“ Address: Firle / Lewes / East Sussex / BN8 6LL / Tel: 01323 811626 / The former home of the Bloomsbury artists and writers in Sussex, England „
For a recent team away day at work we visited Charleston House in Lewes. A stunning farmhouse with beautiful grounds and gardens, it was the Sussex home of the Bloomsbury artists during the First World War and is now owned by the Charleston Trust and open to the public.
The story behind the house
Charleston was the home and meeting place of the Bloomsbury artists, a group of well known writers and painters in the early twentieth century. Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell moved in to the house in 1916 and it became the meeting place for many artistic minds over the next 50 years. Vanessa had been married to Clive Bell for 9 years and they had two sons, however it was not a happy marriage and they spent much of their time apart and took other lovers. Vanessa was actually deeply in love with Duncan Grant and despite a short affair which produced a child (Angelica, who Bell raised as his own), Duncan Grant was actually homosexual. One of Grant's lovers, another Bloomsbury author, David Garnett, ended up marrying Angelica years later to the horror of the group. Yes, that means that Angelica's husband was her father's former lover!
Vanessa Bell's sister, the well known Virginia Woolf was a frequent visitor to the house along with her husband Leonard Woolf, as were other well known authors such as John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and E. M. Forster. None of these men fought in World War One as most were active war resistors and they were united in their opposition to the government. In fact the Bloomsbury Group were very forward thinking and their work deeply influenced literature, aesthetics and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism and sexuality.
The Farmhouse is stunning to look at from the outside as you enter the gate to the property. Covered from top to bottom in climbing plants and flowers you can barely make out the cream coloured outer walls of the house. The rooms all exhibit examples of the decorative art of Grant and Bell with almost every single inch of the rooms covered in their paintwork. From Bell's signature circles printed on the walls, tables and fireplaces to homemade pottery, Charleston is a house of creativity and everything in it was there to inspire and influence its residents. The house included collections and artwork by Renoir, Picasso, Derain, Matthew Smith and Walter Sickert, who was a close friend of the group and many of these pieces remain at Charleston for public viewing. Duncan Grant designed many of the chair and settee covers at Charleston which are still there on display. The rights to these designs were bought by Laura Ashley who fell in love with them on her visit to Charleston and her stores now sell them. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant encouraged Bell's children to be creative and decorate various aspects of the house which included many lampshades which are still hanging today.
My favourite room in the house was the first one we visited as we walked in, Vanessa Bell's sitting room which overlooked the garden. She loved the outdoors and hoped that by painting flowers all over the room to bring the garden inside, that it would inspire her creatively. The bedrooms were also very interesting as they all contained paintings of each other! It was also noted how tiny the beds were considering how much action they saw!
We were fortunate enough on our visit to have a wonderful guide named Patsy. Her enthusiasm and passion for the house was evident, as it was for all the staff we met. Everyone wanted to tell us new facts about the Bloomsbury group and various bits of information about the house and gardens. I would absolutely recommend the guided tour rather than exploring the house by yourself as the best part about Charleston is the wonderful story and heritage rather than just seeing a creatively decorated house.
"Never, never have I seen quite such a wonderful place!" - Dora Carrington, friend of Bloomsbury artists.
The gardens at Charleston are stunning, especially on a sunny day when the flowers are in bloom. The garden was created by Bell and Grant to designs by their close friend Roger Fry. Many of the features of the garden including its mosaic pavements and tile edged pools were created by Quentin Bell, the younger son of Vanessa and Clive Bell. The garden was created as somewhere for the artists to spend time in the summer to play and paint and above all to inspire creativity. As Vanessa Bell wrote in 1936, "The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes... lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples."
Charleston Festival has been running for 22 years and is becoming more popular year on year. The festival takes place over 10 days in traditional marquees in the farmhouse garden and runs from the end of May each year and attracts big names in the world of literature, politics and performers in a series of workshops and talks. This year's guests include Melvyn Bragg, Henning Mankell and Joanna Trollope. Charleston also hosts a number of other talks and events throughout the year.
Where is it
Charleston Farmhouse is in a small village called Firle, near Lewes in Sussex. We took the train from London to Lewes and then took a 15 minute taxi to Charleston as the buses are infrequent and unreliable. Berwick rail station is closer in distance but is not on many train lines and is still too far to walk. Driving is by far the easiest way to access the house - I wouldn't advise walking or public transport.
Many visitors to Charleston use the opportunity to walk on the nearby beautiful South Downs. Some walkers use Charleston's car park as a place to base themselves before a day's walk - something which the staff at Charleston do not mind at all, as the walkers will often pop in to the gift shop or visit the house itself.
Opening times and entry to the house
The house and grounds are open 5 days a week from April to November. From Wednesday to Saturday entry to the house is by guided tour only which lasts 60 minutes and on Sundays the house is open so that the public can walk round at their own pace. There is a steward for each room which means that visitors can ask questions should they have any. Sundays are particularly popular for returning visitors who have already had the tour and want to spend some time to find extra details that they missed the first time. The website contains a warning that during popular times visitors may not be able to enter the house immediately because the small rooms means that only a certain number can fit in at once. Visitors are free to wander around Charleston and its grounds while they wait.
Entry to the house is £9 per adult and £5 for children with a family ticket for two adults and up to 4 children available for £23. Entry to the garden only is £3 for adults and £1.50 for children. In terms of accessibility, the ground floor of the house is equipped to deal with wheelchairs and they charge a rate of £5 for any disabled guests who can only access the ground floor. The café, toilets and gift shop are fully accessible with ramped entrances. The car park has allocated disabled spaces and the garden has adapted paths and viewing points.
The gift shop
The gift shop at Charleston is full of wonderful, yet expensive keepsakes and souvenirs. The designs of Duncan Grant can be bought on material which is produced by Laura Ashley. Our guide mentioned that if they ran out and there was demand for new material, they had to wait for Laura Ashley to agree and produce more.
A range of books are on sale in the gift shop, including many of Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes' books and also many books written about the Bloomsbury artists. The most interesting to me was a book written by Angelica Garrett who married David Garrett, her father's former lover. She had a very interesting life as she was brought up thinking that she was the daughter of Vanessa and Clive Bell, to find out age 19 that she was actually the love child of Duncan Grant, a man she had known all her life. No wonder she rebelled by marrying against her parent's wishes!
Charleston is an interesting place to visit with a wonderful history and plenty to see. All eight members of our group thought it was fantastic and it didn't hurt that we had a beautiful sunny day to enjoy the beauty of the house and the stunning gardens. While the story and artwork are mainly targeted at adults and heritage and history fans, the tour really brings Charleston to life for everyone and the Trust are really trying to make the farmhouse more accessible to harder to reach groups and for school children. Charleston is in a fantastic location close to Lewes and Brighton and it's well worth a visit as part of a day out to either of these places. I would recommend Charleston to anyone - there is plenty to see and enjoy, with the tour of the house the highlight. 4 out of 5.