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New exhibition set to focus on the Bloomsbury Group’s rural haven in the folds of the Sussex Downs

23 Jul New exhibition set to focus on the Bloomsbury Group’s rural haven in the folds of the Sussex Downs

Evoking a comparison to Monet’s home in Giverny, for over half a century Charleston Farmhouse offered a boundless source of inspiration and material for its artist-occupants. This new exhibition of 32 paintings and art works at Philip Mould Gallery in London’s St James’s specifically focuses on how the Bloomsbury Group’s rural haven in the folds of the Sussex Downs became a compelling subject in itself.

Centring on Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and Duncan Grant’s (1885 -1978) highly productive years of creativity between – and including – two world wars (1916-1945), this illuminating exhibition will demonstrate how the house, its visitors, the garden, the bordering farm – replete with pond, ancient barns, and animals – as well as the local church and manor house, was a seasonally evolving, artistic muse for over half a century.

From a dazzlingly avant-garde painted chest to depictions of food preparation in the kitchen, from some of the key family and friends to the household cat, Opussyquinusque, Charleston – The Bloomsbury Muse includes loans from the house itself as well as lesser-known paintings from private collections. It covers a richly broad range of genres by both artists including portraiture, still life, interior scenes, landscape, genre, applied decorative art and watercolour sketches.

Charleston was not just the Bloomsbury Group’s country retreat and a venue for their progressive social self-expression, it was also a family home. As the late cultural historian Fiona MacCarthy noted in 1999: “Charleston was not a grand house, but a beautiful one, a square-set, solid farmhouse in the Sussex vernacular of brick and stone. Leonard and Virginia Woolf had originally found it and had recommended its unpretentious charm [to Duncan Bell and Vanessa Grant], its derelict but promising garden, with pond, fruit trees and vegetable beds. It was only a few miles from their own Sussex house. The great thing about it was its situation, high on the downs by Firle Beacon, with ground sloping down all around.”

One of the earliest paintings included in the exhibition is The Pond, Charleston by Vanessa Bell (c.1916, The Charleston Trust). It was, according to Duncan Grant, her first painting produced at Charleston. The pond was one of the main points of attraction for Vanessa when deciding to move to Charleston. Painted in bold, bright colours, it reveals the profound influence of European modernism on her art at this time. Few of her early works express so emphatically a sense of place.

A lesser-known picture from a private collection: The Hammock, Charleston – Duncan Grant, (c. 1921-2) shows the family with Vanessa Bell, a tutor, and her three young children lounging and playing on a summer’s day as if in a continental garden or park setting. Grant was capable of using his immediate Charleston surroundings to form an ambitiously lyrical pastoral and domestic idyl, adapting the appearance of the garden to evoke the atmosphere of a French riverbank.
Two other notable family portraits feature in the exhibition. The first shows Julian Bell, son of Vanessa and Clive Bell, reading a book (The Charleston Trust). It was painted at Charleston in around 1930 by Duncan Grant and is a highly atmospheric portrait of the young poet, who tragically died in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, aged just 29. Vanessa never fully got over the loss of her son. The second work shows Angelica, daughter of Bell and Grant, seated in an interior (circa 1935-1936, The Charleston Trust). Angelica’s relationship with her parents was complex, and it was only when she turned 18 that she was told her father was in fact Grant and not Clive Bell, as she previously thought. The painting of Angelica predates this event and immortalises a tender moment between mother and daughter.

When not painting family, friends or the surrounding landscape, the couple would paint still-lives of flowers that grew around them and other curiosities around the house. Apples and Vinegar Bottle (1937, private collection) is a fine example of Bell’s still-life work from this period and includes a colourful ceramic bottle purchased by Bell on one of her summer visits to Italy. The bottle has remained at Charleston, and will be on display alongside the painting at Philip Mould & Co.

It was only after the outbreak of the Second World War that the family moved to Charleston permanently. Wartime restrictions prevented travel abroad and they therefore turned increasingly to the surrounding area for inspiration. The Barn at Charleston, Winter by Bell (c.1940-41, Philip Mould & Co.) and The Pond in Winter at Charleston by Grant (circa 1943, Philip Mould & Co.) are two of the more evocative views of Charleston painted by Bell and Grant and are a pertinent reminder of the peaceful isolation of the house, which engendered the sense of freedom so central to the success of their art.

Philip Mould says: “The combination of art and this rural English escape has always captured my imagination – particularly given the compelling cast of protagonists who dwelt and thrived there. There are few times in our cultural history when the artistic record matches the written and spoken about one with such completion. This exhibition is about a house and its occupants who have not just come down to us in words and written memories, but in painted shapes and colours.”

Charleston – The Bloomsbury Muse runs concurrently with an exhibition at Charleston that will recreate Duncan Grant’s (1885-1978) very first solo exhibition, which opened just over a century ago at the Paterson-Carfax Gallery in Old Bond Street, London. This is the first solo show of Grant’s work since his death in 1978.