From Town and City to the Country

‘The Tug’ by Sussex artist, Vanessa Bell
‘The Tug’ by Sussex artist, Vanessa Bell

In the late 19th and 20th centuries many of Britain’s leading artists were inspired to leave London and our towns and cities, for the country. For some it was to escape the effects of the industrial revolution and for others the wars. There was a desire to articulate the ancient hope of the English expressed in and through their landscape. A hope bound up with a romanticized view of a rural idyll, lost or under threat.

It was Virginia Woolf’s love for Duncan Grant and her sister, Vanessa Bell, which brought her to Sussex during the First World War. Vanessa was living with her lover, the artist Duncan Grant, and his friend David Garnett, at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk when her sister, the author, Virginia Woolf, wrote to her in the May of 1916. She extolled the virtues and potential of Charleston house near Firle in East Sussex. To avoid being called up to fight and the prospect of gaol as conscientious objectors, Duncan Grant and David Garnett needed to be essentially employed on the land. Virginia Woolf was by this time living at Asheham some four miles from Charleston and, having suffered a breakdown, sought Vanessa’s company. In her letters Virginia explained that not only did the house need a tenant but that the neighbouring farmer was short of ‘hands’ to work on the land.

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant would gather an extraordinary array of artists, writers and intellectuals to Charleston. Amongst them was the great economist Maynard Keynes, the authors Lytton Strachey and T. S. Elliot, the artist and critic Roger Fry and, amongst many others, Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell.

In London Vanessa Bell had married the art critic Clive Bell and was one of the leading members of what would become known as the Bloomsbury Group. She worked in the Omega Workshops with Roger Fry and collaborated with Duncan Grant in numerous decorative projects and artistic commissions.

As well as covering the walls and furniture at Charleston with painted decoration they portrayed those who visited and the countryside around them. The delightful oil by Vanessa Bell titled ‘The Tug’ depicts a scene reminiscent of Newhaven harbour which is across the Sussex Downs from Charleston. The light is golden and luminous. Her handling of paint is broad and filled with life and movement in the manner of the French Post-Impressionists. There is freedom and joy in the moored boat’s hopeful depiction.

Walter Langley’s oil painting, ‘A Quiet Time’
Walter Langley’s oil painting, ‘A Quiet Time’

In contrast to Vanessa Bell’s bright palette is Walter Langley’s depiction of a working class woman at rest. Titled ‘A Quiet Time’ it reflects Langley’s empathy with the persistent hardship faced by the poor in 19th century Britain. Muted earth hues are employed in the stillness of this sensitive, delicate portrait. The economy of detail is typical of his portrayals of the working people of Newlyn in Cornwall. Walter Langley belonged to a group of artists from Birmingham who journeyed to Newlyn in Cornwall to escape the hardships caused by the Industrial Revolution in our cities. Their pursuit of realism was influenced by the French Barbizon painters. There is a romantic articulation of the nobility in working people.

If Sussex and her Downs touch your heart the need to live in their folds never leaves you. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant would continue to live at Charleston throughout their lives. 2016 marks a century since the Bloomsbury Group artists, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, arrived in Sussex to make their home at Charleston. I look forward to returning to Charleston and their array of events to celebrate this important anniversary. For more information go to

Vanessa Bell’s and Walter Langley’s paintings are already consigned for sale in Toovey’s select Fine Art Sale on Wednesday 23rd March 2016, each with an estimate of £8,000-12,000.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Charleston: An Eloquent Home in the Heart of Sussex

Charleston Studio © P. Fewster, courtesy of the Charleston Trust.
Charleston Studio © P. Fewster, courtesy of the Charleston Trust. In later years the studio doubled as Duncan Grant’s sitting room, in which there was always much to delight the visitor’s eye

As you visit Charleston, home to the Bloomsbury group of artists, you cannot fail to be captivated by the extraordinary collection of art and the intimacy of this house and its stories. This week I am delighted to be returning to Charleston once more, to see it through the eyes of author Virginia Nicholson. Virginia has warm memories of happy summer holidays spent with her grandmother, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant at Charleston.

Duncan Grant's Studio. Photograph by Axel Hesslenberg (c) courtesy of the Charleston Trust
“The house still has the evocative smells of books and turpentine, which Virginia describes as memories from her childhood.”

Virginia describes how as a child visiting Charleston on holiday, she found it such a warm, freeing and welcoming place to be. “At Charleston you did art,” she says. “You engaged in the act of creation – messy was good – it was virtuous to create.” Virginia has only distant memories of her grandmother, the well-known artist Vanessa Bell. Her recollections of Vanessa’s lifelong love, Duncan Grant, however, are much more vivid. “There was something of the child in Duncan – innocent, open and benign – he always thought the best. He had an energy and appetite for life.” These playful, boyish qualities were expressed in games of charades and he was even known to dress up as a cow with coathangers for horns. “As children we were paid sixpence an hour to pose to be painted by Vanessa and Duncan,” Virginia explains. “Sometimes we got the fidgets!” There were just seven years between Duncan’s death and the opening of the house to the public in 1986. The house still has the evocative smells of books and turpentine, which Virginia describes as memories from her childhood. There is a tangible sense of continuity at Charleston, as though Vanessa or Duncan might appear in a doorway or the studio.

The house was cold, without even running hot water, when Vanessa and Duncan arrived in 1916. They set about creating an aesthetic whole. Here was a unified work of art, created by bringing together paintings, furniture, objects, ceramics and books. Charleston remains the most complete example of Bloomsbury group sensibilities, a piece of art out of time, set permanently in the 1950s. It is art to be inhabited, not something to be viewed with dispassion through the separation of time. Duncan Grant, David Garnett, Vanessa, her husband, Clive, and the children, Julian, Quentin and Angelica, all lived at Charleston and were often joined by visitors.

Charleston provided refuge for artists, writers and intellectuals during a tempestuous century, marked by the Great Depression and two world wars. Visitors included the writers T.S. Elliot, E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, the composer Benjamin Britten and his friend and muse, the tenor Peter Pears, as well the influential economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes visited Charleston so often that he was given his own room. Roger Fry founded the Omega Workshops in 1913. Famous as an art critic, artist and organiser of the influential London Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, Fry was also regularly to be found at Charleston and contributed to the design of the house and garden.

Studio Fireplace © P. Fewster, courtesy of the Charleston Trust.
Studio Fireplace © P. Fewster, courtesy of the Charleston Trust. The panel around the fireplace was painted in 1932 by Duncan Grant and the accumulation of cuttings, invitations and photographs are things that caught his eye. The photograph on the left was taken in the 1930s and depicts Duncan and Vanessa Bell’s daughter, Angelica

Together they represent an extraordinary generation. Virginia concludes, “They questioned: how do we live our lives; what do we do; what do we seek? The house speaks eloquently of this. It is liberating and freeing.” It has always seemed to me important to remain questioning. At Charleston they lived out their lives being creative and inquisitive, rather than being content with the superficialities that today’s culture encourages.

With the August Bank Holiday approaching, treat yourselves to a summer holiday visit to the house and garden of Charleston, just across the border in East Sussex. Experience the lives of the artists, writers and intellectuals who lived, visited and were blessed by this most eloquent of houses. Virginia Nicholson has inherited the creative gifts of her forebears and works as an established and highly regarded author. Charleston a Bloomsbury house and garden, written by Virginia Nicholson with her father Quentin Bell, gives a very personal view of the lives and art of those who lived and visited Charleston and is lavishly illustrated. Her book Among the Bohemians – Experiments in Living 1900-1939 adds depth and insight into the lives and work of a generation of eccentric and free-spirited artists. Both are favourites of mine and are available from the Charleston shop, prices £18.99 and £10.99. For opening times and more information, go to or telephone 01323 811626.You may be certain of a warm welcome as Charleston gathers you, as she has gathered generations of visitors before you.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 21st August 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.