Driving down a bumpy narrow lane in the Sussex countryside, you arrive at the farm. You know you are in the countryside by the smells and sounds of farm activity; it is not an air-conditioning unit that you hear humming in the background, but a milking machine. The buildings around the farmhouse, Charleston, have just completed a transformation; Jamie Fobert Architects, whose other work includes the recent refurbishments of Tate St Ives and Kettle Yard, Cambridge, has sensitively designed new buildings for exhibition galleries and other facilities using cross-laminated timber to blend in with the old farm buildings, connecting into the old 18th barns which have been converted into a restaurant and events space by Julian Harrap Architects. The feel is contemporary, but timeless, set round a new courtyard.
The first exhibitions in the new gallery spaces, ‘Orlando at the Present Time’ celebrating the 90th anniversary of Virgina Woolf’s famous novel, with historic and contemporary references to it, and South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s series of photographic portraits ‘Faces and Phases’ focussing on what it means to be black and gay in today’s society, show the versatility of the new spaces, encouraging visitors to make repeat visits to Charleston, the unique home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, their family and friends, and centre of the Bloomsbury Group after they moved permanently from London in 1939. Also on show is the fascinating ‘Famous Women’ dinner service designed by the two artists and now brought back to Charleston after many decades in private ownership.
Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant first rented the old 16th century farmhouse, near to where Virginia and Leonard Woolf also had a house, in 1916 during the First World War and made it their permanent home in 1939 during the Second World War, extending it to build a new studio space for the artists. The unique interiors painted throughout the house by the two artists – works of art in themselves – were nearly lost for ever when, after Duncan Grant died in 1978 and a short occupation by his daughter Angelica, the property was due to be returned to the landowner who planned to refurbish it for new tenants. Fortunately the Charleston Trust was established in 1980 and the house, its contents and the gardens planted under the guidance of Roger Fry were saved for us to enjoy today, remaining as it was in the 1950’s, (Vanessa Bell died in 1960), as if the large community of artists, writers and friends who stayed there had just popped out for a few minutes. Now enhanced with the sensitive new buildings and barn conversions, this is essential visiting a for anyone interested in 20th century British art and literature and the Bloomsbury Group.