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Exploring Charleston House: an expression of early 20th-century art

In our new series, Houses with History, we ask interior designers to take us on a tour of a house of significance that they have some relationship with, that has inspired their own aesthetic and approach to design. In the first of the series, Lucy Hammond Giles, Associate Director at Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler, invites us inside Charleston, once the home of the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Nestled between the hills of the South Downs in Sussex, Charleston was a gathering place for the artists, writers and intellectuals who formed the Bloomsbury Group. After Vanessa and Duncan moved there in 1916 to escape the horrors of the First World War, their friends and relatives flocked to visit, including Vanessa’s sister Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, the founder of the Omega Workshop, the economist John Maynard Keynes, the authors Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster, and many more. Vanessa and Duncan saw no particular distinction between art and interior design, and treated the house as a canvas, painting practically every wall and piece of furniture in their own distinctive styles. As a result, the house is not only a significant piece of art history, but a landmark in the history of interior decoration. Now a museum, the house attracts thousands of visitors each year who come to see how the Bloomsbury Group lived. In this video, Lucy considers the house from her unique perspective as a decorator, pointing out the most inspiring aspects of its design and how you might think of incorporating them into your own house.

Released on 03/03/2023


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My name's Lucy Hammond Giles.

I'm an interior decorator at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler,

and we are here at Charleston,

the former home of the artist Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

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Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant lived here

until Duncan died in 1978.

Although Vanessa had died somewhat earlier in 1961,

and they lived here for those nearly 60 years

with their friends and their relatives,

most of whom were part

of what was called the Bloomsbury Group,

which was a group of intellectuals who were united

by the belief that art was essential.

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This is the dining room at Charleston

and probably my favorite of the rooms.

There are all these wonderful layers.

There's inherited formal furniture.

There are these glorious red Omega Workshop chairs,

there's Vanessa's beautifully painted table

and there is the pottery

that Vanessa's younger son Quentin made,

this wonderful lampshade with its piercings

so when it's lit, the light sprinkles

like starlight when it's on.

The walls were painted by hand.

Duncan and Quentin did it together

just at the start of the Second World War.

Quentin said it was a way of coping with impending doom.

Have something to do.

They would've lined up the squares through stencils,

which wouldn't have lasted

'cause they just made them in paper

and then this wonderful confidence

to create these hand painted chevrons

feels like something we could all have a go at.

I first came to Charleston a really long time ago

and must have seen this curtain

and completely forgotten about it.

This piece of fabric was designed

by Duncan Grant in about 1931.

They've used it as a door curtain to go

from the dining room through to the kitchen

and they've added pieces of this quilted fabric.

If you can buy an antique textile

but it's not quite big enough,

we can add pieces to it to grow it to make it fit a space.

It's a lovely idea that the Bloomsbury Group was sitting

around this table having conversations

about art theories, economics, about politics, about sex,

all around Vanessa's beautiful table.

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The first thing that Vanessa Bell painted

at Charleston was under the window.

These fantastic flowers bringing the outside in.

The rest of the window's also painted

with forms that become like windows in themselves.

Although most of the walls were whitewashed,

these walls were later painted in this fantastic green,

which Duncan helped mix with his granddaughter.

This just was not normal in a Victorian house

but we're no longer in the Victorian age.

You can see the movement,

you can see the informality and it's just lovely.

The two marvelous things

about this fireplace are the very unbeautiful,

un-aesthetically pleasing fire brick creation by Roger Fry

who was a friend of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell's

with whom they had started the Omega Workshop.

And then this beautiful painting of the mantelpiece,

which was done later by Vanessa Bell.

It looks so spontaneous and yet a lot

of work would have been very carefully planned

because not only were Vanessa and Duncan fine artists,

but they were also interior decorators.

While Vanessa had painted underneath the window,

Duncan painted the back of the door.

It's significantly more abstracted

with more geometric forms, reducing realism

for more this idea of significant form,

which was something Clive Bell, Vanessa's husband,

wrote about in his art criticism.

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This is the garden room.

We've got Duncan's wonderful ladies.

It's a very good example of make good and mend,

and this circle would've been a mirror, but it was broken

by Vanessa's son Quentin when he was holding a candle

and the heat smashed the glass.

In the same way, they were using bits

of old fabric to change plain chairs.

They were very good at making do and mending.

This lamp is fantastic.

Apparently, it was once telegraph pole

and it had been painted to be this fantastic geometric plant

with a pattern of literally wrong shaped shade

on the top of it.

These curtains are fantastic.

With a different pelmet, it's lovely.

It's this idea

of bringing together different pieces of fabric.

They don't necessarily have to go together

but there is a sympathy to them.

I love the idea of Vanessa sitting in her chair, knitting,

falling asleep occasionally, waking up, chatting.

And opposite is this radiator case

and she didn't like the look of the radiator,

so she made a macrame cover for it.

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This is Vanessa's bedroom

and the walls are actually quite plain.

Often it's the woodwork that was painted.

So we have cabinet that Vanessa did

and a cabinet that Angelica,

Vanessa and Duncan's daughter painted.

Interestingly, Vanessa's work is a little bit more organized

and well laid out, whereas Angelica's is incredible.

It's much darker and slightly more claustrophobic.

There is a fantastic mirror over her basin,

which was Duncan's design.

His mother, Ethel did the needle point work on it

and this collaboration of artists

in this environment was always encouraged

and there're examples of it everywhere.

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This room is Duncan's studio

and was designed a bit later in 1925

and built very cheaply on top of what was a chicken run.

You can see the marks

of the rain and the damp, that pattern of age.

The north light is incredible here.

So they've got the high ceilings

and as such, they could fit in this old piece

of furniture which had once belonged to Thackery.

We are now very used to seeing a mixture

of what was called high and low furniture,

so very ornate, valuable and formal pieces

of furniture combined with junk shop finds.

I particularly love this piece of spotty fabric.

It's so different to everything else in its brightness.

It's rayon and it hasn't faded

whereas everything else is gently mellowed

and sort of remained in its 1950s incarnation.

Duncan also painted these wonderful characters

holding up the mantelpiece

and they almost feel like they're keeping you company

so you could be very happily alone in this room for hours.

There are all sorts of wonderful ceramics

in Thackery's Cupboard.

Duncan and Vanessa were commissioned to design

and paint a series of plates.

They chose as their subject matter famous women.

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This room was originally Vanessa's bedroom

and Duncan painted it for her.

He painted the cockerel to wake her up

in the morning and Henry the dog to protect her at night.

The walls in this room feel very contemporary

and they're block dark color.

They're kind of a black

but they've got so much red and blue in them.

Such a wonderful place to have as a study,

which is what it ended up being

when Clive Bell moved in here in 1939.

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This is Duncan's bedroom, which Vanessa painted for him,

a lovely continuation of the artistic dialogue

that was so important in their relationship.

There's a lovely sketch that Vanessa sent the letter

to Roger Fry of this elevation

with the doors painted with the flowers and the circles

and borders symmetrically arranged around this fireplace.

As a decorator, I'm always trying to bring this feeling

of layering into client's houses,

this feeling of history and collecting.

John Fowler always said,

you should have something a little bit off in a room.

And I think thing that's a bit out of keeping

these brilliant chairs,

they are bead work.

And even Clive Bell said to Duncan Grant,

You've gone too far this time.

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When Vanessa and Duncan first moved here in 1916,

it was the end of the Victorian age.

By the time Duncan died, there had been two World Wars,

homosexuality was no longer illegal,

women had the vote and there was punk rock.

Things had changed.

And in the course of any house's lifetime, things change,

things evolve, and we have to adapt

and make them work for us.

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