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Bloomsbury Group’s Countryside Hub Opens to Visitors Year-Round

A new expansion has helped the Charleston Museum overcome conservation and space concerns that once forced it to shut down during winter

Duncan Grant’s Studio (Tony Tree)
smithsonian.com

The famed Bloomsbury group, an early 20th-century association of writers, artists and other liberal thinkers, may have gotten its name because its members lived and worked in the Bloomsbury district of central London. But the group also congregated at an idyllic farmhouse in East Sussex, which they filled with paintings, books and an eclectic assortment of furniture.

Charleston, as the house is known, has been open to the public since the 1980s, but it shut down during the winter for conservation. Now, however, Hannah McGivern reports for the Art Newspaper that a new expansion will allow Charleston to welcome visitors throughout the year.

On the recommendation of Virginia Woolf, one of the Bloomsbury group’s most prominent members, her sister Vanessa Bell, best known as a painter, and Duncan Grant, an artist and her long-time partner, moved to Charleston in 1916, along with Bell’s two sons and Grant’s lover, David Garnett. Their primary motivation in moving to the countryside was to help Grant and Garnett avoid conscription. It was the height of World War I, and the two men were conscientious objectors. Dodging the draft meant prison time, unless one was engaged in agricultural work “of national importance.” From their home base at Charleston, Grant and Garnett were able to work on a nearby farm, according Nancy Durrant of the Sunday Times.

Bell, Grant and Garnett transformed the house to match their bohemian aesthetic. They painted the walls and furniture in vibrant colors, filled the house with knick-knacks and blanketed the rooms in colorful fabrics. A garden designed by the painter and art critic Rogery Fry bloomed in spring and summer. In this country oasis, Bell, Grant and Garnett received the great minds of the Bloomsbury group, including economist John Maynard Keynes, novelists T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster, the art critic Clive Bell (who was also Vanessa Bell’s husband) and his lover, the short story writer Mary Hutchinson.

The farmhouse is, according to a statement by Charleston, “the only completely preserved Bloomsbury interior in the world.” To make sure the house stayed intact, staff previously closed the property for conservation between December and February. And because space was at a premium—the Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke writes, for instance, that a “tiny café [was] crammed into an old garage and apple shed”—the Charleston had to cap the number of visitors at about 27,000 per year.

“They are very fragile spaces—we have a world-class collection in a fairly damp farmhouse in Sussex,” Nathaniel Hepburn, director and chief executive of a trust that oversees the property, tells the Art Newspaper’s McGivern.

Fortunately, thanks to hefty donations from groups like the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England, Charleston was able to undertake new expansions that opened on September 8. Two 18th-century barns, badly damaged during a fire in the 1980s, have been restored to house an event space and a restaurant. An entirely new building will function as a gallery, allowing the museum to stage exhibitions for the first time. The space reflects the design of the farmhouse. “[T]the scale of the galleries mimic the variously sized proportions of the rooms of Charleston itself, where visitors stumble along low-ceilinged corridors before coming across areas that are higher and (relatively) grander, such as Bell and Grant’s magnificent studio,” writes Sooke of the Telegraph. The Trust is also raising money to install a rust-colored roof that will match the one on the farmhouse.

Inspired by these new additions, the Charleston Trust decided to shift to a year-round conservation schedule at the farmhouse, allowing the house to stay open during the winter months. "It would seem a shame for visitors to come to the site but not to see the house," Chloe Westwood, head of communications at Charleston Trust, tells Smithsonian.com.

Three opening exhibitions joined the gallery's debut. The first celebrates the 90th anniversary of Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, the remarkably progressive novel about a fictional poet who travels time and, at the midway point of the narrative, changes gender. The exhibition, Orlando at the present time, features historic letters, photographs and objects connected to the novel, along with works of contemporary artists responding to the text.

Also reflecting on the fluidity of gender and sexuality, the second exhibition features photographic portraits of lesbian and transgender individuals by the South African artist Zanele Muholi. The third show displays the Famous Women Dinner Service, a collection of 50 plates, painted by Bell and Grant, bearing the portraits of 49 prominent historical women, from Sappho to Emily Brontë. (One plate features Grant’s image, making him the only man to appear in the series.)

“The ideas and radicalism of the artists, writers and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury group will be at the heart of Charleston’s new program,” the museum said in its statement. “[The exhibitions] will interrogate the contemporary relevance of those who lived and worked at Charleston over 100 years ago.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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