The unassuming, square farmhouse in East Sussex stands at the end of a dirt road along with other once-used farm buildings. Through a gate is a large, flint-walled garden filled with flowers, Greek and Roman plaster-cast sculptures and a mosaic corner of broken china.
This is Charleston Farmhouse, a mostly 18th-century building in Firle, a small village near the town of Lewes in southeast England. It is where artist Vanessa Bell, her husband Clive Bell, the art historian, and designer Duncan Grant lived with their entourage.
Recently refurbished and open to the public -- April through October -- it is, despite its modest appearance, a wonderfully colorful residence that for many years sheltered a quite unconventional life style.
Vanessa Bell once described Charleston as "most lovely, very solid and simple, with flat walls in that lovely mixture of brick and flint that they use about here." It became a gathering place of literary and intellectual thinkers who, along with its residents, contributed their large artistic talents to its delightful decoration. Everyone, it seems, had some fine ornament to contribute.
Almost every surface of its rooms -- walls, lintels, fireplaces and furniture -- has been painted. There are figures, animals and countless geometric shapes. Rooms overflow with hand-painted furniture, one-of-a-kind ceramics and specially created fabrics -- some original and some reproduced specifically for the restoration by the late designer Laura Ashley. Framed paintings, the work of Charleston's residents, fill the walls.
Outside, as a visitor wanders the garden paths, a fanciful expectation springs to mind: Vanessa Bell or Duncan Grant will emerge from the house at any moment with an easel at the ready or with new fabric designs in hand to provide yet more decoration for their home. Here in the garden the unstructured casualness of the planting mimics the unself-conscious and cluttered idyll inside, an authentic piece of English art history.
Charleston Farmhouse is one of three sites in Sussex that recall a remarkable collection of artists, writers and thinkers known as the Bloomsbury group, of which Vanessa Bell was a founder. In nearby Rodmell is Monk's House, the old-fashioned home of author Virginia Woolf -- Vanessa Bell's sister -- and her writer husband Leonard Woolf. Two miles east of Firle, in Berwick, the ancient church of St. Michael and All Angels is adorned with mural paintings by Grant, Bell and her two children Quentin and Angelica Bell.
The group's link to Sussex began two years before the Woolfs married, when Virginia Woolf leased a house in Firle to work on her first novel, "The Voyage Out." In May of 1911, Leonard and Virginia were married, and five years later Virginia found Charleston Farmhouse nearby for Vanessa and Clive Bell and their two sons Julian and Quentin.
Also in the group were Vanessa's lover, the painter Duncan Grant, and his lover David Garnett, a writer. (Grant and Garnett were conscientious objectors, and a place for them to farm during the war years was vital.) To add to the convolution, Grant and Vanessa Bell produced a daughter, Angelica, who later married Garnett, her father's lover.
By July of 1919, the Woolfs had bought Monk's House for a weekend and summer retreat in the village of Rodmell. So within the space of 10 years and a radius of four miles, the family was well and truly established in the area. In fact, Leonard and Virginia Woolf's ashes are scattered under two elm trees beyond the pond in Rodmell while Vanessa Bell and Grant, both of whom died at Charleston (she in 1961 and he at the age of 93 in 1978), are buried at the parish church in Firle.
All of this, of course, spices your interest as you proceed on a tour of Charleston Farmhouse, where your attention is drawn particularly to the objects created by its former residents and their illustrious friends.
The dining room, the central family meeting place, is dominated by the circular white table decorated with a yellow pattern and black "key" edging by Vanessa Bell. Six red lacquer and cane chairs surround it. Above on three strands of ceramic beads hangs a pierced and glazed ceramic lampshade made by Quentin Bell. Decades of eating and arguing must have taken place around this painted surface with such visitors as biographer Lytton Strachey and authors E.M. Forster and T.S. Eliot.
The now-restored wallpaper, an unusual black and silvery affair, was stenciled by Vanessa Bell. The fireplace alcove was chiseled out by art critic Roger Fry and filled with ceramic objects. Among the paintings on the walls are three by Vanessa Bell (one a self-portrait) and two by Grant.
Large Spanish plates alternate with Staffordshire figures on the mantelpiece. A square piano, large French cupboard and a gold and white Venetian side table comprise the rest of the furniture. Such a mish-mash would probably be an interior designer's nightmare, but here this highly eclectic miracle works as well as the coordinated clutter in a Matisse painting.
Angelica Bell Garnett wrote in the May issue of the English magazine The Antique Collector that Italian fresco painting showed the Bloomsbury artists a way of making "the imaginative leap from seeing walls, doors and fireplaces as a potentially tasteful background, to treating them -- like canvases -- as an opportunity to make a statement of a very personal nature."
In a recent phone interview, her brother disagreed. "Bell and Grant had no thoughts of the future at all. They just said, 'We need some color there. Slap it on, slap it on' -- on to the plaster, on to the paper, on to anything."
And so it goes, from room to still-numbered room. Legend has it that the numbers from the original boarding house were left above the doors to ensure a happy ending to a night's prowl. Whatever the truth to this, each bedroom illumines the personality of its inhabitant.
The door to Clive Bell's cozy self-contained room (No. 3) has four panels, each painted differently but unified by a black background. The subjects are a man and a woman carrying baskets on their head and two close-ups of the baskets. French books -- he had lived for a time in Paris -- rest in a delightful bookcase of brown, blue and beige. Vanessa Bell painted the furniture, including the bed's head and foot board, which she made to look like a table top replete with lighted candles.
Duncan Grant's wood-planked bedroom (No. 5) is the only south-facing room. It had been Vanessa Bell's, and in it their daughter Angelica was born on Christmas Day, 1918. Bell painted the fireplace and doors in a flower motif. Grant did the bedside table and lampstand. He also designed the cross-stitched square music stool, and it was worked by his mother, Ethel. The carpet and the "Urn" fabric used in the curtains also are his work. In 1940, he painted a table top in his dressing room. It depicts a man riding on top of a fish, and he called it "Arion on a Dolphin."
Of all the design phantasmagoria, Grant's studio gets the highest marks. Built onto the house in 1925, it is dominated by the fireplace where Grant painted a sort of trompe l'oeil of a curvaceously posed man and woman. They appear to leaning on a table, where the centerpiece is an oversized, two-handled bowl holding a red and yellow fish. Paintings -- 20 by count -- cover every wall. Even the interior doors of a small oak cupboard carry the painted images of Adam and Eve, the work of Bell.
No item in the studio is bare of pattern, whether it is a fabric casually thrown on chairs and couch or lamp shades, rugs and tile work. The eye constantly moves, catching first a hand-decorated Wedgwood plate, moving on to a pile of books and then fixing on a bright coverlet of orange, blue and black.
The Charleston restoration is considered among the finest in England, perhaps the finest. The aim was to retain the atmosphere of warmth, comfort and idiosyncratic artistry shared by its former residents.
The project encountered endless problems, a major one being the dampness rising in the walls. Teams of restorers first carefully removed the wallpaper to reach the walls and then just as carefully replaced it. They repaired the needlework stitching on chairs and rugs, restored chipped ceramics and cleaned the textiles.
A second knotty problem was deciding which of overlapping designs to keep, because Bell and Grant often painted new ornamentation over surfaces they tired of seeing.
Charleston once belonged to the Gage family, which since the 16th century has been a large landowner in Sussex. One family member, Gen. Thomas Gage, was commander-in-chief of the British forces at the beginning of the American Revolution. The house was purchased from the Gage estate with the help of an anonymous American donor, and the major funds to restore it and open it to the public have come from the United States. Proceeds from the 1987 Charleston collection of the Laura Ashley design firm also are earmarked for the house.
In the early 1940s, the bishop of Chichester reintroduced the Sussex tradition of church wall paintings to St. Michael and All Angels in Berwick, and it became a Bloomsbury haunt. Grant, Vanessa Bell and her children Quentin and Angelica all contributed to the murals that now adorn it.
Family and locals served as the models, and the scenes the foursome painted are of the Sussex countryside. Architect Sir Charles Reilly had suggested Grant for the work, and he wrote on its completion, "It's like stepping out of a foggy England into Italy."
The last stop in a Bloomsbury tour of Sussex is the Woolf home at Monk's House in Rodmell, where they lived from 1914 until Virginia Woolf's death in 1941. What looks like the front door was never used by the Woolfs. They entered through the garden door at the side, which is the same door used by visitors today.
Aside from her passionate feelings for green paint, Virginia Woolf left the decoration to her sister Vanessa and Grant. Three of the six rooms are open to view -- the bedroom, sitting room and kitchen. They display a number of original pieces, including a tile-topped table by Grant, needlework designed by Angelica and pictures by Vanessa and Angelica.
More aura than era, the house, maintained by the National Trust, draws fans walking in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf.
Claire Frankel is a free-lance writer and broadcaster based in London.