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Mad About . . .

Beautiful Rooms At Charleston House

26th September 2022
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As the packing boxes mount up around us and the trips to the tip become ever more frequent I was lucky to be able to take a day out last week and visit Charleston House, near Lewes, the former home of the artist and painter Vanessa Bell and her friend and lover Duncan Grant.

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Bell moved in with Duncan, and his lover David Garnett in 1916 – the latter two were conscientious objectors and needed to find farm work to avoid being sent to fight in The First World War. Almost as soon as they moved in they began to paint, viewing everything as a canvas. So the lampshades, and their bases, the doors, the fireplaces and even the edges of the bookshelves and box files are covered in patterns.

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Over the following years more thinkers, artists and writers joined them and they became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Their freehand, colourful style of decor takes its name from there.

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Dorothy Parker, the American writer and critic, apparently said the Bloomsbury group: “paints in circles, lives in squares and loves in triangles”. Which makes sense when you look at these pictures of the house I took during my visit. There are circles everywhere.

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

For the triangles there is this Wikipedia entry: “Vanessa Bell married art critic Clive Bell in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian (who died in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War at the age of 29 and Quentin (the artist and potter). The couple had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Vanessa Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the painter Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica in 1918, whom Clive Bell raised as his own child.”

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

The Squares is thought to refer to their other houses – Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard lived in Tavistock Square, Vanessa and Clive Bell in Gordon Square.

Keeping up? It doesn’t really matter although I can also throw in that Vanessa Bell was also the sister of Virginia Woolf.

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

The decor, which still feels current, thanks to a revival of the style that is currently going on – there are painted lampshades all over the internet at the moment as well as painted furniture and floral wallpaper, was a real contrast to the more sober Edwardian style of the period.

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

But it’s not just the furniture, they painted walls black – that might seem commonplace now but it was daring and new then. They painted their own wallpaper and there is a even a sort of macrame radiator cover in the sitting room.

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

They drew flowers, swirls and spirals and no surface was left uncovered. It was also, as you notice when you go round, often done in what appears to be a casual hurry. The paint is patchy and you can imagine Vanessa wandering into a bedroom brush in hand, telling someone to wake up as she casually traces a looping swirl across a pelmet and leaves as quickly as she came.

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

There’s no doubt there’s plenty to be inspired by although, for me at least, it would be too much all at once. That said there were definitely elements that I would take away from this and the house relies on ticket and shop sales so if you are able to do pay a visit.

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

I went with Toast whose new collection fitted perfectly with the colours and style of the house and now I want to wear a tank top and a pair of mannish trousers and paint my fireplace. The Mad Husband will no doubt have a view on this but my colour palette is already, it turns out very Bloomsbury and paint is cheaper than tiles ….

Further Reading: The Conversation, Painting in Circles

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

Charleston House by Kate Watson-Smyth

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  • Mairik 30th September 2022 at 12:35 pm

    Duncan Grant owed my father-in-law money (my FIL having tried to avoid having anything to do with him as he thought he was a creep and much worse, but ultimately it wasn’t his call). DG tried to get out of paying with a high-handed attitude and a claim they simply didn’t have two pennies to rub together. Rather marvellously my father-in-law just took himself along to Charleston and said he’d take their Picasso instead. AMAZINGLY it transpired DG had had the money all along!

  • Elaine Fraser 26th September 2022 at 2:38 pm

    Sorry not for me …My mum allowed us freehand to paint our bedroom and furniture when we were bored so for me this reflects boredom and what you do when there’s no telly . I can however recommend growing the rose named after Vanessa Bell. It’s a lovely pale lemon with pretty scent.

  • Anna 26th September 2022 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks Kate for beautiful photos of the rooms in Charleston that I have not seen before.
    If you are interested in those who lived there read Angelica Garnett (Quentin Bell’s daughter) Deceived with Kindness.

  • Lesley Keir 26th September 2022 at 9:43 am

    Gorgeous house. Originality never goes out of style.

    I bet you spent ages there.

  • Susan Moreau 26th September 2022 at 9:41 am

    A delightful distraction from this week’s new batch of doom and gloom, thank you Kate. One small point of correction: WWI not WWII in second paragraph. Good luck with your move!

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 26th September 2022 at 10:03 am

      Ugh – Typo – corrected now, thank you x

  • Caroline 26th September 2022 at 8:25 am

    Absolutely love this style and these are great pictures – but you should know that this circle of artists and intellectuals was called the Bloomsbury Group from the house in Gordon Square where Virginia and Vanessa lived with their brothers from 1904.

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