Charleston, a modest 18th century farmhouse set close to the foot of the South Downs, is a memorial to the Bloomsbury Group.
In 1916 Charleston became the home of the artist Vanessa Bell, her fellow artist (and sometime lover) Duncan Grant, the writer David Garnett, her two young sons and an assortment of animals. The two men were conscientious objectors and had come to do farm work.
The house was found by Vanessa's sister Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, who lived at nearby Asheham (the couple later to moved to Monks House in Rodmell, now owned by the National Trust). Virginia thought that Vanessa could make Charleston "absolutely divine".
Conditions at the house were primitive with only basic plumbing and no gas or electricity. Nevertheless, the three adults gradually decorated the walls with murals and filled the house with their paintings, ceramics and painted furniture. Their work was influenced by Italian fresco painting and post-Impressionist art and the unique ambience they created is still obvious today..
The unconventional and creative household became the focal point for the Bloomsbury Group of artists and intellectuals. Regular visitors to Charleston included the Woolfs, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, T.S. Elliot, Desmond MacCarthy and E.M. Forster who were close friends.
Vanessa's husband, the writer Clive Bell, moved to Charleston in 1939 bringing more paintings, books and furniture. Vanessa and Clive Bell, Duncan Grant and their children lived at Charleston until their respective deaths.
When Duncan Grant died in 1978 at the age of 93 the era came to an end.
After his death the Charleston Trust was formed to save the house and restore it to its former glory. Its work has been described as, "one of the most difficult and imaginative feats of restoration current in Britain".
The rooms at Charleston are modest in size and the visitor can view most of the building. Nearly all the rooms have painted decoration by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Wood in strong colours (now slightly faded). The subjects are often witty with many clowns, animals and nudes.
Charleston contains a huge collection of paintings and lithographs including works by Grant, Bell, Roger Fry, Picasso, Derain, Walter Sickert, Nina Hamnett and Keith Baynes.
The contents of the house, although accumulated over 50 years by several people, have an homogenous feel.
Much of the furniture was decorated by Bell and Grant in the same style as their murals. There are also some good pieces of antique English furniture which were inherited by the Bells.
The Dining Room has bold stencilled patterns on the wall created in the 1940s. The circular table was decorated by Vanessa Bell and the chairs made in the Omega Workshop to Roger Fry's design. The fireplace was decorated by Grant.
The Library on the first floor was Vanessa Bell's bedroom until 1939. The window was painted by Grant with a cockerel to wake her and a dog to protect her. In the room known as Maynard Keynes Bedroom, the great economist began to write 'The Economic Consequences of the Peace'.
Duncan Grant's Bedroom and little Dressing Room were some of the first rooms to be decorated. The curtain fabric and carpet were designed by Grant and the hearth, firescreen and patterned window-opening decorated by Vanessa Bell. The lavender and salmon pink Spare Bedroom was created by Vanessa.
The Garden Room on the ground floor was the main sitting room. Here are some of the most important paintings in the house, including a self portrait of Vanessa Bell, dated 1958.
Through a passage way is Vanessa Bell's Bedroom and the large Studio which was added in 1925. This was Duncan Grant's main place of work and the mural was added gradually. The splendid fire-surround with caryatids dominates the room. The Studio has a wonderful collection of ceramics and objets d'art.
The creativity of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant extended into the cottage-style garden. Sculpture by Duncan Grant and Quentin Bell (Vanessa's son) was carefully placed to intrigue. Mosaics were made in the piazza and plants were grown to create subtle masses of colour.
The gardens are beautifully maintained by the Charleston Trust.