Why Sussex is the most creatively inspiring of English counties - and things to do when you visit

Fiona McKenzie Johnston dives deep into the county that has been home to the Bloomsbury Group, Surrealists, a guild of Catholic craftsmen – and continues to inspire so many creatives today
Landscape, SussexGrant, Duncan

Since moving to Hastings in East Sussex, I’ve regularly found myself walking past the house that Lucien Pissarro once lived in, on the hill opposite our home, and pausing to take in the particular view that would have been so familiar to him, examining it as if through his eyes.  French by birth - the son of Camille Pissarro – and a founder of the Camden Hill Group, I find it fascinating that he nonetheless settled here for a while, painting the fishing boats, the church, and more.  In terms of broad location, he was in good company; a veritable roll call of the avant-garde have either lived in Sussex, or spent significant time here, from major Surrealists Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, to the artists of the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant et al. Then there’s Eric Ravilious, who so beautifully captured the South Downs and Beachy Head; Paul Nash, who is famous for his work as a war artist, but also painted Rye Harbour - and on, and on. Their - and others’ - depictions of the county was the focus of an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, Sussex Landscape; Chalk, Wood and Water; for which you can still buy the excellent catalogue.  While Modern British painters made up the bulk, it also looked at the artists who came before: Joseph Mallord William Turner, John Constable, William Blake – and at contemporary artists working in Sussex today.

This 17th-century country house in East Sussex was almost derelict when Richard Smith and Andrew Blackman fell in love with it

Paul Massey

For artists and creatives still abound; attracted, suggests Richard Smith, the designer and founder of fabric and wallpaper company Madeaux, “by the variety of landscape, from the marshy lowlands in the east to the drama of the Downs.  And for somewhere so close to London it’s relatively undiscovered.” He and his husband live in a thhouse that dates back to the 17th century, in the midst of an 850-acre nature reserve, overlooking one of the many semi-hidden coves facing the English Channel, just along the coast from Hastings.

The decorative painter Tess Newall and her husband, the furniture maker Alfred Newall, live next to Charleston Farmhouse. “Working in Sussex has given us space which we didn’t have in London.” she says – which is another valid factor. Matthew Burrows, the artist who founded the Artists’ Support Pledge, has been able to build his dream studio amid the rolling hills between Hastings and Rye, which wouldn’t have been possible in the city. But it goes beyond physical space, to “space to think,” continues Tess.  She describes the joy in knowing that her daily walks are the same routes that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant took, and arriving at the point “where the downs meet the sea – you feel simultaneously tiny and insignificant, but also like you can achieve anything you want.”

Is that sense of anything being possible something that that Sussex can readily give?  Is Sussex the answer to being stuck in a creative rut?  Or simply somewhere to go to recharge, and set us up for the months ahead?  Living here, I’d naturally argue yes – and mention the year-round appeal, the sea swimming, the series of bonfire festivals in the autumn, and more.  But also worth knowing is that even the coast is no more than an hour and half from London by train, making it day-trip possible, though if you did want to stay a night or three there are options, from the Olga Polizzi-designed The Star at Alfriston to the more affordable – but still chic - beach-side Port Hotel in Eastbourne.

Here are some (by no means exhaustive) ideas of where to go – as well as what to read and watch – for a taste of the Sussex creative experience:

Follow in the footsteps of the Bloomsbury Group

Inside Charleston Farmhouse, in Sussex.

The interiors of Charleston Farmhouse, where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant covered almost every surface in painted pattern, are well known to House & Garden readers.  The walled garden was designed by Roger Fry, founder of the experimental design collective the Omega Workshop.  Charleston is open all year round, and alongside the house is an exhibition space – and the Charleston Trust runs regular talks and festivals, across a variety of disciplines.

Three miles from the house is the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Berwick, which was decorated with frescoes by Grant, Bell and Quentin Bell, who received the commission during the Second World War; it’s the only example in Britain of an old, rural parish church completely decorated by 20th century artists.

Monk's House, maintained by the National Trust.

National Trust Images

And then there’s Monk’s House, where Vanessa’s sister Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard lived, and which is open from April to October. Nestled beneath the Downs in the village of Rodmell, and now owned by the National Trust, it’s a house that’s long and low. The small rooms are timbered, every floor slopes, and throughout is evidence of those Bloomsbury ideals, from patterned chairs, tiles and tabletops to fine needlework.  T.S. Eliot was a regular guest , and it was the Woolf’s private printing press, the Hogarth Press, that first published his highly influential poem, The Waste Land, in the UK.  It’s not the only house that they occupied in Sussex, incidentally, they also lived in Firle for a while, and in a former windmill in Lewes called The Round House, which has a plaque on it commemorating their time there. Virginia Woolf’s diaries have recently been newly published in full by Granta Books, each of the five volumes is introduced by a noted contemporary writer, including Virginia Nicholson (who is Woolf’s great niece, and Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter) and Olivia Laing (whose own book, To the River, is a glorious meditation on Sussex, and the Ouse, which flows through Sussex.)

Stroll across the South Downs

The Seven Sisters Cliffs in South Downs National Park, in East Sussex.

eye35.pix / Alamy Stock Photo

“Too much for one pair of eyes, enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look,” said Virginia Woolf, of this range of chalk hills which stretches from Eastbourne all the way through West Sussex to Hampshire.  And, “walking offers a place of solitude, contemplation, and an openness that allows me to consider humanity, life, death, and how the world sits in harmony or dissonance with itself.  The air, water, chalk, flint, tress, moss, fungi, wildlife – all seem to tell me what to say and how to say it,” recounts the weaver Caron Penney, who lives just outside Chichester.  Caron’s partner, the weaver Katharine Swailes whose work featured in Sussex Landscape, mentions the contrast between Cumbria, where she grew up, “where as often as not you step into the land through soft moss heather or peat,” with the Downs where “you can be on top of the land, dry and chalky.”

RAV33032 Chalk Paths by Ravilious, Eric (1903-42); Private Collection; English, out of copyright.Bridgeman Images

Katharine’s aunt, the artist Peggy Angus - whose work was also included in Sussex Landscape, and who was a close friend of Eric Ravilious – lived at a house called Furlongs, which is close to Charleston.  Katharine describes arriving there for the weekend, “I would walk up the lane from Glynde station with the light fading, the lace caps of cow parsley and ladies mantle glowing in the shadows.” Ravilious – who also used to stay at Furlongs - painted the house and the view, and “the dry white paper and wax resist afford a reflecting light that suggests the English Channel not far away.  Furlongs has a long uninterrupted view across an open arable field, like a sea. I don’t set out to create the landscape, but this place and its memories inhabit my weaving,” Katharine explains.

There are so many different paths across the downs, so many charming dells to discover that it’s impossible to list them all, but a couple of favourite Downs routes do feature in this round-up of Sussex walks.

Discover Eastbourne and Eric Ravilious

The lighthouse at Beachy Head, East Sussex.

RooM the Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

Eastbourne may have a reputation as a tired seaside town, but it is a convenient launchpad for the Downs, being situated next to Beachy Head, and it’s where Eric Ravilious grew up. If you can, find a screening of Eric Ravilious - Drawn to War, the first full length documentary devoted to his life, which was cut short when he was killed in a plane crash while on commission as an official war artist in Iceland in 1942. Though tragic, the film is overall a delight, giving an immersive sense of time and place.

Eastbourne is also home to the Towner Gallery, which has an outstanding collection of works by Ravilious – including his designs for Wedgewood – and other Modern British artists; later this year, it’s hosting the Turner Prize.

Submerge yourself in Surrealism

Farleys House in Muddles Green, just outside Lewes, East Sussex.

Tony Tree © Lee Miller Archives, England 2021. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk

The Long Man of Wilmington.

Herb Bendicks / Alamy Stock Photo

Farleys House, which is also open from April to October, is the Georgian farmhouse in Muddles Green, just outside Lewes, where Lee Miller – model, fashion photographer, war reporter – and Roland Penrose – artist, historian, poet - lived from 1949 until their deaths.  It’s where they hung their extraordinary art collection, and where they hosted friends, who included Man Ray, Joan Miró and Picasso. In many ways the interior epitomises English country house style, being comfortable, beautiful, and not-precious-seeming (witness the Picasso tile cemented in place above the Aga) but there are elements that are decidedly surreal. There’s a gallery too, showing Lee’s work (for none is hung in the house – she didn’t like to see it) and every summer a ticketed Surrealist picnic is held in the garden.

One of their favourite Downs walks was up to the Long Man of Wilmington.  Carved into the hillside, it is the largest portrayal of the human form in Europe, and dates back to at least 1710.  Lee photographed it too – notably as if being sketched by the American cartoonist Saul Steinberg – and Roland painted it onto the fireplace in their dining room.

Then there’s West Dean House, now West Dean College of Arts, Design and Conservation, which was once the family home of Bright Young Thing Edward James.  He collaborated with Salvador Dali on the famous Mae West Lips Sofas, inspired by Dali’s collage Mae West’s Face which May be used as a Surrealist Apartment, and lamps made of stacks of bronzed champagne coups.   Edward’s bedroom – complete with a bed based on Nelson’s funeral hearse, a palm tree at every corner – has been recreated, but is only viewable by appointment; however, sign up to a course (there are numerous shorter ones) and you will have access to the public rooms. The library has an arts and crafts doorframe by Rex Whistler, and a spiral staircase is carpeted in one of Edward’s commissions, a runner that bares the footprint of his wife, the dancer Tilly Losch.  (Their marriage was brief; he subsequently commissioned a new carpet adorned with the paw prints of his dogs.)  Alternatively or as well, the gardens are open to the public, and have an impressive collection of Victorian glasshouses, a 300-foot pergola, and occasional – surreal – fibreglass trees.  You could easily spend days exploring them – and should you wish to, there’s a Bed & Breakfast option.

Celebrate craft in Ditchling

The misty South Downs near Ditchling.

James Barrett / Alamy Stock Photo

Unlikely as it sounds, Ditchling was recently home to a Medieval-inspired guild of Catholic craftsmen.  The sculptor and wood engraver Eric Gill (who is less favourably looked upon now than he was then, for reasons beside his art) was one of the founders of the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, which was formally constituted in 1921, and had a stone carving workshop, silversmithing, weaving, and more.  Women weren’t permitted to join until 1972, so the weaver Ethel Mairet set up her own consortium – which so impressed the Cornish studio potter Bernard Leach and his friend Shõji Hamada that in 1921 they went to go and see it.

The Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft shows a good selection of work by members of the guild – further works are scattered through Ditchling itself.

Consider the Coastal (and not so Coastal) Towns

A wing of the Pallant House Gallery in Chicester.

Peter Cook-VIEW / Alamy Stock Photo

Chichester – which is where Pallant House Gallery is situated - is not strictly speaking coastal, but it’s near enough.  Do walk down to the canal basin and look back at the view that Turner painted. The gallery is currently holding a glorious exhibition devoted to Gwen John, re-examining her work alongside that of her fellow international modernists. That show aside, Pallant House Gallery is also home to an exceptional collection of 20th century British art, left to the city by Walter Hussey on his retirement from the position of Dean of Chichester Cathedral – which you should also visit, as the two are linked.  Hussey reforged the relationship between the church and the arts in the twentieth century, commissioning Graham Sutherland to paint an altarpiece, John Piper to create a tapestry for the High Altar, and Marc Chagall to design a stained-glass window.  Chichester is also home to an excellent theatre, the Chichester Festival Theatre, where this summer’s production of The Sound of Music has garnered rave reviews.  Finally, make time to drive down to West Wittering, to blow away the cobwebs on the vast expanse of sand beach.

Chichester CanalTurner, Joseph Mallord William

Further inland from Chichester the small town of Petworth, an extraordinarily good destination for those who love antiques shops, and the location of Newlands House Gallery, which is currently staging the first retrospective of pioneering photographer Eve Arnold’s work in ten years.  There’s also the National Trust-managed late 17th century Petworth House, which has got an outstanding art collection (including a room of Grinling Gibbons carvings) and a Capability Brown-designed deer park.

Heading back East, and definitely on the coast, don’t miss Bexhill-on-Sea, and the De La Warr Pavilion. A spectacular modernist building designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff and constructed in 1935, it one of the first of its type in Britain, and is now a contemporary arts centre with excellent content: currently showing is an exhibition of work by Mohammed Sami.

Whistler's Mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (1871), known as Whistler's Mother, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

And then there’s Hastings – once home not only to Lucien Pissarro, but the Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, who married in St. Clement’s Church (the one that Pissarro didn’t paint – All Saints Church was his subject.) Christina Rossetti was a regular visitor – we often sing the hymn she wrote, In The Bleak Midwinter – and so was Rossetti’s friend James Abbott McNeill Whistler, for whom the steps behind my house are named.  He installed his mother on the street at the top of then, and it is there that he painted his famous portrait of her, Whistler’s Mother, that now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  (I hold it in my mind’s eye every morning as I scale the steps on the school run, thinking how often Whistler would have paced up this same cliff.) Don’t miss Hastings Contemporary, where there’s still time to catch Soutine: Kossoff, which will be the first museum show to pair these 20th century masters, one of the Paris school, the other of the London school.  The gallery is next to the Grade II listed net huts – and RX fisheries, where you can buy a dressed crab for the same price as a Pret-a-Manger salad.  (A brief aside: actually, William the Conquerer landed at Pevensey, and the Battle of Hastings was fought at Battle.  There are, however, the ruins of a castle built by William the Conquerer, in Hastings; I live almost next to it.)

Sussex is also Wine Country

Bodium Castle and its vineyard in East Sussex.

John Miller / Alamy Stock Photo

The Sussex climate transpires to be ideal for wine production, and the wineries are becoming increasingly well-known for their award-winning vintages.  Many of the vineyards have tours and tastings, which they combine with restaurants serving locally sourced food – and you can stay the night at some of them. Of particular note are the estates of Tinwood, Ashling Park and Wiston.

Meander Rye and Romney Marsh

Fairfield Church on Romney Marsh in Kent.

Rick Strange / Alamy Stock Photo

Lamb House, now owned by the National Trust.

Romney Marsh is the wetland area that Richard Smith mentioned – and a complete contrast to the chalky dryness of the Downs.  Sparsely populated, it was a smuggler’s paradise between the 1600s and 1800s; criss-crossed with numerous waterways, it is now a bird watcher’s paradise.

The town of Rye is one of the four coastal towns of the Marsh and is utterly charming with lots to see. Lamb House, now owned by the National Trust, is a Georgian town house that has, at various times, been home to the writers Henry James (who regularly had Edith Wharton to stay) and Rumer Godden; This House of Brede, A Kindle of Kittens and The Diddakoi are all set in the area.  The church is another must-visit, with stained-glass windows by Edward Burne-Jones (and a ghost in the graveyard.)

From the town you can walk down to Rye Harbour, painted by both Ravilious and Paul Nash, and where House & Garden’s Assistant Decoration Editor, Rémy Mishon recently moved to. A path skirts the beach all the way to Fairlight and its row of enviable modernist houses with views of the channel – the ultimate temptation to make the escape permanent, as so many others have done before.