Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Charleston: A Bloomsbury House & Garden

The cover of Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden by Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson · Lisa Stefan

This summer my collection of coffee table books grew larger when on my birthday I got a copy of Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden by Quentin Bell and his daughter Virginia Nicholson. Quentin was the son of artist Vanessa Bell (author Virginia Woolf's sister) and her husband Clive. The book tells the story of the Charleston House in Sussex, which Vanessa took on rent during World War I - by then her marriage to Clive was in name only. Her sons lived with her, as did artist Duncan Grant and his friend David Garnett, who were lovers. Actually, many years later David married her and Duncan's daughter, Angelica, who was born in the house. That is not the subject of this blog post but let's just say that relationships often got a little complicated, or shall we say interesting, within the Bloomsbury group, as the circle of friends was called (see also my recent post on BBC's Life in Squares). The book about Charleston is enjoyable and the decorative details are a constant source of inspiration. This is a bohemian style with a wonderfully personal and artistic twist.

Vanessa Bell's bedroom, p. 58

The way the book is set up each room gets a chapter that tells its story, how it was used in the beginning and later decorated. Quentin was 85 years old when he started writing the book. He had finished the first draft when his health deteriorated. When he was unable to write his daughter, Virginia, who also knew the house well, sat with him and listened to his stories of the house and recorded them on tape. He died in 1996 and she finished the book. The chapters are divided into sections marked with their initials, so the reader always knows who's telling the story. Alen MacWeeney photographed each room for the book and every photo has a caption explaining the details. There are also old black and white photos of the inhabitants and their friends, but the house was a popular holiday home for the Bloomsbury circle.

Vanessa's bedroom, seen above, used to be the larder but in 1939 it was converted and a tiny window was replaced with a French window that opens onto the garden. I have never visited Charleston but this corner has become my favourite. Her beautiful desk is a 19th-century French fall-front secretaire. She designed the curtain fabric for the Omega Workshops in 1913. The curtains in the photo are a reproduction of the original fabric by Laura Ashley in 1986.

Duncan's sitting room in the studio, p. 67

Vanessa later negotiated a long lease on Charleston, which meant that she and Duncan were able to construct a proper studio. It was ready in 1925 with plenty of space to paint and there was room for a sitter or model. Roger Fry, a member of the Bloomsbury group and the founder of the Omega Workshops, helped with the construction. Part of the space became Duncan's sitting room. Duncan decorated the screen behind the chair and the panels around the fireplace in the 1930s. Later, in 1939, Vanessa turned a room on the second floor into a studio of her own.

The window in Duncan's bedroom, p. 109

Quentin writes that he has slept in all the rooms in Charleston but Duncan's bedroom remains his favourite room, having 'the most complete decorative scheme of any in the house' (p. 108). Vanessa painted the decorations in the window embrasure and she also designed the cover of the antique French window seat.

In Clive Bell's study, p. 47

The above photo shows Clive Bell's study, which used to be a living room. Clive had been a frequent visitor at Charleston but in 1939 he moved in. Vanessa painted the window embrasure in 1916-17. Duncan decorated the tiles set into the tabletop in the 1920s or 1930s.

Until I am able to visit the Charleston House (see their website for opening hours) I will enjoy its rooms and decorative objects in my book. My only regret is not having the hardcover edition because I know that this book will become more precious than others on my coffee table.

A constant source of inspiration, indeed.

Zarafshan linen fabric in rust/slate by Lewis & Wood

A final note: All the textile samples I used in the styling are from Lewis & Wood. The fabric, inspired by the Eastern Suzani tradition, is Zarafshan, made from 100% linen. It is available in various colours, three shown here: In the first two images Indigo/Cranberry, the third Turquoise/Lime, and in the last two Rust/Slate. More on Lewis & Wood later.

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