail and incident as well as being a moving insight into their love story. A Boy at the Hogarth Press by Richard Kennedy is a delight, and I recommend investing in the Slightly Foxed edition as then you’ll have a beautiful book as well as an enjoyable read. Kennedy worked at Virginia and Leonard’s Hogarth Press and this book is a fabulously frank account of life behind the scenes, made all the more enjoyable by his own illustrations. Frances Spalding’s biography of Vanessa Bell brings her beautifully to life, and Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf is also excellent. Gretchen Girzina’s biography of the artist (and lover of Lytton Strachey) Dora Carrington is good (and don’t miss the melancholy but charming film starring Emma Thompson). We once did All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West for book club and have a podcast on it here. I discovered her writing about gardening via Sarah Raven’s wonderful book Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden. You can actually go and stay at Sissinghurst if you are organised enough to book it. I wasn’t organised enough myself to have booked to visit Virginia Woolf’s house at Rodmell on the same day, so I’m saving that for a return trip.
On the journey down I listened to a couple of episodes of Across the Pond with Sam Jordison and Lori Feathers, a new book podcast discovery – loved their interview with Jon McGregor. I also enjoyed this New York Times book review podcast with Brandon Taylor on Sally Rooney more than I thought I would.
Over to you
What Bloomsbury group books have I missed – I know there are many more. Have you visited Charleston? What did you think? Is Bloomsbury still relevant for us today? Comment below and let me know.