Christmas at Charleston

by charlestonattic

Winter Pond 2Charleston in the Snow. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

While it is tempting to paint a picture of a cosy farmhouse full of friends, food and laughter nestled within the frosty landscape of the South Downs – especially with Angelica Garnett’s description of a place ‘bathed in the glow of perpetual summer’ in mind – the reality of Charleston at Christmas-time was quite different. Although an ideal retreat for the artists in the summer months with its large, bright rooms and beautiful secluded grounds filled with heady scents and vibrant colours, Charleston was a bleak place to be in the winter. When Vanessa Bell, her two young sons Julian and Quentin, Duncan Grant, Bunny Garnett and Henry the dog arrived at the house in October 1916 there was no central heating or electricity, and only cold water in the bathroom and kitchen. On bleak winter mornings ice that had formed on washbasins overnight had to be broken; it is unsurprising that Leonard Woolf once refused to sleep in the attic again having already endured one night of shivering discomfort when staying at the house. ‘Life was primitive and spartan,’ Quentin Bell later recollected, ‘particularly in cold weather.’[1]

Quentin described their first winter at Charleston when the kitchen tap froze, explaining how each morning water had to be fetched instead from a pump across a frosty field:

‘The snow was thicker and the frost deeper than we were ever to see it again until 1940. One of my earliest memories was walking over to Peaklets, the cottage just visible on the further side of the front field. Here a spring still ran. We went over to fill buckets of water for the house.’ [2]

It was only in 1926 with the security of a long lease for Charleston confirmed that Vanessa ensured radiators were installed and the hot water system upgraded. It would be another eleven years, however, before electricity would arrive, when Clive Bell moved to the farmhouse permanently following the outbreak of the Second World War. Despite these improvements, even today the house is still chilly on a frosty morning once one has passed by the cosy warmth of the kitchen’s Aga and headed upstairs to work in the attic.


CHA/P/70. The Pond at Charleston in Winter, Duncan Grant, 1950. Oil on board. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Rationing and food shortages during the First World War made living at Charleston even more demanding. When fighting finally ended in the winter of 1918, conditions were poor, aggravated further by a new arrival to the house on Christmas day itself. Quentin explained:

‘Peace, when it came, was disappointing. It brought a Christmas present in the form of a sister, Angelica, the child of Vanessa and Duncan, but failed to bring plenty. We children had expected iced cakes, chocolates, hot baths.’ [3]

The reality was less positive:

‘There was no coal, little wood, no butter, no meat, and no hope in the house. Upstairs Vanessa and the new baby were both very ill. The peace celebrations at Firle were damp and dismal.’[4]

(c) DACS/Henrietta Garnett; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Snow at Charleston, East Sussex. Duncan Grant, date unknown. Oil on canvas. Photograph © Reading Museum and Town Hall

After this the family did not stay for the winter months until 1923, spending Christmas instead with Clive Bell’s family at Seend in Wiltshire. In a letter to Margery Snowden describing their first Christmas back at Charleston since Angelica’s birth, Vanessa is tempted to idealise her first experience, however acknowledges the difficulties of that time:

‘I haven’t been here at this time of year since five years ago when Angelica was born. It was very romantic then – the first Christmas of peace and a most lovely moonlit, frosty night. I remember waking up in the early morning after she had been born and hearing the farm-men come up to work singing carols and realising it was Christmas Day, and it seemed rather extraordinary to have a baby then – perhaps I seem very sentimental, do I? but the horrors afterwards…were so great that I rather forgot the happy part of it. I don’t think I’ve ever had such an awful time…I daresay I’m becoming too reminiscent – you see the consequences of being in the same place again after five years.’[5]

(c) Henrietta Garnett; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationSnow at Tilton, Vanessa Bell, 1941. Oil on canvas. Photograph © Arts Council Collection

Even with the challenges winter brought, festivities did take place at Charleston. ‘In spite of such conditions,’ Richard Shone has written, ‘visitors swelled the household, bringing welcome news and gossip from London, toys and chocolate for the children.’[6] Maynard Keynes recollected overhearing Julian and Quentin discussing whether Father Christmas was actually Duncan or not, having already looked him up in the Tradesman’s Directory the previous year. [7]


CHA/E/85. Christmas card designed by Julian Trevelyan, from Julian and Mary Trevelyan. Photograph © The Charleston trust

Christmas cards were designed and exchanged, a number of which are still in Charleston’s collection along with those sent by other artists such as the one above designed by Julian Trevelyan from him and his wife Mary. In a sketchbook in the Angelica Garnett Gift, a list of names of ‘people to see’ has been scrawled by Duncan alongside those to receive ‘Xmas cards’.

DG's Notes 1961_c

Sketchbook in the Angelica Garnett Gift, Duncan Grant, c. 1961. Photograph © The Charleston trust

Slipped into the same sketchbook is a list of Christmas gifts to be bought by Duncan for his friends, household staff and family. Written in 1961, the first Christmas after Vanessa had died, this list provides a touching insight into Duncan’s life at Charleston in later years surrounded by those who had, despite the challenges, made the place such a welcoming home for the Bloomsbury group and their friends.

DG's Christmas List 1961_cLoose page in the Angelica Garnett Gift, Duncan Grant, 1961. Photograph © The Charleston trust


[1] Quentin Bell, Angelica Garnett, Henrietta Garnett, Richard Shone, Charleston, Past and present, rev. ed. (The Hogarth Press, London, 1993) p. 87

[2] Ibid.

[3] Quentin Bell & Virginia Nicholson, Charleston: a Bloomsbury House and Garden (Frances Lincoln, London, 1997). p. 16

[4] Ibid, p. 17

[5] Angelica Garnett, Deceived With Kindness (Pimlico, London, 1995) p. 40

[6] Charleston, Past and Present, p. 21

[7] Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant (Chatto & Windus, London, 1997) p. 197