The story of the Bloomsbury set

Nige Tassell and Maggie Humm explore Charleston in East Sussex, the rural retreat that recharged some of the keenest minds of the early 20th century

Duncan Grant's studio at Charleston. Despite its lack of creature comforts, the East Sussex farmhouse became the weekend hub of the Bloomsbury set. (Photo by Charleston House/Tony Tree)

This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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It’s difficult, on a brilliantly sunny day, to see Charleston as anything other than an idyllic, peaceful retreat from city life. Nestled among the South Downs, a handful of miles from the English Channel, the former farmhouse and its modest rounds are an open invitation to recharge and reflect. And this is exactly what it offered the Bloomsbury set during the first half of the 20th century.

As its name suggests, the Bloomsbury set was founded in Bloomsbury, in central London, in around 1904. ‘Founded’ would be overstating it, for this gathering of intellectuals was distinctly loose and unstructured. Their radical thinking – about literature, art, culture, politics, sexuality and domestic life – set them apart in Edwardian society. Collectively, they represented a minor counter-culture, albeit one rather well heeled and certainly well connected. Their number included artists, writers, publishers and even the senior adviser to the chancellor of the Exchequer.

They originally met at 46 Gordon Square, the house of the Stephen family, which included the sisters Vanessa and Virginia (the future Virginia Woolf). After their strict Edwardian father passed away in 1904, the sisters’ lives took another course, infiltrated by some of the keenest minds of a generation. The shackles of respectable upper-middle-class life had been lifted, allowing the women to blossom intellectually. “We did not hesitate to talk of anything,” Vanessa later observed of those Gordon Square gatherings. “You could say what you liked about art, sex and religion.”

Countryside idyll

In 1907, Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell with whom she had two sons, but the couple had separated by the time the First World War broke out. Her sister Virginia, by now married to the publisher Leonard Woolf, suggested that Vanessa and the boys escape the danger of wartime London by moving to the tranquillity of East Sussex, where she and Leonard had made their home. It was Virginia who discovered Charleston, the house that would become Vanessa’s – and, by extension, the Bloomsbury set’s – rural retreat.

When they moved, Vanessa and her sons were accompanied by her close friend and fellow artist Duncan Grant and his lover, the writer David Garnett, along with a housemaid, a nurse and a cook. It made for a distinctly unconventional household, one that prioritised artistic pursuits over creature comforts. The house had no electricity and was served by a single cold-water tap.

Seclusion enabled a bohemian lifestyle, an alternative to middle and upper-class life

If Charleston didn’t offer comfort, it did provide security. Duncan and David were both conscientious objectors and, in order to avoid imprisonment for their beliefs, were required to find “work of national importance”. Whether picking fruit on the farms of East Sussex qualified for this is moot, but living at Charleston did offer the pair seclusion, both in terms of their relationship and for the pursuit of Duncan’s art – and of Vanessa’s too.

“Charleston was an ideal working environment,” agrees Maggie Humm, author of Snapshots of Bloomsbury: The Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. “Seclusion did enable a bohemian lifestyle, an alternative to a middle-and upper-class life – alternative schooling, alternative sexualities. They could paint every day without distraction. Charleston was also an inside/outside house where the garden provided inspiration for their paintings, unlike the city.”

The group’s artistic endeavours can still be found all over the house – and not just hanging on the wall. Tables, chairs, beds, baths, fireplaces… none were spared the paintbrushes of Vanessa, Duncan or Clive Bell. The quantity of original art found around the farmhouse today certainly disproves the notion that Bloomsbury – thanks to writers like Woolf, EM Forster and Lytton Strachey – was principally a literary affair. Its visual art was of a similar quality and significance.

“Bloomsbury art altered public perception of 20th-century art,” explains Humm. “The group’s work impacted on collectors, galleries and publishers, and they became a centre of cultural authority. Charleston was a testing site.” Vanessa and Duncan themselves were greatly informed by another Bloomsbury artist, Roger Fry, who helped broaden their palette of styles and influences.

Sexual and artistic liberation

After the war ended, this idyll in the Sussex countryside entered what Vanessa’s son Quentin later described as “the golden age of Charleston”. The house became the weekend hub of the group, despite the continued absence of radiators, hot baths, electric lights or a telephone, none of which arrived until the 1930s. As Humm describes, the place was a hive of activity, entertainment and no small amount of joy.

“A typical weekend would start with Vanessa first down to breakfast – buttered toast with coarse salt and black coffee, followed by Duncan eating an orange and porridge. They would then both disappear to paint. Visitors might arrive at the house: [John Maynard] Keynes, Clive, Lytton Strachey… Garnett once arrived in his Tiger Moth. Meals, presided over by Vanessa, were eaten by the light of oil lamps. Conversations about France and Italy would often take place on the terrace while watching the ducks on the pond. Then Vanessa’s daughter Angelica might collect dressing-up clothes from the cupboard in her mother’s bedroom for theatricals.”

Mention of Angelica Bell brings up the subject of the intimate relationships within the group. Its members’ sexual connections were often serpentine and overlapping. Angelica was born on Christmas Day 1918. She grew up believing that she had the same father as Vanessa’s sons Julian and Quentin – Clive Bell. However, her shared surname papered over the reality. Angelica’s father was actually Duncan Grant who, despite being gay, was the true love of Vanessa’s life. To complicate matters even more, Angelica later married and had four children with David Garnett – the ex-lover of her biological father. A neat observation describing the Bloomsbury set is that it lived in squares and loved in triangles.

Another former lover of Duncan’s – the economist John Maynard Keynes – wasn’t a permanent resident of Charleston, but visited so frequently that he was given his own bedroom. It was in this room that he wrote his most famous work, Economic Consequences of the Peace in 1919. Despite his position as the chancellor’s senior adviser, Keynes was a keen advocate of the arts and later became the founding chairman of the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (later known as the Arts Council).

Survival and legacy

The golden age of Charleston, of those fun-loving weekends, came to a crashing end in 1937 when Julian Bell was killed in the Spanish Civil War. Four years later, Virginia committed suicide. Both events impacted hugely on Vanessa, for whom Charleston then became a sanctuary. “During the Second World War,” says Humm, “planes regularly flew overhead, but Vanessa and Duncan could trust their own art in a disintegrating world. They continued to paint, to decorate Charleston and to travel after the war.”

Vanessa died in 1961; Clive three years later. Duncan lived on at Charleston until his death in 1978, at which point Angelica moved in to sort out what was an increasingly crumbling house in a state of disrepair. Vanessa had never owned the property; it had been rented from the Firle estate for nearly 70 years. Angelica resigned the lease and the house was earmarked as a home for Deborah Gage, cousin of the owner Lord Gage. The situation proved fortuitous for Charleston’s survival. Deborah was an art dealer and, in visiting the house, realised its historical importance – and the artistic worth of its painted furniture and objects. Accordingly, she and Angelica established the Charleston Trust, dedicated to the renovation and preservation of the house.

Charleston now resembles how it would have appeared in the 1950s, but with many artefacts dating from several decades earlier. As Quentin Bell reflected, it has become “a kind of time capsule in which the public can examine a world which has vanished”.

But as well preserved as the house, its contents and gardens are, the site now boasts distinctly 21st-century touches, with state-of-the-art galleries and an event space that holds appropriate gatherings, such as a recent short-story festival. Displayed in the gallery is the Famous Women dinner set that the art historian Kenneth Clark commissioned Vanessa and Duncan to design in 1932. Featuring 48 notable women from history, plus the odd notable contemporary figure, the plates feature portraits of Jane Austen, Helen of Troy, Catherine the Great, Christina Rossetti and even Greta Garbo.

If time travel were an option, who knows what the Bloomsbury set might make of their art, ideas and lifestyle being preserved more than 100 years after Vanessa, Duncan and the others first moved into Charleston. Maggie Humm has an idea. “All were intelligent, witty people who may have found it ironic that their textile designs were mass-produced by Laura Ashley to contribute to saving the house. The current cataloguing and digitising of more than 8,000 pieces saved by Angelica Garnett would fill them, as it does us scholars, with hope for Charleston’s future development.”

Maggie Humm is emeritus professor of cultural studies at the University of East London. Her books include Snapshots of Bloomsbury: The Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (Tate Publishing, 2005). Words: Nige Tassell


4 more places to explore

1

Red House, Bexleyheath, Greater London

Where William Morris could dream

The Red House was the rural retreat of William Morris, the guiding light of the Arts and Crafts movement, and his muse/wife Janey – a place where Morris could indulge his dream of “transforming the world with beauty”. In 2003, the house was purchased by the National Trust, who set about restoring it to its original condition.

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2

Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St Ives, Cornwall

Where a sculptor sought sanctuary

St Ives became a haven for artists during the Second World War, among them sculptor Barbara Hepworth. She moved into Trewyn Studios in 1950, where she remained until her death in 1975. The studio, now a museum in line with Hepworth’s wishes, features some of her greatest sculptures (including Sphere with Inner Form, pictured right).

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3

Brantwood, Coniston Water, Cumbria

Where Ruskin drew inspiration

Artist, writer and social reformer, John Ruskin spent the final 28 years of his life at Brantwood, in the heart of the Lake District. A strong influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and William Morris, Ruskin’s work can be found throughout the grand house, which today hosts art exhibitions and talks.

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4

Broughton House, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries & Galloway

Where the ‘Glasgow Boy’ retreated

The home and studio of Edward Atkinson Hornel, Broughton House was bought by the Scottish artist in 1901. Known for his landscapes and part of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ group of artists, Hornel’s work is on display in abundance here.

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