Behind the scenes of Seasalt’s photoshoot at Vanessa Bell’s artistic and unconventional East Sussex home
St Ives was the anchor for Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf’s childhood holidays, where they stayed each summer at Talland House above Porthminster. Here, they inhabited an intensely sensory world, where verdant gardens gave way to sweeping views of St Ives Bay. Virginia later wrote: “It still makes me feel warm; as if everything were ripe; humming; sunny … the buzz, the croon, the smell … it was rapture.”
Talland House has been modernised into apartments and no longer looks as it did when the sisters holidayed in Cornwall between 1882 and 1894. However, we were lucky enough to be able to shoot our latest collection at the beautifully conserved Charleston, near Lewes. This once ordinary sixteenth century farmhouse was home to painter Vanessa Bell, who transformed the house and garden into a haven of artistic freedom. We packed up our photography team and headed up to East Sussex for a unique chance to explore this extraordinary place, and to capture that sense of abundance that so informed the sisters’ lives.
Vanessa moved to Charleston in 1916, along with her partner Duncan Grant, his friend and lover David Garnett, her two sons from her marriage to Clive Bell, and Henry the dog. By this point her marriage to Clive Bell had become more of a friendship, although he was a frequent enough visitor to Charleston that the children’s school room eventually became his personal study. When Vanessa and Duncan Grant’s daughter, Angelica, was born in 1918, Clive Bell agreed to raise her as his own.
Charleston became the country retreat for the associated set of pioneering creatives and intellectuals collectively known as the Bloomsbury group. Both Duncan Grant and David Garnett were conscientious objectors during the first world war, and this rural location not only allowed them to work on a local farm and avoid imprisonment, but meant that they and their Bloomsbury friends were at liberty to carry out their uninhibited lifestyle of creative experimentalism and freedom of expression.
Vanessa’s sister Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf lived at nearby Asheham House, and friends were constantly visiting or in semi-permanent residence, despite the freezing rooms and lack of hot water in the early years. Some visitors – such as eminent 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes – came so often they had their own dedicated rooms. Conversations knew no boundaries and Vanessa’s sons were free to roam the gardens and nearby downs.
Restoration or conservation seemed too dull a solution; it was much more fun to invent something new and change the entire aspect of a room. – Quentin Bell
Gradually Vanessa and her companions began to transform the house, freely decorating the walls, furniture and household objects with unconventional colours and patterns in the style of Italian frescos and French Post-Impressionism. A studio was built onto the house in 1925, making a dedicated space for visiting artists to work.
The garden, which during the war years was given over to vegetable patches and chicken runs, was redesigned in a Mediterranean style by artist and critic Roger Fry. Described by Vanessa’s daughter Angelica as ‘an artist’s garden’, it featured a rambling mix of cottage garden planting alongside geometric box hedges and gravel paths. Broken crockery was used to make mosaics, and sculptures were placed in unexpected positions.
Initially taken as a retreat and holiday home, Charleston became Vanessa’s permanent residence with Duncan Grant and Clive Bell at the outbreak of the war in 1939, until her death in 1961. The Charleston Trust was formed in 1980, restoring the house and garden to its full glory and conserving its art collection and unique decoration. The Trust also runs a programme of arts events and festivals.
Find out more and see opening times: charleston.org.uk
With thanks to: the Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett, the Estate of Duncan Grant, administered by DACS, and the team at Charleston, East Sussex.