Nestled within the beautiful Sussex South Downs, Charleston is the historic home of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, along with Vanessa’s 3 children Quentin, Julian and Angelica. The farmhouse, dating back to the 16th century, gained its reputation during the 20th century as the hub of the Bloomsbury Set – a largely queer group of modernist artists, writers and thinkers.
Today, both the farmhouse and gardens at Charleston are managed by the Charleston Trust and are open to the public.
The Sussex farmhouse was previously a boarding house while the surrounding land was farmed. As the World War One raged, in 1916 painters Vanessa and Duncan, their friend and lover David Garnett and Vanessa’s sons, moved into the farmhouse.
Conscription had been introduced, however, and Duncan and David were conscientious objectors so needed to find ‘work of national importance’ on a farm – otherwise they faced prison. Therefore the men joined Vanessa and her children (her husband Clive Bell spent his wartime doing farm work in Oxford) at Charleston.
For the next 60 years the farmhouse at Charleston would remain an unconventional home to those known as the Bloomsbury Set, including: Clive Bell, Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry. Vanessa’s sister, Virginia Woolf, lived close by at Monk’s House. Vanessa and Duncan decorated the farmhouse’s walls, doors and furniture, inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists.
Charleston also boasted a walled garden redesigned by Vanessa and Duncan – subject of many of their paintings – featured mosaics, a 1920s grid of gravel pathways lined with box hedges, and a pond overlooked by a large willow tree. Charleston’s garden was also dotted with sculptures including classical forms by Quentin. Beyond a work of art in itself, the house and gardens at Charleston were turned into a safe space for freedom of love and relationships, pacifism, atheism and creative expression.
After the deaths of Vanessa in 1961 and Duncan in 1978, the Charleston Trust was set up in 1980 to restore and preserve the Bloomsbury home for the benefit of the public. The trust has displayed a collection of unique Bloomsbury work since 1986.
Today, you can visit Charleston to step into the lives of one of Britain’s most pioneering and unconventional families, preserved the way it has been lived in since 1916. Tour the farmhouse with its iconic painted fireplaces, doors and furniture, before stepping out into the garden that was the subject of so many of Vanessa and Duncan’s artwork.
A current highlight at Charleston is an exhibition of the 50 dinner plates painted by the pair depicting famous women from Helen of Troy and Cleopatra to Jane Austen and Murasaki. In May, Charleston also hosts the Charleston Festival which invites creatives to discuss art, ideas, literature and politics as the Bloomsbury Set once did at the dinner table.
Getting to Charleston
Driving to Charleston is easiest: 30 minutes from Brighton via the A27 towards Lewes. From London/M25, take the M23 towards Crawley and then the A23 and A27 towards Lewes. If using public transport, Charleston is an hour walk from the nearest train station, Berwick, on the southern line about half an hour to Brighton.