There’s a bustling sense of energy at Charleston, the modernist home and studio of the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Preparations for a photoshoot are underway and conservators are visiting to look at some paintings. Collections Manager Miriam Phelan leads me through the warren of rooms to the attic, which forms part of the Charleston Trust offices. Here, she places four archive boxes full of photographs in cellophane sleeves, pencilled with details of the contents. “I don’t often get much time to delve into them, so I’m always happy when people come for research,” she says. “It’s always great to be looking at things from a fresh perspective.”
The photos are organised by the subject. Leafing through snapshots with gaps of many years between the images, it feels as though you are moving through time at an accelerated pace. Images of Angelica Garnett née Bell – the daughter of Vanessa and Duncan, raised as the daughter of Vanessa and her husband Clive Bell – are particularly striking, her eyes piercing through the black and white prints. She’s pictured as a young girl with a smooth bob in a boyish sweater, as ethereal as she is captured alongside her friends in fairy costumes in the 1920s.
The photographs at Charleston show how clothing was an integral part of a new, creative way of living for the Bloomsbury Group. As they moved away from Victorian dress with restrictive layers, they also found distance from formal interiors with heavy draped curtains, instead regarding each surface as something to be painted. “The Bloomsbury Group were thinking about how art and design can inform better ways of living,” Miriam says. They were not precious about their decorations in the Sussex farmhouse, painting over and redoing motifs at whim, and moving paintings from room to room – a practice that is still followed at Charleston today.
The Bloomsbury Group at Charleston created a relaxed ethos and their dress is an extension of this. Vanessa is pictured in a photo from 1928 at La Bergere, Cassis, France, wearing a relaxed jacket with soft lines echoed by the sweep of her hair into a low bun, while Duncan sits legs-crossed in an open jacket and loose trousers turned up at the cuffs. These everyday garments are worn in such a way to communicate a sense of ease akin to their approach to creativity. Their informality is also reflected in a photo of Vanessa reclining beside a lily pond at Roger Fry’s home. She wears a billowing white blouse defined at the neck by a loose tie, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and a simple skirt – the soft silhouette far removed from the often restrictive dress of the Victorian era, which she was born into.
Fabric and clothing became a key part of Omega Workshops, a Bloomsbury venture founded by Vanessa, Duncan and Roger Fry. The Workshops produced furniture and fabrics designed by artists who were not named, so that the pieces would be judged by their aesthetic qualities, not the reputation of the maker. Vanessa’s sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, is pictured sitting in the attic on a chair upholstered in a fabric produced by Omega. Looking past the camera, she is elegant yet practical wearing a simple jacket.
In 1915, Vanessa suggested that Omega could create dresses made from the fabrics they were already producing, and she went on to design styles with relaxed shapes in striking patterns. Artists Nina Hamnett and Winifred Gill are pictured modelling Omega dresses at the Workshops, smiling in dramatic swathes of cloth with Post-Impressionist patterns, echoing those on the walls, screen and rug. Outside of a close circle of aristocratic and artist friends, the public did not flock to Omega and it closed in 1919. But the clothing has been immortalised in paint: A green, yellow and black checked dress designed by Vanessa, is worn by Nina Hamnett as she sits for a portrait by Roger Fry in 1917. She perches on a chair arm next to a cushion covered with Omega Maud linen.
“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us…” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando (1928).
The Bloomsbury Group considered dressing the home and the self an artistic act – something to be preserved on photographic film and on a canvas. Today, we can take inspiration from their fearless approach to relaxed shapes and unexpected patterns, using what they had around them in new, modern ways. “Their way of living was about having conversations that created a new approach to interiors, dress, art and literature,” Miriam says. Through Charleston, the preservation of the building and its contents, and a programme of exhibitions and events sharing the ideas and philosophies of these forward-thinking artists, their spirit lives on.
Words by Alice Simkins.
Photographs from the archive at Charleston, courtesy of the Charleston Trust.