100 Seconds – Your House is a Canvas 4/22/2021

My Journey to Charleston House, the home ground of the Bloomsbury Group

I set off on a day trip aboard a sluggish train from London’s Victoria Station to the south of England. My destination: Charleston House, located in the village of Firle in East Sussex, not too far from Brighton. Charleston House hosted and housed some of the 20th century’s most avant-garde people. Among them were the founding members of the celebrated Bloomsbury Group: the famous writer, Virginia Woolf; her sister, Vanessa Bell; and Vanessa’s lover, Duncan Grant.

Bell and Grant, both accomplished artists, utilized the house as their residence for over sixty years. Since 1980, a charitable trust runs the property funded by tours and special functions. I’ve heard that many such trusts are struggling for funds, given the Covid lockdown.

Charleston House has a strong gay connection, not only through its residents, but also its frequent visitors, like the author/critic Lytton Strachey. I had the opportunity to go with a small group of Londoners who were interested in seeing the house from a LGBTQ+ focus. Vanessa brought Duncan, his lover David Garnett, and her two children by her husband, Clive, to Charleston. A complicated, open marriage arrangement included a time when David and Vanessa had a relationship.

Since Vanessa and Duncan were boho artists, no heavy Victorian furniture and dark walls suited them (or Victorian conservative mores). As owners of Charleston, they turned every surface of the interior into a canvas, painting the walls, the furniture, doorways, fireplace, even a God of Sleep bed frame, and a Ballet Russe log box. Visitors posed for portraits, like their gay writer friends, Strachey and E. M. Forster. The economist, John Maynard Keynes, had his own bedroom at the house. In another post, I mentioned Virginia’s love affair with Vita Sackville-West.

These works weren’t slapdash or amateur at all, but the living space of two whimsical, creative souls and their children. Vanessa studied with John Singer Sargent, and her own work has never been fully appreciated, in my mind because she was a radical woman, free of mindless conventions. I like her playfulness and use of color, suggestive of Matisse. She did wonderful paintings of Virginia.

The house seemed fixed in time, as if Vanessa and company just dashed out and would return at any moment. A sense of intimacy with people long gone, even moments of intruding in the most intimate rooms of this house. Pinned photos, newspapers, paint brushes, and personal art objects everywhere. The garden reflected Vanessa’s love of flamboyant flowers to which she added a tiled pond and piazza.

In the dining room, I closed my eyes, imagining the lively conversation and laughter. Here the walls were black, the room anchored by a large circular table, painted yellow, pink, and green.

Bold, fanciful, unique, my kind of abode.

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