This Museum Is Searching for Lost Artworks by Members of the Bloomsbury Group

The Charleston museum is launching a new initiative to acquire 50 privately owned works by 2030

Duncan Grant’s studio
Duncan Grant’s studio Tony Tree

Charleston is a farmhouse in East Sussex, England, that was once a gathering place for the Bloomsbury group, a collective of early 20th-century British artists, writers and thinkers such as Virginia WoolfLytton Strachey and Roger Fry.

The house, now preserved as a museum, has been maintained by the Charleston Trust since 1980. Ahead of the charity’s 50th anniversary, which will take place in 2030, officials have announced a new multi-year initiative titled “50 for 50.”

“We are launching a search for 50 of the most significant Bloomsbury group works still held in private collections,” says the museum in a statement.

Officials are kicking off the project at this month’s London Art Fair, where existing artworks in the collection—some newly acquired—are on display. The museum’s collection “includes work by some of the most significant modern British artists of the early 20th century,” Sarah Monk, the fair’s director, tells Artnet’s Holly Black. “Charleston is a deeply inspiring place with a history as colorful as the hand-painted wallpapers and furnishings that surround you. It’s a history which has huge resonances with what we equally look to create with the fair, as a meeting place for artists, writers and thinkers to celebrate art and ideas.”

Vanessa Bell paints Virginia Woolf
Vanessa Bell's portrait of Virginia Woolf (1934) The Charleston Trust

Artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell (Woolf’s sister) moved to Charleston in 1916. They lived in the house with Grant’s lover, David Garnett, and Bell’s two children. Grant and Garnett were conscientious objectors to World War I, and moving to the farmhouse allowed them to avoid conscription by engaging in agricultural work.

They decorated the bohemian haven in an eclectic, colorful style, complete with a walled garden filled with flowers and gravel pathways. In this setting, members of the Bloomsbury group lived free from strict Victorian social expectations, famously rejecting traditional notions of gender, sexuality, monogamy and more.

“They had money and privilege, but they rebelled against their Victorian forefathers. They imagined society differently and created revolutions in art and culture,” Nathaniel Hepburn, Charleston’s director, tells the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood. “A hundred years later, they are still inspiring people to think that society can be different, whether artistically, sexually, politically.”

Hepburn hopes the “50 for 50” initiative will inspire those with a Bloomsbury work in their home to come forward and gift it to the museum. It has already acquired about a dozen pieces, including Bell’s The Cloak (1912), which a visitor to the museum recently donated.

The Famous Women Dinner Service
Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell's The Famous Women Dinner Service (1932-1934) The Charleston Trust

“The best discoveries are the people who have paintings which have been in the family for a number of generations, but have never been publicly displayed or reproduced in books,” says Hepburn to Artnet.

In addition to The Cloak, paintings by Grant, Fry and Simon Bussy are on view at the London Art Fair.

Hepburn tells the Guardian that Bloomsbury works are valuable—and when they go up for sale, “they are highly sought after and well beyond the means of a small charity.” With a lead time of six years, however, he’s optimistic that more individuals will choose to donate their art. Additionally, the project could help locate missing works that have been lost to history.

“There are … plenty of paintings that we don’t know where they are,” adds Hepburn. “There are extraordinary works still out there to be discovered.”

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