What is it about the home of the Bloomsbury Group, Charleston in Sussex, that’s captured our attention in 2022?
The Bloomsbury Group’s Home, Charleston, is Today’s Muse for Modern Living
Working from home, gender fluidity, open relationships, championing the environment, and supporting pacifism. No we aren’t talking about 2022: these ideals are well over 100 years old, that first reached popular consciousness by the intellectual Avant Gardes of their day in the early first half of the 20th Century: The Bloomsbury Group. And it’s coming back into the zeitgeist.
As a reaction against Edwardian stifled values, this circle of artists, writers, and intellectuals, who’s main protagonists included Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell (among others) moved to Charleston in Sussex in 1916, since they refused to participate in the First World War, and worked the land instead as military service.
Charleston was a manifestation of the group’s artistry, their pioneering philosophies, their open relationships; free from the socialised and sexual constraints and codes of conduct of its day. ‘Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles’ is how Dorothy Parker famously described the Bloomsbury group. Walk in and you’ll see why.
Walls, but also tables, chairs, stools, fireplaces, folding screens were just as brushed with serene swirls of colour as the canvases strewn about the house. From floor (grand Persian rugs layer over any void), to ceiling, there isn’t much in the space that isn’t a muralistic cacaphony of colour. You’ll struggle to see anything that hasn’t been touched by a paint brush.
It was a far cry away from the interior design Edwardian style of the day (think Art Deco, geometric shapes, and peppered pieces of ivory that nodded to The British Empire).
Charleston House, instead, was a space for fluidity and free thinking. So think sooty fireplaces, painterly screens, and haphazardly stacked books sit with sketches drawn by children, that shouldered with artworks by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant themselves, as well as a vast art collection by British artist Walter Sickert and their close friend, Roger Fry (who also designed the garden).
The Bloomsbury Group is back in the conversation with Charleston House featuring as the muse for Dior’s Men’s Summer 2023 Collection: Dior x Duncan Grant x Charleston during Men’s Paris Fashion Week, as well as Charleston Trust’s forthcoming exhibition September 2023, called Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury & Fashion featuring the Dior garments. The show included a detailed model of Charleston (built to scale using the house’s actual dimensions), replete with it’s signature pink door and climbing roses.
Dior’s artistic director, Kim Jones, grew up in the Sussex area, and visited Charleston House as a teenager and fell in love with the place at an early age. “I first went to Charleston when I was 14 years old. It had struck me how modern they all were, each of those individuals involved in Bloomsbury who were attached to Charleston. It was primarily how they lived and worked in one place and how intense that connection was,” Jones said in a statement.
Iterations of Duncan Grant’s original artworks (like the lily ponds), weaved into the garments. The models walked through freshly laid out grass, and a wild planted garden (featuring much of the same flowers that thrive in Charleston). Charleston, for The Bloomsbury Group, was the only property with a garden of it’s own, so it was a source of creativity for them; where Roger Fry (a friend of their who laid out the garden), would choose the flowers to grow that would eventually become be the subject of their still lives as well as feature as motifs on the walls, onto the furniture, and anywhere really.
The Charleston Trust is working on the first major exhibition to explore and celebrate the fashion of the Bloomsbury Group, curated by fashion critic and author Charlie Porter. Titled “Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury & Fashion,” it is due to open in September 2023 and will feature items from the Dior collection.
Main Image: Clive Bell Study at Charleston House. Charleston © The Charleston Trust; photograph: Lee Robbins