The secret life of Bloomsbury

11 July 2009
Charleston, Lewes, Sussex

A trip to Charleston, the home of Bloomsbury Group artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, reveals wonderful interior decorating and gardening – and a twisted web of lies and sexual jealousy.

Today I fulfilled a longstanding wish to visit Charleston, a farmhouse in Sussex that was the former home of the painter Vanessa Bell and her lover Duncan Grant, and one of the many hangouts of the Bloomsbury Group, including Vanessa’s sister Virginia Woolf, and a number of fruity tweed-wearing poofs who flirted with modernism, bisexuality, pacifism and floral wallpaper in the inter War period. As a wannabe literary lesbian, I’ve been obsessed with the Bloomsbury set since I first discovered Virginia Woolf as an English undergrad at university, and since then, I feel that I’ve been trying to defend them as revolutionary swingers, rather than as the pretentious middle class twats many of their critics accuse them of being.

By the time I got to university, literary criticism and academia was in the full swing of identity politics and post-colonial theory, and the Canon of dead white male writers was under attack. Even Virginia Woolf, who proved her feminist credentials with her essays A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas and was grudgingly acknowledged as one of the pioneers of modernism, was condemned as stuffy, snobbish, class obsessed and a representative of the white ruling classes. The remaining members of the Bloomsbury Group – art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry, novelist E M Forster, political theorist Bertrand Russell and Maynard Keynes, professional homosexual and biographer Lytton Strachey, and various other hanger-ons – were written off as hopeless bourgeois, mannered, pretentious and clinging too easily to their lives of privilege, trust funds and aristocratic hauteur.

Well, bollocks to that, I say. The Bloomsbury Group were certainly snobbish, elitist and clannish. There’s evidence that they weren’t nice to the more marginal members of the group, including Katherine Mansfield, Lydia Lopokova, Dora Carrington and others, and everyone seems to have been a complete bitch to Lady Ottoline Morrell, who nonetheless was a tireless hostess. And yes, some of the Group’s then trendy politics may now be a little dated.

But despite this, I’ve always believed that they deserve our praise and reverence. Why? For dragging England out of Victorianism and into the more promising realms of bohemianism and modernism, for criticising the stuffiness and hyocrisy of the Victorian era. For instigating a more public examination of the life of the mind and the state of consciousness. For analysing systems of political power and finding them wanting. For insisting on the importance of the personal as well as the public. For their experiments with modern living and more open acknowledgements of sexuality (although it did lead to a few quasi-incestuous marriages and a lot of broken plates). For being committed to art as a form of changing the world. For being unapologetically eccentric. For wearing yellow stockings and old curtains in public long before the Von Trapp Family made it cool. And most of all, for all being complete sluts.

The Group’s clannishness extends mainly from its associations with Vanessa and Virginia’s family. They were the daughters of an extremely scary sounding Victorian patriarch – Sir Leslie Stephen, best known as the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and with a beard and continual expression of melancholy to match his title. Their mother was Julia Cameron, a noted beauty, a cousin of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and a relative of the novelist Thackeray, so put together, they made a Victorian power couple to die for. And they did, eventually.

Being girls, Vanessa and Virginia didn’t go to school or university – something that irritated Virginia all her life – but their father encouraged them to read and paint, and seems to have been encouraging of their ambitions to be artists. When their parents died, the Stephens ditched their dark oppressive family mansion in Hyde Park for a flat in Bloomsbury, around the corner from the British Museum, at that time a slightly down at heel part of town and certainly not a place for respectable Victorians to live, and they dragged themselves into the 20th century. The sisters started doing radical things like doing away with napkins at the dinner table and having coffee after dinner. “We were full of experiments and reforms… Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial”, Virginia wrote breathlessly in her diary.

Meanwhile, their brothers went off to university at Cambridge, and came home for weekends bringing an assortment of faggy students with them, and their regular discussion groups at the Stephens’ home was the germ of the Bloomsbury Group. Vanessa became a painter and rapidly embraced post-Impressionism; Virginia started writing reviews and essays; everyone read Freud, became fascinated by sex and subconscious, started reviewing each others’ work and falling in and out of each others’ beds; and so, a movement was born.

One of my favourite Bloomsbury anecdotes is the Dreadnought Hoax, where Adrian Stephen, Duncan, Virginia and others dressed up as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his suite and managed to fool the British Navy into inviting them aboard the Dreadnought, the biggest and newest of the Navy warships for an inspection and civic reception. It generated enough scandal to be mentioned in the House of Commons. It’s an interesting story, because it represents what’s most loveable and applaudable about the Bloomsbury Group (their boldness at satirising the establishment, their love of theatricality and spectacle) and also what made so many people dismiss them as irritating over-privileged aesthetes who were more pretentious than they were subversive.

As I never fail to try and argue until I’m blue(stockingened) in the face, the Bloomsbury Group were, on the whole, mostly aware of their privilege and the way that it informed their opinions and sensibility. It’s true that they lived within some of the conventions of their time – most of the group kept servants, and Virginia had more than one or two bitchy things to say about people of lower classes, and they did reserve for themselves the roles of prophets and seers.

But rather than lazily pontificating about the ills of modern capitalism as they flopped around in chaise lounges while servants fed them grapes, they did, mostly, use the advantages that their income gave them, and roll up their flowing sleeves and put themselves to work, rethinking the relationships between men and women, the individual and the State, the existence (or not) of God, and debunk notions of patriotism and sexual repression. Virginia, rather than apologising for her wealth, identified it as crucial for her survival as a writer. Drawing on socialism and Keynsian economic theory and her own developing feminist theory, Virginia wrote in A Room of One’s Own that for a woman to be able to write, she needs a room of her own (with a lock on the door) and £500 a year. Money wasn’t just about being able to afford to shoot your own servants instead of pheasants and buy first editions – it was the key to the social and artistic independence of women.

Money, politics, pacifism, freefalling lust and multiple bed-hopping lead the Group to repair to the countryside – and this is where Charleston comes in.The musical beds goes something like this – Vanessa was married to Clive Bell, and had two sons with him, Quentin and Julian Bell. She fell madly in love with Lytton Strachey’s cousin Duncan Grant, a fellow painter, openly bisexual and a sexy bastard to boot, and had a daughter with him, Angelica, who was raised as Bell’s daughter (more on that later).

All the Group were pacifists, and the men of conscription age, including Duncan, became conscientious objectors. (There’s a wonderful anecdote about Lytton Strachey being summonsed before a county court to get medical exemption for military service – when the magistrate asked “What would you do if you saw a German soldier attempting to rape your sister”, he replied, “My Lord, I would attempt to come between them”). To get Duncan out of being called up, or for going to prison for conscientious objection (and so Vanessa could keep Grant around as her boy toy), Vanessa and Duncan moved to Sussex and rented the farmhouse at Charleston, where Duncan could work as a farmer, thus doing necessary work for the war effort, and where Vanessa could raise the children out of London and possibly find time to paint.

Somehow, Clive and Vanessa and Duncan managed to co-exist in the house without ripping each others’ faces off (though Stephen assured me today that the house must be full of bad relationship karma). Things became more confusing when Duncan fell in love with David “Bunny” Garnett. Vanessa, desperate not to lose Grant to the lure of cock, allowed Garnett to live with them at Charleston, at at some stage had a brief affair with Garnett herself. Throw in innumerable visitors, half a dozen or so of Clive Bell’s girlfriends and a few lovers for each of Vanessa and Grant (who also slept with Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, his own cousin Lytton, and no doubt a few farmboys in between), and it’s kinda amazing that any of them found time to write books, paint or feed the children, in between sorting out who they were going to sleep with that night. Somehow, Vanessa and Clive remained married, and Vanessa and Duncan lived at Charleston until their deaths (Vanessa in 1961, Duncan in 1978, as no doubt a very dirty old man).

There was a slightly icky end to all the musical bedding. Angelica, Vanessa and Duncan’s daughter, was born in Charleston on Christmas Day 1918, witnessed by Bunny, who is supposed to have commented on how beautiful she was, and how he planned to marry her. Angelica was raised assuming that Clive was her father, and that Duncan was just a fruity friend of Mummy’s. She was eventually told when she was 17, which I imagine was rather traumatising, in a Liv Tyler “What? Steve Tyler is my dad?” kinda way. Things became creepier when Angelica ended up marrying Bunny (despite being 26 years younger than him), again with no knowledge that he had been her father’s lover, and had four children with him. Unsurprisingly, she hit the roof when she found out the truth, divorced her husband, and in the early 80s (just as a major wave of biographies and critical studies of the Bloomsbury Group were being published), she wrote a Mommy Dearest-esque memoir, Deceived With Kindness, which was essentially a hatchet job about her upbringing (which she claimed to hate) and her fury at her parents for allowing her to live under a lie. Aaaah, bohemianism – it sounds good on paper, but so often leads to tears, broken plates turned into fish mosaics and bitter, face-scratching memoirs. I think the moral of the story is also never to trust a man who’s nickname is Bunny.

Charleston is partially a memorial to the Group’s experiments in modern living (there are one or two door panels that were apparently kicked in during arguments, and there’s only a few pieces of the now priceless hand-painted dinnerware that the ceramicist Clarice Cliffe commissioned Duncan to paint), but also to Vanessa and Duncan’s feverish activity. Borrowing a little from the Arts and Crafts movement, which advocated a breakdown between “high” and “low”culture and the development of artistry in everyday household objects, they set about painting the walls, furniture and every other flat surface in the house. (I suspect the children and the occasional farmyard animal may have been covered with paint in passing). Vanessa and Duncan were inspired by modernist art, including a show curated by Clive in 1912 which brought the early modernists and Fauvists (Picasso, Braques, Matisse and friends) to London, shocking the crowds with their bright colours and savage, “primitive” subjects, influenced by primal art and African tribal masks.

Vanessa and Duncan created their own kind of artistic language, creating a house in which everything is beautiful, decorative and somehow still functional and charmingly “home made” and personal. In addition to painting each others’ portraits throughout their lives, they each decorated the others’ bedrooms – Duncan rather sweetly painted a cockerel above the window of Vanessa’s bedroom to wake her up each morning, and a bloodhound to keep guard over her while she slept at night. Even more intriguingly, they designed a number of patterns for fabrics, furnishings and carpets, which were woven by Duncan’s mother, Ethel. (Stephen and I decided that Ethel was clearly a pushy Gypsy-esque stage mother who encouraged Duncan to drop his trousers and go hang out with the cool kids. Clearly, it worked. Go, Ethel!). When Clive extended the lease on the house, they built an add-on studio for Vanessa, which lead off her bedroom. (Vanessa and Duncan shared it for a while, but Vanessa eventually headed to the attic to make her own studio, and a proper room of one’s own). There’s also a gorgeous, rambling English country garden, decorated quirkly with Grecian-style statues, and hand-made mosaics, and a vegetable garden.

After Duncan’s death, the house became derelict and was rescued from complete ruin by the Friends of Charleston, and converted into a trust. Following the major revival of interest in the Bloomsbury Group in the 1980s, and the resurgence of interest in Virginia Woolf after The Hours, Charleston is now a regular on the literary pilgrimage map, and a must for would-be bohemians (faux-hemians?) like me who worship at the eccentric charm of the Bloomsbury set.

Visiting the house makes you realise, yet again, the difference between the messy reality of lived experience, and the considerably cleaner, more sanitised and less messy version of “literary life” that gets sold to tourists in a literary museum. Despite the dazzling and incredibly densely detailed interior design and furnishings, the house has the formality and restrictions of any other museum trying to preserve fragile paintings, fraying rugs and valuable paintings – no photographs allowed inside, perspex screens over many of the painted walls, signs saying “Do not touch” on the furniture, and grim faced old ladies who appear noiselessly in doorways or at the bottom of the stairwell, noiselessly gesturing you towards the next room or waving an accusatory finger at you if you dare to rest your fingers on the back of a chair or if your bag accidentally brushes against the curtains. One short, crone-like warden was especially creepy, and had Stephen humming the theme from Don’t Look Now whenever she came near.

The need to preserve history is understandable, but what’s lacking from Charleston is anything like the sense of noise and life and energy described in the letters and accounts from the time – children rushing around, animals wandering in and out of the house, Vanessa simultaneously trying to paint, give Duncan a hand job, milk the cows, and try and be on speaking terms with Duncan’s latest London toy boy, the parties, pageants, late night discussions about communism and the war, the arguments, the tears, the deathbed confessions – everything that makes a house live. To fill that in, we have to use our imaginations, which aint so easy when your tour guide is a very nice posh lady in a beige suit who barely speaks above a whisper in case she disturbs the authentic Bloomsbury dust, and there’s a gift store full of more beige wearing ladies selling heavily marked up Bloomsbury souvenir wares next door. Charleston’s one concession to eccentric theatricals was happening that night – the Quentin Follies, an annual performance of cabaret, music, poetry and general camp old nonsense, commemorating the pageants and parties once thrown by the Group, was taking place in the cow shed that night – to the tune of £40 a head, darling.

A charitable trust must make its money, I suppose, and I’m pleased that the house has lasted long enough after Vanessa’s and Duncan’s deaths for me to be able to see it – so these are the concessions that need to be made. Plates that were once casually thrown at errant boyfriends are now carefully stacked on side shelves, paintings once cocked at saucy angles are now wired to alarms in case they’re brushed, and chairs once casually slouched over by the children are now painstakingly restored and refurbished with specially commissioned fabrics by Laura Ashley. To monumentalise something is to give it a value and a sacredness that it may not have ever had in real life. I suspect that Vanessa and Duncan might both have been horrified at the way in which their own lives – once representative of bohemian rebellion – have in turn become part of the Heritage industry. But as the alternative means letting things be destroyed and lost forever, I guess we’ll have to lump the scary midget wardens and security alarms for a while longer.

To its credit, Charleston does manage to retain something of the impromptu home-made aesthetic that feels like (once upon a time, anyway) this was a studio and not a museum. There’s the occasional detail that seems random and ramshackle – like the old coat, man’s hat and umbrella hanging on a hook in the front door corridor – even though it may have been art designed by curators. The modernist geometric designs painted on the walls of the dining room still show paint drip marks and traces of damp. (Is the damp Heritage as well, now?) The Group’s sometimes bizarrely random collection of eclectic design is still displayed – Staffordshire porcelain figurines clashing wonderfully with Duncan’s paganist paintings of Grecian goddesses and African masks, and original prints of Picasso and Delacroix paintings squaring off against Vanessa’s modernist portraits of family members.

The tour of the house saves the best until last – Vanessa and Duncan’s studio, which is a breathtaking shambles of paints, drawings, photographs, easels and quirky details (pictures of cats, a male nude painted by Duncan, a cabinet inherited from Thackeray filled with Duncan’s hand painted plates, a photograph of Nijinsky) and large windows letting in the afternoon sun and a view of the garden. Here, more than anywhere else in the house, can you get a sense of life as it might have been lived, in all its complexity and messiness.

In Hermione Lee’s wonderful, intelligent and scrupulously researched biography of Virginia Woolf, she describes succinctly but unsentimentally the sense of almost-ness of visiting a literary shrine – the simultaneous feeling of connection with and appreciation of the past, at the same time as the realisation that the past is irretrievable to us. “The places [Woolf] lived in and visited embody my sense of her as at once distant and close,” she writes. Visiting Virginia and Vanessa’s former childhood holiday home in St Ives in Cornwall (incidentally, one of my favourite parts of England), Lee manages to convince the owner to let her stand in the garden of the house and watch the sun set over the St Ives lighthouse – a view made famous by Virginia in her novel To The Lighthouse:

“I stand in the garden, feeling like a biographer, a tourist and an intruder. It is getting dark. I inspect the stone step below the French window where the Stephen family and their guests were so often photographed. No convenient ghost is going to appear, casting her shadow on the step. However, looking away from the house, over the buildings of the twentieth century, at the distant view from this island look-out, I can allow myself to suppose that I am seeing something of what she saw. My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.”

I sometimes like to poo-poo the whole notion of visiting literary heritage sites, believing (sometimes, anyway) that an artist’s life is to be found solely in their work, and that it’s both pointless and reductive to scurry around looking for archival details of the life that’s been lived – and in the case of Vanessa, Virginia, Duncan and friends, lives that have been ended long ago.

Yet still I become curious and excited to walk in the same footsteps as writers and artists that I’ve loved, to see things as they might have seen them, and to somehow solidify the experience of enjoying a painting or a novel by seeing something of the material world from which it came. As a wannabe writer, it’s certainly inspiring to see how other artists lived and worked. I terrified Stephen on the train back to London with my plans to Bloomsburyify my spare room, though I’m sure the sensation will wear off by lunchtime tomorrow – but it affects me on a more basic, human level, to know that others have gone before us, ploughing hard courses (and quite a few rent boys) on the way.

Perhaps what makes Charleston burn a little more brightly than the other literary shrines is that the house doesn’t just represent the place where the artist lived or once went for a swim in the sea or got inspired to make a work of art – the house is the work of art, and so in that sense, it feels like you’re just a little closer to the soul of the artists who lived there.

Entering Charleston is like going into a private world. Now that I’m back in London, it feels like I went back in time for the day, and disappeared into the head of someone’s consciousness and read their own private language for an hour or two. I’m grateful for the opportunity to visit the house, sincerely pissed off that I’m several generations too young to have been able to shag Duncan Grant, or dance around in the garden with Virginia waving a scarf, and want to come back again soon.

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