By Georgina Parfitt
Charleston Farmhouse sits in a valley of the South Downs at the end of a long dirt road, marked private, which carves and winds around ditches of old trees. The house looks out upon farms and grazing, and just a little farther, the town of Lewes, East Sussex.
Being mostly pacifists, the Bloomsbury set conscientiously objected to national service in the First World War, so the house at Charleston was bought in 1916 and there the group stayed, making the farmhouse a sanctuary for the things it believed in: literature, art, discussion, and new ways of doing things. They covered their sanctuary with pictures, portraits of each other, printed patterns on the tables and the ceilings and the chairs.
‘The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes,’ Vanessa Bell wrote.
Surprisingly, the same is true of Charleston in the twenty-first century. Kept alive as a visitor attraction, the farmhouse is preserved just as the Bloomsbury group had kept it. It is a house full of hundreds of stories and secrets. Here are just a few:
1. ‘Charleston is by no means a gentleman’s house.’
The house belonged to Vanessa Bell and her family, husband Clive Bell and later lover Duncan Grant and her three children. But the house was never entirely a family homestead; it was visited daily by members of the Bloomsbury group, friends, lovers, curious types that warranted getting to know over tea and dinner and studio time. In fact, Maynard Keynes had his own room in Charleston. It was also a house often full of children. Looking at the house’s archives exposes the maternal sides of both Vanessa and Virginia, who never had children of her own. ‘The atmosphere seems full of catastrophes that upset no one,’ Virginia wrote in 1919, just after the birth of her niece Angelica had turned the house into a nursery once again.
2. ‘My visit to Charleston was spent mostly in sitting in the drawing room and talking to Nessa while she made herself a brown coat.’
Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf were intimate sisters. Virginia wrote that they shared a ‘private nucleus’ after their parents died, with the responsibility of keeping house for their brothers. But later, when marriages and loves swayed their loyalties and attentions, the sisters found this nucleus often broken. One of the most separating forces in their partnership was Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell, and his subsequent ‘flirtation’ (as it has come to be known) with Virginia.
Around this time, Vanessa painted Iceland Poppies, depicting three various vessels and three poppies, two white, one red, in a triangular composition. Vanessa’s biographer boldly attributed this composition to her discomfort caught between her old and new families. Recognising its personal importance, the Charleston Trust brought the painting back to the house at great cost, after it had been sold out of the family to a private collector. Now it sits in the dining room, holding a subtle magic over the corner of the room.
The figure of Quentin Bell, Virginia’s youngest nephew, appears in great colour and detail in Charleston history. Growing up in the company of bold intellectual adults and in liberal but affluent conditions, Quentin was a rambunctious youth with artistic ambitions of his own.
His birthdays were big awaited events in the Charleston household, with fireworks and the whole gang making a special effort. In 1930, Virginia describes in her diary how ‘the rockets went roaring up and scattered their gold grain,’ as they all watched in the garden. The house rings with Quentin’s spoilt but lively presence, and still holds annually the Quentin Follies, a silent auction mixed with cabaret and music acts.
4. ‘Then we discussed the bursting of people’s bladders, the National Gallery, incest, perhaps, and other gossip.’
The Charleston Farmhouse was so well loved and the site of so much artistic adventure, that Quentin Bell expressed it as ‘a phenomenon.’ So interesting were its regular characters that he and his brother Julian co-founded a house magazine called the Charleston Bulletin, which featured anecdotes, illustrations and character sketches. The boys enlisted the help of their novelist aunt, Virginia, to add her wit to the roasts they made of family members and visitors. Virginia used her skill at mimicry and satire to make hilarious caricatures of Clive Bell and her sister. In one particularly affectionate roast, she describes the latest news that (famously daydreamy) Vanessa had lost her spectacles but writes that ‘Six pairs were found later firmly embedded in her hair.’
5. ‘Oh never again to have scenes with servants – that is my ambition.’
The kitchen is an important but rather back-stage room at Charleston. Naturally shadowy because of its place in the house but productive and furtive seeming, as if it’s always trying to provide a cooling atmosphere for a pie before a party. Charleston was an informal house; the Bloomsbury group would have boasted of that I’m sure, and as such, was much more self-sufficient than the family’s previous homes and townhouses. The house was pleasantly (according to Virginia) clear of servants, who as a general rule made her feel on edge in her own home.
Grace Higgens was one of Charleston’s few long-serving staff members and her extensive diaries are a source of many secrets from daily life at the house. ‘Mrs Woolf arrived after tea to the great joy of the household,’ Grace wrote in 1924, ‘as she is very amusing & helps to cheer them up […] I met Mr & Mrs Leonard Woolf, riding on their bicycles to Charleston. They looked absolute freaks, Mr Woolf with a corduroy coat which had split up the back like a swallow tailed, & Mrs Woolf in a costume she has had for years.’
Quotes: Virginia Woolf, Selected Diaries, 1977, edited by Anne Olivier Bell
Image: Charleston Farmhouse Garden, Sussex; author: UGArdener; marked as free to share.
Georgina Parfitt is a fiction and features writer based in Norfolk, UK, and editor at Towerbabel, a collaborative publishing platform for writers and readers. You can follow her on Twitter or find her non-fiction work at The Atlantic online, the Harvard Advocate and forthcoming in the Kings Review.