Charleston farmhouse is synonymous with the Bloomsbury group – when the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant moved in there in 1916, it became a meeting place for radical artists and intellectuals throughout the war years. Bell and Grant lived there until their deaths, painting on canvases, furniture and walls, and hosting guests including Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and Roger Fry. Angelica, Bell and Grant’s daughter, tried living there briefly after her father died, but it was too emotionally and physically challenging. In 1980, the Charleston Trust was formed to restore and maintain the house for the benefit of the public, and Angelica played an important role, donating many items that had been left to her by her parents.
Down a meandering driveway commandeered by pheasants, the house stands behind a pond, with a walled garden to the right. Filled to the brim with paintings and ceramics, almost every wall and piece of furniture covered with pattern, there is a palpable atmosphere of creativity. The low ceilings of the 17th-century farmhouse are juxtaposed by the loftier, higher studio space, which was a later addition by the artists in 1925.
It’s hard to linger on any particular object for long as you are drawn away by another unusual texture or colour. The arrangement of pieces seems so organic and natural, it is easy to forget that every item in the house is catalogued, there is an environmental control system and the windows have UV-protective film to prevent sun damage. “Every object is inspected each year,” says Darren Clarke, Head of Collections, Research and Exhibitions, who has been curating at Charleston for eight years.
Darren came to be at Charleston in a “long and convoluted way.” After pursuing an MA in Art History at Sussex University, he came across a position at Charleston, digitising the old index card catalogue. Then, he gained insight into how the organisation ran while acting as the visitor manager. After studying a doctorate in collaboration between Sussex University and Charleston, for which he researched the work of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant for his thesis, he returned as curator.
“I had this old-fashioned thinking that the Bloomsbury group was quite soft, and they were just copying French artists,” he says. “When I started working here, I realised they offered a different type of modernism, one that's very much about feminism and queerness – one that is even more valid and legitimate than the aggressively male and patriarchal modernism you learn about when studying art history. It was like a conversion while I was here.”
Darren ensures that the house is not kept static – this would be at odds with the spirit of its former inhabitants. “There is a good history of moving things,” Darren explains. Vanessa Bell kept two inventories of paintings in the house in the ’40s and ’50s, from which you can see where pieces were hanging and who owned them. They would also move pieces between Charleston and properties in London. Now, Darren moves pieces around the house a couple of times a year, and if things go out on loan to exhibitions, they will need something to take their place. “We carefully consider where the works are going to go so that they reflect the tastes of the room and people,” he says. “It gives the house a different energy, a different focus.”
Even with protective measures in place, there is an inevitable process of deterioration. As we wander through the house, Darren lifts up a faded curtain to reveal the deeper colour hidden in the folds, where the light has not been able to penetrate the dye. “Sometimes there are things that you don't quite notice, that are innocuous, but when you take a closer look at them, you see that they are actually fading.” Part of his role is establishing which pieces are a priority to conserve, depending on their importance and condition. “There is a hierarchy of pieces, depending on the rarity.”
The trust is currently working on a project to produce facsimile needlepoint and embroideries, so that the originals can be protected from light damage. A few pieces in the house are facsimiles, such as a rug in Duncan Grant’s bedroom. Volunteers mapped the original with a large sheet of graph paper, marking each stitch – “not just where it went right, but where it went wrong” – and from this, the rug was reproduced. The colours came from the back of the rug, where it had not faded since it was new in the 1920s. “It’s an impactful thing,” Darren says. I think it'd be nice to get more of those colours to challenge people's expectations of what the house is like. It's not this sort of knocked-back colour, it would have been really bright.”
As much attention is paid to the garden as the house. After the trust was formed in the 1980s, research was carried out to restore the garden to its former glory. Photographs and paintings were consulted, as well as letters from Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, describing what was in bloom to friends. There were also seed catalogues and written orders to different companies. Today, it is managed by gardener Harry Hoblyn. “The spirit is just as important as what’s grown there, that feeling of colour, shape and abundance. That’s true of the house as well,” Darren says.
To the left of the house are the recently restored barns, now an events space and cafe, and a new building by architect Jamie Fobert, working in collaboration with conservation specialists Julian Harrap Architects. Opened to the public in September 2018, it houses two adjacent exhibition spaces. “Jamie looked at the farmhouse and the different heights of the ceiling, and wanted to emulate that in the visitor experience of the gallery,” Darren says.
The two gallery spaces offer fertile ground for dialogues to develop between different exhibitions. Currently, Duncan Grant: 1920 recreates the artist’s first solo show, while in the adjoining space, Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: Astral Reflections presents the work of the contemporary artist for the first time in the UK. “Rather than just looking after this historical property, now we have a contemporary space where we want to explore Bloomsbury ideas and engage with new artists,” Darren explains. “This is not somewhere where you come to just visit the past”.
Astral Reflections explores how travel and movement has impacted the Black experience over centuries. Now based in New York City, Tunji was raised in England to Nigerian parents, and spent time travelling between London and Lagos as he grew up. Darren was drawn to how Tunji explores cultural hybridity and different visual histories. Linking the two exhibitions is that sense of vitality and an underlying anticipation of what comes next for an early-career artist. “I feel there is an energy to Tunji's work that is there in Grant's work,” Darren says. Tunji’s work isn’t a direct homage to Grant’s, he explains, “but there are some reflections,” as during discussions for the exhibition, images of Grant’s work were sent to Tunji. “There’s a wonderful sense of flow and rhythm.”
“You might think of Charleston as an old-world kind of place, but it's full of a sense of social responsibility of where we sit in a contemporary world and how what we do, and how we act reflects on who we are.”
Darren’s vision is to keep Charleston and Bloomsbury relevant and alive, showing the importance of the group to British culture and society, while not being uncritical and fostering new voices. “It’s important to think about the voice that you’re using, and make sure there are lots of different voices in conversations.” He finds he often takes a step back to ensure other people are involved. “You might think of Charleston as an old-world kind of place,” he says, “but it's full of a sense of social responsibility of where we sit in a contemporary world and how what we do, and how we act reflects on who we are.”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by Maria Bell.