Summer at Charleston

by charlestonattic

In December we wrote a blog post about Christmas at Charleston. The house was bitterly cold and remote, conditions which, combined with the hardships imposed upon households in wartime Britain and the complications following Angelica’s birth on Christmas day 1918, prompted Vanessa Bell and her family to leave Charleston for London. In finer weather, however, it was a very different place to live and from 1919 until the outbreak of the Second World War, Charleston was used primarily as a summer residence for Bell, Duncan Grant and Bell’s children, in addition to their many friends and visitors.

walled garden group

Members and friends of the Bloomsbury group in the walled garden at Charleston, 1928. From left to right: Francis Partridge, Quentin and Julian Bell, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell and Beatrice Mayor. Roger Fry seated with Raymond Mortimer in front. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

It was during these summer visits that Quentin Bell considered Charleston to be at its best:

What I think of as the golden age of Charleston lasted for about twelve years, from 1925 to 1937. Perhaps a list of guests who came there may give an idea of the company we kept. Apart from the obvious people – the Woolfs from Asheham and later from Rodmell, the Keynese from Tilton over the way, and Roger Fry who planned the new studio and designed the walled garden – there were Lytton Strachey, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, Raymond Mortimer, G.E. Moore, Frances Marshall, William Plomer, T.S. Eliot, Janie Bussy, André  Dunoyer de Segonzac, Jean Renoir and Charles Mauron…

…On a fine day one would discover Clive with a few friends comfortably seated on the gravel in front of the house, enjoying the sunshine, The Times, their conversation and sometimes even the books that they were supposed to be reviewing for the New Statesman.’

In Charleston: Past and Present, Quentin’s sister, Angelica Garnett, similarly alludes to this ‘golden age’, but writes that its existence was only possible due to the temporary nature of Charleston’s use at this time:

It must be remembered that this paradise was an occasional one; had it been permanent it would probably not have survived. The strain on Vanessa, as its inspiration and mainstay, would have been too great. She needed London for the stimulation, the contacts and the revelations it could provide her with, and the sense that there she was not expected to be responsible for everything. Perhaps it was because she was less available there that London seemed to me dark and gloomy, suggestive of Hell. The interludes at Charleston were by contrast clothed in light, in which I could not only fraternise with plants and animals, but dabble in paint.

As mentioned here by Angelica, and discussed in an earlier blog post The Garden at Charleston, the spaces surrounding the house provided both inspiration and refuge for the artists and children in good weather. Bell and Grant would paint amongst the flowers in the walled garden, or shade of the orchard, while the children would scheme up all manner of games and adventures to be enacted around – and on – the pond at the font of the house.

Quentin Julian and AngelicaQuentin on the pond

Left: Quentin, Angelica and Julian in the garden at Charleston, c. 1922. Right: Quentin on the pond at Charleston, c. 1923. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

We have found numerous sketches of the garden and its abundant produce by Bell and Grant in the Angelica Garnett Gift, and most recently uncovered the painting below of the pond in fine weather. Interestingly this scene has been painted over another work, possibly made much earlier by Grant.


CHA/P/1747. Vanessa Bell, The Pond at Charleston, c. 1955, paint on canvas, 39.6 cm x 31.6 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The pleasures of the garden were also brought inside the house, with freshly cut flowers filling vases and home-grown produce stocking the larder. Furthermore, Vanessa Bell’s bedroom, Duncan Grant’s studio and the garden room all have doors which open directly into the walled garden, thereby allowing the boundary between inside and out to dissolve in warmer weather. Quentin Bell recalled the pleasure of strolling into the moonlit garden on a summer’s night:

Cheroots were lit and there was Haydn or Mozart on the old clockwork portable. One went out through the windows, and to Mozart was added the delicious scent of tobacco plants…we who had ventured out spoke in hushed voices as though in deference to the night.

The garden room took a particularly central role as a gathering place on summer’s evenings. Here the household and their guests chatted, debated and recited, or simply snoozed over a book (or in Bell’s case, her knitting). ‘Eventually the garden room was adopted as a drawing room by the adults,’ Quentin Bell recalled in Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden. ‘Its great charm was that in fine summer weather one could saunter out into the garden and have a quiet smoke or perhaps a quiet chat with the scent of flowers all around.’ Having recently begun photographing larger painted works in the Angelica Garnett Gift, we found a charming painting by Vanessa Bell which both captures the room on a bright summer’s day and illustrates its role as meeting place at the threshold of the house and garden.


CHA/P/1567. Vanessa Bell, painting, View of the Garden Room at Charleston, c. 1950. Paint on card. 61.5 cm x 51.4 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

In The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art, author Jans Ondaatje Rolls describes hot summer afternoons at Charleston, when ‘adults gossiped, laughed and bantered freely with one another, while the children played about near the pond. A refreshing cup of tea, a second slice of cake, a gentle walk around the garden: a perfect afternoon tea in the garden at Charleston.’ Virginia Woolf regularly visited for such occasions by bicycle from nearby Rodmell, and, like the warmth of the day, her presence would always raise the spirits of her hosts. As recounted by Clive Bell in his book, Old Friends:

She might be divinely witty or outrageously fanciful; she might retail village gossip or tell stories of her London friends; always she was indescribably entertaining; always she enjoyed herself and we enjoyed her. “Virginia’s coming to tea”: we knew it would be exciting, we knew that we were going to laugh and be surprised and made to feel that the temperature of life was several degrees higher than we had supposed.

The spirit of Charleston in summer lives on to this day: from tea and cakes served in the Outer Studio Café and classes of budding artists painting amongst the flowers in the walled garden, to evening operas in the orchard, the atmosphere that enticed the Bloomsbury group back each year is as strongly felt today as it was when Virginia would come to tea.