Charleston’s creativity to delight for another century

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A 17th century farmhouse that sits in the lee of the scarp slope north of the Sussex Downs became a crucible of outstanding artistic activity in fields of literature, fine art and craftsmanship.

Charleston Farmhouse near Berwick was intimately connected with the Bloomsbury set and, from 1916, was home to two of the most important, influential artists of the 20th century, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

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That year the pair moved to Sussex with their unconventional household when Grant, under the terms of his exemption from military service, was employed at a nearby farm with David Garnett.

Over the following half century Charleston became the country meeting place for the artists, writers and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. Garnett, Clive Bell and Maynard Keynes lived at Charleston for considerable periods; Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry were frequent visitors. Inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists, the artists decorated the walls, doors and furniture at Charleston. They also painted murals onto the walls of nearby Berwick Church.

According to Vanessa Bell: “It’s most lovely, very solid and simple, with ... perfectly flat windows and wonderful tiled roofs. The pond is most beautiful, with a willow at one side and a stone or flint wall edging it all round the garden part, and a little lawn sloping down to it, with formal bushes on it.”

After Duncan Grant’s death in 1978 the house fell into disrepair with many of its unique interior paintings and decorations deteriorating badly. The Charleston Trust, a registered charity formed in 1980, raised over £1m to restore the house and in 1986 opened its doors to the public. The walled garden was redesigned in a style reminiscent of southern Europe with mosaics, box hedges, gravel pathways and ponds, but a touch of Bloomsbury humour in the placing of the statuary.

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Today, The Charleston Trust continues to manage and conserve Charleston for the benefit of the public and opens every year between April and November to around 35,000 visitors. Alongside this, Charleston runs a public programme of workshops, talks, walks and events as well as two literary Festivals, one in May and a short story festival in September.

HRH The Duchess of Cornwall became the Trust’s first Patron in May 2013 and that December the house became an Arts Council England Accredited Museum.

Now Charleston aims to secure its future through the Charleston Centenary Project providing its visitors with much needed extra facilities including an auditorium and extended café in the Grade II listed barns, a newly built Collections Store and Exhibition Gallery, a new road and car park taking traffic away from the heart of Charleston and a new Creative Learning Studio in the rebuilt Granary.

Two generous donations, each for £250,000 now allow the first phase of the £8.5 million Project to begin. The first was from social historian Virginia Nicholson and her husband, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and author William Nicholson. William, many of whose novels are set in the area, said: “The Friends of Charleston have become my friends; they’re people who love art and books bbut they’re also people who want the world to be a kinder place.” The second came when Canadian-born businessman and philanthropist Sir Christopher and Lady Ondaatje heard about the Nicholsons’ generosity and pledged the same amount. (Sir Christopher’s younger brother is author Michael Ondaatje.) The sums bring the total raised for the project to £6m with a further £2.5m needed to complete the project.

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This year sees a stellar line-up of events and masterclasses. Among those appearing at this year’s Festival from May 20-30 are Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Joan Bakewell, Joanna Trollope, Julia Newberger, Ian McEwan, Sir Tim Rice, HRH Princess Michael of Kent, Max Hastings, Andrew Marr and John Beevor.

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