The Charleston Trust preserves an iconic farmhouse in southern England—and, as important, it looks to continue the kinds of discussions that took place there between great artists and thinkers. Brunswick speaks with its Executive Director and CEO.
The beauty of Britain’s South Downs has inspired authors from Rudyard Kipling to Lord Tennyson, Jane Austen to William Blake. Virginia Woolf wrote of them: “Too much for one pair of eyes, enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look.”
In 1916, the artist Duncan Grant moved from Suffolk to a farmhouse in the South Downs with Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. The pair were not only fellow artists but also members of the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of English polymaths and painters, artists and academics so named because they had lived, studied, and socialized together in Bloomsbury, London. In addition to Grant and Bell, Bloomsbury’s core members included Woolf and the novelist E.M. Forster, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the influential art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry.
The group’s members have been the subject of countless biographies, and their lives and loves have furnished the plots for novels, movies, and TV shows. Their enduring relevance stems partly from the towering quality of their creative output, and partly from their personal lives, where they displayed “attitudes toward love and marriage … as unconventional and as ahead of their time as their ideas about modern painting, literature and design,” according to the novelist Francine Prose.
At a time when homosexuality was criminalized in Great Britain, for instance, many of Bloomsbury’s members had lovers or partners of the same sex. They also rejected the early 20th Century’s rigid mores toward monogamy, family, and sexual identity. Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell had a child together while Bell was married and Grant’s lover, David “Bunny” Garnett, was living at the farmhouse in the South Downs, known as Charleston.
That house became not only a site for Bloomsbury gatherings but also a work of art in its own right. “Grant and Bell were artists, so they immediately started work whitewashing the house and preparing it as a blank canvas,” says Nathaniel Hepburn, Executive Director and CEO of the Charleston Trust. “And over the next 60 years, they—along with members of the family, and the Bloomsbury Group—added, developed, changed, and transformed the interiors and the gardens with their art.”