Monday, 6 April 2015

Easter Sunday Day Trip to Charleston and Alfriston | The Small Desk

Ever since my friend pulled out a leaflet about Charleston from a brochure stand at the National Portrait Gallery a few years ago, I have kept the leaflet on constant view, hoping that one day I would be able to visit this seemingly magical time capsule. On Easter Sunday my parents made this happen. I was so excited, especially as I had heard they painted everything, they left no surface unpainted. 

Charleston was the home of Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell and Duncan Grant. They rented the house from 1916 and moved in more permanently during the war to escape London. These three people were part of the Bloomsbury Group. Vanessa Bell is also the sister of Virginia Woolf, a name you might be more familiar with. Vanessa and Clive were married, but later split, and Duncan and Vanessa became lovers. The more you read into this family, the more extraordinary it becomes. For example, I recently read that Duncan was in fact more interested in men, had an affair with David Garnett, who later married Angelica, Duncan's daughter!

Duncan was the last remaining member of the group to stay in the house; he lived there until his death in 1978. Shortly after this the house was purchased and The Charleston Trust was set up.

When we arrived at the house we decided to have a picnic first, however either the picnic area is terrible or it just hasn't been completed yet! It was a space of land about 6ft by 6ft and with no picnic benches or anything to sit on, so we had our picnic out of the boot of the car. It was delicious nonetheless! My mum sure knows how to do a good picnic!

Tickets for the house are sold for allocated times. We got the 1:30pm slot. The good thing is that you don't have to be out by a certain time. We spent about one hour wandering through the house, talking to the attendants, and trying to look at everything. The house is absolutely freezing, and is flaking away. They do have a team of conservationists, but it is not just that it is a large house but there are so many elements to it and so much painting. It is true what they say, no surface is left unpainted! When I say painted, I mean still life, patterns, portraits, and copies of famous paintings. The fireplaces are painted, the baths are painted and even the dining room table. They had an insatiable appetite when it came to art and painting. 

The studio was my favourite room in the house. You could really feel the energy in the room. The pottery studio was not far away either and you could imagine Quentin Bell (Vanessa and Clive's son) working away in his studio and bringing his pottery in for Bell and Grant to paint. The whole house felt energetic but at the same time relaxing. It really was a place where people felt they could express themselves without anyone judging or pigeonholing them. 

When we'd been round the house we went to the shop and I purchased a DVD called 'A Painter's Paradise'. I watched it as soon as I got back! I am so pleased I bought it as I can't find any copies of it on Amazon and am unsure where else you would buy it. The DVD documents the restoration of the house in the 1980s. It is mostly narrated by Bell and Grant's daughter Angelica Garnett. She tells of how she didn't know that Duncan Grant was her father until she was 17, but that going back to Charleston was like going "back into the womb". This is a somewhat unexpected phrase coming from Angelica as it sounds like a very odd family upbringing, but I can relate to it in terms of what it feels like to go back to your childhood home. I can also understand what she means in terms of Charleston, as it does feel like a hugely well-loved home that despite the cold hugs you when you walk in.

Quentin Bell is also in the documentary and it is fascinating to hear what it was like to live in the house by both Angelica and Quentin.

Interestingly Angelica notes that Vanessa was taught by Sargent at the Royal Academy, therefore she had a much more formal background as a painter than Duncan. I am actually hoping to go and see the Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this week, so will definitely be looking for comparisons and influences! Angelica is very poetic in her language throughout the documentary and my favourite quote of hers is her description of Vanessa and Duncan's move away from sombre tones, she says they "came out like a flock of parakeets".

During this documentary Angelica also speaks of the three servants they had in the house and mentions Grace, the servant who stayed the longest and looked after Duncan until the end. I thought the name Grace rang a bell in terms of the Bloomsbury Group and later realised that I have been to a talk at the NPG where the author Stewart MacKay spoke about his book about the letters of Grace at Charleston!

After we'd finished at Charleston we headed to the small town of Alfriston, which is only a ten minute drive away. It is a beautifully quaint town in the heart of Sussex, not far from Brighton. We had tea and cake in a local teashop and then went on a short walk around the town. I had an elderflower and gooseberry Victoria sponge, it was amazing. They said you could ask for your money back if the sponge wasn't light, unfortunately it was and we had to pay. I had a thoroughly enjoyable day and advise you all to experience Charleston.



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