Magazine article The Spectator

Charleston Charm

Magazine article The Spectator

Charleston Charm

Article excerpt

Viewers of The Culture Show on BBC2 recently might have been surprised to see Patti Smith, Seventies punk icon and sometime lover of Robert Mapplethorpe, wandering through the rooms and gardens of Charleston Farmhouse in east Sussex (former home of Clive and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant), and talking of her passion for the place and all it represents. Perhaps not such an incongruous pairing really, when one thinks about it -- one veteran boho saluting the lives of her predecessors. Smith has appeared twice at the Charleston Festival, and the house was showing an exhibition of her photographs: dense, allusive fragments of atmosphere in black and white, reminiscent in some ways of the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, great-aunt of Vanessa Bell, who lived at Charleston from 1916 until her death nearly 50 years later and who, with Grant, and later her gifted children, painted almost every visible inch of wall, fireplace and furniture.

This year marks several anniversaries for Charleston, all happily celebrated this summer: 90 years since Leonard and Virginia Woolf 'discovered' the house: 'If you lived there, ' Virginia wrote to her sister Vanessa, 'you could make it absolutely divine.' Twenty years since the restored house first opened its doors to the public, after a nail-biting six-year campaign masterminded by the indomitable Deborah Gage, who still claims, 'We never should have succeeded -- but we did.' It also, as it happens, marks the 90th birthday of Anne Olivier Bell, widow of Quentin Bell, editor (with Andrew McNeillie) of Virginia Woolf's diaries, presiding genius and ultimate authority on the house and all it contains, and éminence grise of Bloomsbury studies.

This charming, idiosyncratic house is now visited by almost 20,000 visitors a year, who are drawn to it not only by its own recent history and intrinsic fascination, but also by the annual literary and short-story festivals, the exhibitions, workshops, lectures and parties that are held there, the next one being the flamboyant and fantastical Quentin Follies, complete with online art auction, whose raison d'être (as well as everyone dressing to kill and enjoying cabaret, dinner and fireworks) is to raise money for the re-purchase of integral paintings and furniture for Charleston. From April to October, the place hums, and during the winter essential conservation and consolidation are done to prepare it for the next season.

Charleston, which was inhabited and visited over the decades by the Bells, Grant, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey, was certainly the most distinctive of the 'Bloomsbury' houses, though the circle that frequented it was much wider. It played host to T.S. Eliot, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth Clark;

when an appeal was launched in 1980 to save it, David Hockney, Roland Penrose, John Betjeman, Peggy Ashcroft, Pierre Matisse and Henry Moore were among the patrons. All felt passionately that the house was a work of art in itself, and its character, embodied not only in its countless associations but also in the vibrant colour schemes of its decoration -- murals, mosaics, sculptures and textiles -- must be preserved, initially in the face of considerable scepticism.

It was in fact the first 'modern' house to be thus championed, first by the Tate, then the National Trust: a first pebble in the pool whose ripples have spread to embrace John Lennon's house in Liverpool and Erno Goldfinger's 2 Willow Road in Hampstead, among others. …

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