Charleston Group

Twenty seven members joined the coach for our visit to Sussex on a bright spring morning. Our first stop was at Charleston House, in the village of Firle near Lewes, which was the country home of Bloomsbury group artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant for sixty years from 1916. This group of artists promoted the philosophy that ‘the prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge’. They rejected bourgeois habits and the conventions of Victorian life in favour of public achievement and personal pleasure.

After a welcome cup of coffee members were split into two groups for our guided tour of the house. We found out that Bell and Grant, pioneers of early 20th century British art, moved to Sussex with their unconventional household which was home also to Clive Bell and Maynard Keynes and many guests including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster. Charleston became the canvas on which the artists experimented with their new approach to art and life. As we walked around the house we found that, inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists, they painted directly on to walls, doors and furniture and also designed and decorated textiles, ceramics and household objects such as lampshades. They also filled their home with works by artists they knew and admired including Picasso, Renoir and Sickert. We discovered that Bell and Grant designed for the Omega Workshops, an enterprise established in 1913 by Roger Fry who aimed to remove the division between the decorative and fine arts and to give artists the opportunity to design, produce and sell their own works. It was a wonderful tour around a house where no surface was left undecorated and one could not help but admire their imagination even if some may have disapproved of their lifestyle. This decorative style continued into the lovely gardens where there were some beautiful mosaics amongst the colourful planting.

We then drove to Berwick where we had a very nice lunch at The Cricketer’s Arms. There was enough time for those who wanted a short walk to visit the Church of St. Michael and All Angels to see the murals covering the nave walls, chancel arch, screen and pulpit, painted during the Second World War by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell. As well as religious figures and motifs Grant portrayed the people of wartime England in a very moving way.

The afternoon was given over to a tour of Farley Farm House near Chiddingly which features the work of its former residents, the surrealist artist Roland Penrose and his wife, the photographer Lee Miller who moved there in 1949. The house is much as it was when occupied by the Penrose family and houses many works by Penrose including some interesting and occasionally disturbing paintings such as Conversation between Rock and Flower and Night and Day, featuring Lee Miller. She was an American fashion model who became an acclaimed war photographer and some of her Second World War photographs are on display including one of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler’s apartment in Munich. We were also shown their collection of contemporary art treasures, many of which were created by their friends and visitors including Picasso, Max Ernst, Joan Miro and Man Ray. Penrose also designed the landscaping around the house as a setting for works of modern sculpture and our day at Farley Farm ended with a cup of tea and a wander round the gardens.

Unfortunately the journey home was rather lengthy due to accidents on various motorways but our driver was excellent and got us back in the best time that he possibly could.