Ambling our way through the South Downs towards a farmhouse nestled among the picturesque countryside and surrounded by gardens filled with flowers. Charleston is simply a beautiful house from the outside. It’s not grand, it’s not flanked by pillars on either side of its entrance like so many other historic buildings. Nor is it demure. The farmhouse is covered in ivy and climbing roses looking out over the lily pad covered pond. But inside is where the magic of the house really is.
Formerly home to artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant of the iconic Bloomsbury Group, Charleston Farmhouse was their retreat from London in 1916 during the First World War. Duncan Grant worked the farm to avoid conscription into the British Army, and they brought with them Vanessa Bell's two sons from her marriage to Clive Bell.
Over time, Charleston became a gathering point for many other Bloomsbury members, such as the art critic Roger Fry, the economist John Maynard Keynes and of course, Vanessa Bell's sister and writer, Virginia Woolf.
No sooner had Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant arrived at Charleston when they began to paint every surface in the house with murals, prints and patterns, and to this day, it remains untouched.
With a large walled kitchen garden to the north of the farmhouse, which Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant would look out onto from their studios, Charleston is a trove of constant inspiration, whether you’re interested in arts, antiques, interior design, history or literature, you name it, there’s something in every room to admire. Vanessa Bell’s iconic spots and cross-hatch designs are dotted throughout the house, accompanied by paintings, fabric designs and ceramics.
In recent years, though the house has remained a constant memorial to the artists, a gallery space has been introduced to further add to the visitors experience. Currently exhibiting is Absent Artists, an inside view of the studios of some of the most influential artists of their time, including Picasso and David Hockney. The exhibition doesn’t contain any signage, meaning the viewer must see if the studio can speak on behalf of its artist. That said, you can download the information via a QR code to check if you’re right. The Absent Artists exhibition runs until 29th August.
As we were due to leave, one of the Charleston employees mentioned a nearby church that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were commissioned to paint during the Second World War. Berwick Church sits three miles away from Charleston and contains extensive paintings by the artists. Duncan Grant was inspired by his travels to Italy, so the paintings at Berwick church contain inspirations from the 15th Century artist, Piero Della Francesca. The church is certainly worth a visit if you have time.