‘Radical Bloomsbury’ and a Charleston pilgrimage

Berwick Church, Sussex - Duncan Grant & Vanessa BellIt’s been the best part of two months now since my Bloomsbury pilgrimage (as referred to in my earlier post Fretwork and flamboyance – Brighton Royal Pavilion) and I am only just setting down what this meant to me, perhaps because I had to let the impact of the trip settle before I even attempted to put it into words. It was an important re-visit to somewhere that had huge influence on me over twenty years ago, colouring my art and my interior taste to an extent I didn’t fully appreciate until I had the opportunity to go back there and see the place again.

Virginia Woolf (Image: Wikipedia)

The whole Bloomsbury art and literature scene was a passion of mine in my early twenties; so much so that I somehow managed to hone half of the two-part dissertation submitted for my literature degree into a lengthy piece on the subject of Bloomsbury interiors (to this day, I’m not quite sure how I managed to get away with that), the other half being on the subject of the use of colour in the novels of Virginia Woolf  –  and so you can clearly see where my preoccupations lay.  I also made a trip down to Charleston Farmhouse in the summer of 1989, to see for myself the living environment in which the Bloomsbury set congregated for much of the first half of the twentieth century.

Charleston, I should explain (in the words of its own website) “was the home and country meeting place for the writers, painters and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group”. Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell lived there from 1916 onwards and were frequently joined there by other members of the group including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry.  Over the next half-century they not only lived there but decorated every perceivable surface of the place –  walls, floors, furnishings, garden, in a style strongly influenced by the post-impressionist movement plus more than a touch of influence from Italian fresco painting and garden-style, leaving a remarkable living, breathing and extremely domestic record of everything these artists were “all about”, woven into and imprinted upon the very fabric of their living space.

The house was rescued from near obliteration as a record of those that lived there (no doubt the magnolia paint was at the ready as it was about to be “done up” to be sold on), during the 1980s, by Deborah Gage who at the eleventh hour whipped together, through sheer determination and belligerence, the body of supporters that was to become the Charleston Trust, which then went on to preserve the house and gardens and open them to the public.  Today, it is a thriving business entity, diligently conserving the fabric of the building and gardens for future generations whilst running arts workshops, a shop and guided tours for the public.

Charleston Farmhouse

When I first visited Charleston in the late ‘80s, it had not very long been open to the public and back then – as the tour guide on this trip reminded me – consisted of a much reduced tour of just the ground floor rooms, with the entrance fee paid into a jam-jar by the entrance, which was through the French window from the garden. This time around, I was greeted with unexpected enthusiasm by our guide for the very fact that I must had been amongst its very first visitors, something that she made constant reference to as we embarked – this time through the front door – on a tour of the whole house and studios. Our guide was quite lovely, actually, and proved to be chock-full of interesting anecdotes relating to the eyebrow-raising history of the place and its former residents who lived, by and large, in the most complicated tangle of inter-relationships with each other.

Radical Bloomsbury Exhibition

Back to the beginning, our Bloomsbury-themed trip actually began a day earlier with a visit to the Radical Bloomsbury exhibition at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in the grounds of the Brighton Royal Pavilion. This consisted of a selection of work by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and so was an excellent step into the whole feeling of Bloomsbury, especially for my husband, who was approaching all of this from the perspective of knowing next to nothing about it (art not really being his thing except in so far as I drag him around exhibitions from time to time).  As a grounding in what they were “all about”, what inspired them and to give a sense of chronology and some background, as well as an opportunity for me to see some of the paintings I had only every seen in books gathered in one space, pulled from various other galleries and collections, the exhibition was an enjoyable start. For me, however, the work of these two artists really comes to life when it is in its applied form or in a wholly domestic setting and so, whilst the exhibition wet my appetite, I was really holding out for the next day and our trip to Charleston.

What I wasn’t prepared for was that another impromptu visit, one which we only made as an after-thought after pouring over some leaflets over breakfast, would almost steal it’s thunder as we decided to stop off to see what we heard were some worthy examples of the applied art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, and of Vanessa’s son Quentin Bell, on the walls of a small church at Berwick, just 8 miles from Charleston.  I’m not quite sure what I expected to find, maybe one of two paintings or decorative embellishments around the pulpit.  What I actually came-upon, in this tiny church nestled away in its picturesque setting, completely blew me away; it was the most exquisitely decorated church interior I had ever set eyes on outside of Italy, with almost every conceivable surface covered with decorative and figurative embellishments; I found myself pouring over it in a way that reminded me of how I reacted to the Giotto frescoes in Florence’s Santa Croce which had captivated me, as much as anything else, because of the way they depicted real-human interactions and emotions and included touches of domestic detail. In an instant, I could see just how much Duncan Grant had been influenced by his trips to Italy and could also understand how he had endeavoured to bring the influence of Italian frescoes he had seen there into the mix with his own painting style, which was heavily influenced by the post-impressionists.

Berwick Church, Sussex - Duncan Grant & Vanessa Bell

Words don’t begin do Berwick Church justice but if I had to nail its charm it would be to say that, whilst the walls are beautifully decorative and appropriate to their surroundings, their real appeal is that at the heart of each piece are images of ordinary people going about their domestic existence, at work and at leisure. Domesticity, familial relationships, views of fields and of gardens (including those of Charleston itself), the use of models the artists were familiar with, portrait-style (for instance, Vanessa painted her daughter Angelica as one of the angels); all these elements have brought the human touch into this tiny space, turning the art itself into a celebration of all the very best aspects of humanity, an offering-forth of the very contents of the human heart, depicting matters at the centre of human endeavour.  The effect of standing in the midst of all this, with painted walls on literally all sides, was testament to art’s power to lift the human spirit to souring-point. The church itself has largely plain-glass windows and so the painted interior works in perfect harmony with the quite stunning view of the South Downs that it enjoys from its raised position, making nature itself an intrinsic part of this celebration. There was, for me, such an overwhelming feeling that this was getting back to all that a church should be, something that had been lost somewhere along the road from Reformation. Reading the church’s own literature, that was clearly the intention since, apparently, even such small Downland churches as this would have enjoyed extensive murals before the Reformation and it was Bishop Bell of Chichester’s fond ambition to bring about a revival of this tradition in a way that he hoped would “catch on”. If only; rather, Berwick stands alone as a unique little gem amidst the rolling hills of Sussex. To really show you what I mean, I’m going to insert the slideshow before I move on:

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Onwards to Charleston and whilst I found it had evolved in the ways I have already described, it was also reassuringly the same, in essence, with interiors that seemed as familiar as though I had been there just yesterday.  And that, by and large, is a measure of how much I had been influenced by my first visit and “taken it on”, in some way, as a benchmark of how a domestic interior should look.  I can certainly remember a first flush of enthusiasm, just after that visit, when I took to decorating pretty much every surface of my still-rented living accommodation as I was pretty much allowed carte blanche by my landlord as long as whatever I did generally improved the property (I could hardly have made it any worse).  Yet even long – long – after that, I now realise,  the influence of Charleston was doing its work at a sub-conscious level because well past the point of giving it any regular thought at all, my own domestic scheme has continued to evolve along similar lines.

(Photo: Charleston)

(Photo: Charleston)

Armchair in Romo fabric







Hand printed wallpaper at Charleston Farmhouse

Dining room wallpaper, Charleston (Photo: Charleston)

You can see what I mean from the above images: I couldn’t (consciously) recall any of the finer details of Charleston’s interior until I stepped back through the door after 20 years and so the striking similarity between the wallpaper and my Neisha Crosland dining room was undeniable and had me suppressing giggles as the tour guide showed us around! As for my favourite Neisha Crosland Maize wallpaperarmchair (covered in Romo’s Manderley fabric – which was very close to a design I had lurking somewhere in the back of my mind and spent quite some time sourcing) it is unmistakably Bloomsbury-esque!

Statue, Charleston Farmhouse garden

In general, its clutter and its verging-on-the eccentric painterly touches were all, again, very typical of my own home.  Even its garden carried the same feeling as my own  recently created garden scheme with its mixture of cottage garden domestic side-by-side with touches that hark back to the more formal gardens of Renaissance Italy and all planted to a not-too-deliberate design that is flamboyant, bold and interspersed with objects and embellishments designed to add interest and touches of decoration in some of the least expected places.

And indeed everything at Charleston is about decoration.  The environment there is one of mellow but profusive colour, of clutter, of embellishment on almost every surface; a bohemian, artistic environment but with a homely, warm and inviting demeanour that makes it easy to imagine reading a book by the fireplace, spending evenings of conversation around the oft redecorated dining table (our guide told us this was literally repainted whenever one of them got the urge) and ambling in its gardens.

Charleston interior

Image: Charleston

Its downstairs rooms are filled with mismatched, low slung chairs grouped casually and decorated with the self-designed fabrics that are the hallmark of the Bell/Grant living scheme. These fabric designs are invariably bold, even primitive-looking and with a free-hand, organic charm; in fact, everything has the look of being painted free-hand, on a whim. There is something in the spontaneity of that leaping-forth to grab a paintbrush that I have always carried in me since early adolescence and so this particular Bloomsbury trait reminds me of my own propensity to no sooner have an idea pop into my head than the walls of my own home are quite dramatically altered, pieces of furniture change colour or they are found an entirely new use (an unpredictably flux state of affairs that close family members have had to learn to live with). My home is an entirely organic thing, somewhere that evolves and re-forms constantly so that friends have made a game of spotting “what’s changed” whenever they come around.  I imagine the lived-in Charleston was much the same.

In a nutshell, I think that is why I loved Charleston the moment I set foot in it all those years ago and continue to feel so at home there. It was like “coming home” and finding that the core quality being celebrated by the place was already a deeply familiar element in my own psyche. A tendency to regard one’s living environment as an extension of the canvas; indeed as its very own “canvas” is one that I indentify with wholeheartedly and which is what drew me to the Pre-Raphaelites (see earlier post) long before I had even heard of Grant-Bell.  Surely it harks back to one of man’s most natural instincts, this desire to decorate one’s living environment, to embellish the walls, to draw, to paint in a very personal, free-handed way straight onto the surfaces of your living space; it’s what the first cave men did and it is quite possibly the one thing you can guarantee that anyone forced for any length of time into a confined space, for whatever reason – with anything with which they can make a mark – would do in an instinctive attempt to express and so keep alive that part of themselves that is their very being  and in an attempt  to make their environment into somewhere they can endure. Tellingly, it’s what children do when they stick pictures and embellishment in a haphazard way all over their bedroom walls, yet is something that the more “sophisticated” outlook of adulthood often hammers out of us – but why should it? I find I am always quite suspicious of people whose living environment is bland and without any expression of personality, suspecting this to be some sort of indication of fear or inner repression, a need to hide or inability to express themselves.

So was Bloomsbury really all that radical or was it harking back to an instinct that goes back as far as the very history of humanity?  Really, wasn’t  their spin on things merely a re-discovery or owning-up to something that is intrinsically human and yet had been “tidied away” by the dictates of mass-taste, the bringing in of fads and fashion  that became the refuge of the fear that invades many of us when it comes to expressing ourselves?

Sadly for Bloomsbury, their moment was short lived as the post-war period washed in a whole tidal wave of minimalist themes whose legacy remains with us (testimony to this being the profusion of  interior magazines that still line the shelves of our newsagents displaying interiors that, for me, hold all the appeal of living in a science laboratory). The anniversary of the Festival of Britain is being celebrated this year and whilst there are elements (the more colourful and organic bits!) of 1950s design that I can appreciate, much of the new wave in design that the festival welcomed in and made de rigueur gives me the shudders; whole schemes that looked like they were taken from the set of the science fiction programmes that were starting to be so popular at the time.  One of the reminiscences about that era that I read recently in a magazine (sorry, can’t remember which) was an account of someone growing up in the ‘50s, who vividly recalled the horror of coming home to find that all the clutter, comfort and familiarity of her childhood home had being abruptly swopped for the starkly functional sofas and chairs that were the fashion at the time, and which are now considered design classics by designers such as Florence Knoll and the like.  This milestone event rocked the very foundations of her childhood world to such a degree that to label it a “trauma” is not too strong at all.  To paraphrase her description of how she felt, it was akin to discovering that someone had carted away all the key comforts of her childhood in a van while she was at school, substituting unyielding “sofas” on legs like upturned pins and a living space as practical and uninviting as a dentist’s waiting-room in lieu.  And all because her mother was a dedicated follower of fashion. She has my wholehearted sympathy, that would have rocked my childhood world too!

Thankfully, I detect a swinging-back towards clutter, colour, texture and a far more organic approach to living and some of the magazines are, once again filled with embellishment, quirk and an emphasis on comfort and self-expression in one’s living environment.  Good!  Maybe now we can pick up where Bloomsbury left off and turn “living environments” back into “homes”. Perhaps it’s the whole post credit-crunch mentality, once again (see the conclusion to my post Royal Academy), a turning back to the familiar, a pulling back into the very safety that the word “home” implies; an awakening to what really matters and, with that, a bleary-eyed recollection of our deep-seated instinct to seek a carefully balanced mix of pleasure, comfort and protection from wherever we lay down our heads at night; something which is far more important to us, when times get hard, than the dictates of fashion or whatever is deemed to be cool and cutting-edge.  A home needs to be a safe-haven from the outside world and also somewhere that we can be entirely ourselves, leaving all those “hats” we are forced to wear in the outside world on their peg by the door.

Minimalist room

The stuff of nightmares?

People who advocate vast white living spaces and an absence of clutter often do so from the perspective that they claim to find these less stressful to be in because everything is in its place, colour-coordinated and stored away to the nth (do these people ever have children…?) so as to prevent them from having to think unnecessary thoughts.  Conversely, I find that kind of environment far more stressful than one that is full to the brim of life’s clutter; perhaps in the same way that a small difference in air pressure between the inside of your head and the environment is a common cause of intense headaches –the human mind has a huge amount going on inside and to deny as much results in a conflict that only serves to emphasise the endless cognitive churnings of our minds.  Where a living environment is clinical and streamlined, surely, the internal pressure-gauge goes through the roof, not least because there is very little to look at, often no books or objects to handle, no constant flow of visual stimuli to feed the eyes’ constant cravings. Any wonder televisions, laptops and simulated fish tanks are forced to gap-fill. Bring back clutter is what I say!

Image: Charleston

In my opinion, the Bloomsbury set were far more on track with their slightly mad-cap interiors than much that has followed and to take embellishment and comfortable clutter out of our living spaces is to pretend that, as humans, we are something we are not; perhaps some sort of super-evolved version of humanity that harks from the pages of science fiction novels and is capable of switching its mind into neutral whenever it crosses its own threshold (though why we would want to escapes me).  The clutter of our homes should reflect, in the most positive ways, the clutter in our minds; the intrinsic fascination with shape, colour and texture, the reminders of people, events and views that fill us with joy and reflect who we are, the reading matter and props of whatever interests we have that bring us pleasure and stimulate our continuing growth as individuals. Clutter should be a by-product of actual living and, for that reason, I am deeply suspicious of any attempts by magazines to turn all this into yet another fad, with suggestions to buy books by the inch from junk shops or randomly collect a mishmash of meaningless articles to give the impression of a lived-in and eclectic environment (“How to get the look”, the magazines shout…).  Yes, fill your home with well thumbed books (ones you have or intend to read) and objects, comfortable chairs and other furnishings or items you have chosen because they appeal to you, but let it all be from the heart and entirely personal to you.  In essence, that was all the Bloomsbury set were doing at Charleston; they were simply getting on with life! Because, of course, they had no concept of the fact that their home would one day be visited by droves of people viewing the very “ordinary” scenes of their domestic existence as some sort of curiosity, to seek inspiration or perhaps just as a fascinating window into a bygone time, now crystallised as a museum.

Yet somehow Charleston doesn’t feel like a museum.  Rather, the feeling you get is that Vanessa Bell has just stepped out of the French windows to prune the roses or that Duncan Grant has laid his brush down to put the whistling kettle onto the stove.  Perhaps they are both lolling in deckchairs beneath the hanging vines. Because, as always and in a nutshell, the interior of Charleston simply looks lived-in and it could never look anything else.

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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6 Responses to ‘Radical Bloomsbury’ and a Charleston pilgrimage

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