The Bloomsbury Trail

Posted on October 21, 2012 by


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When I lived near Canonbury Square in Islington, I often passed No. 26, where Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell lived from 1949 to 1955. The Bloomsbury Group, said one wag, lived in squares and loved in triangles. Working in The Tower Theatre on the corner of the Square,  I was told of the day Duncan Grant wandered in to have a nose round. Watching a chap priming a flat, regaled with the technicalities of scenery painting, Grant was invited to try his hand. Later, told by a horrified bystander who Grant was, the man, having never heard of him, was unfazed. Writing up the anecdote for Essential Islington: The First 2000 Years (Paperback/Kindle), I promised myself that one day I would visit Charleston, the Bloomsbury shrine near Brighton. Twelve years on, I finally made it.

The pilgrimage began at Monk’s House in Rodmell, continued on to Charleston in Firle and ended at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Berwick.

Monk’s House, a modest cottage, was bought by Virginia – Vanessa’s sister – and Leonard Woolf in 1919. Coming, as Virginia did, from privileged backgrounds we think of them as rich but it was not until 1927 they could afford any improvements. Until then, water was drawn from a well and oil lamps provided the lighting.

Virginia’s father was Sir Leslie Stephen, founder of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother married Herbert Duckworth and had three children. When he died, she married Leslie Stephen. It was also his second marriage. Their children were Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian. As children, the sisters decided that Virginia would be a writer and Vanessa a painter.

When Virginia was thirteen she said she wanted to die. Her mother had died suddenly, quickly followed by Virginia’s half-sister Stella Duckworth. When her father died in 1904, she tried to commit suicide.

After the death of their father, Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby and Adrian moved to Bloomsbury where Thoby introduced his sisters to Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett and Duncan Grant. Dubbed The Bloomsbury Group, they remained friends until they died. In 1906 Thoby died suddenly from typhoid. Shared grief drew the Group even closer. Vanessa married Clive Bell the following year. Although Clive was unfaithful to Vanessa, they never divorced and remained friends until their deaths. He supported her and their sons Julian and Quentin financially.

In 1910 Bell and Roger Fry went to Paris to choose paintings to exhibit in London. They brought back works by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Manet, Gauguin and Van Gogh whose influences can be seen in Vanessa and Duncan’s work at Monk’s House, Charleston and Berwick Church. That same year Virginia had another breakdown and was sent to a nursing home.

Virginia married Leonard Woolf in 1912. Son of a barrister, he cared for Virginia for nearly thirty years. Without his love, encouragement and support, her books could never have been written. When another breakdown in 1913 saw Virginia back in a nursing home, she took an overdose and nearly died. A relapse followed in 1915.  Much happier after they bought Monk’s House in 1919, she and Leonard created a beautiful garden, played bowls (Leonard always won) cared for the dogs, wrote (Leonard built a writing room in the garden for Virginia) and walked or cycled to visit Vanessa at Charleston seven miles away.

Leonard launched The Hogarth Press in 1917 to publish Virginia’s work and to divert her attention from her inner turmoil. Though, at Virginia’s request, the marriage was not sexually active, it was one of mutual love and respect.

When Vanessa Bell met the good looking, openly homosexual artist Duncan Grant, she fell in love with him and remained in love until she died. In 1913 she, Grant and Roger Fry formed the Omega Workshops, an avant-garde collective of artists and designers. As well as producing many paintings, they made rugs, linen, glass, jewellery, ceramics and furniture. Artists, who were paid a fixed wage, did not sign their work, instead, the Greek letter Omega was used.  Omega managed to survive the war but folded in 1919. The works of art it produced are now very valuable. Monk’s House and Charleston have fine collections.

Many of The Bloomsbury Group were pacifists. Able bodied conscientious objectors such as Duncan, granted exemption from military service, had to work on the land. When Virginia found out that Viscount Gage was looking for a tenant for Charleston farmhouse and for farm hands, she persuaded Vanessa to take over the tenancy. In 1916 Vanessa moved in with Duncan, his lover David Garnett, her sons, a nurse, cook, housemaid and Duncan’s dog. Although water was pumped by hand, there was no electricity, coal fires provided heat, lighting was by lamps and the garden was a mess, a delighted Vanessa thought Charleston ‘…lovely, very solid and simple’. Duncan and Vanessa painted walls, fireplaces, doors and furniture and filled the house with paintings, Omega fabrics, ceramics and artefacts.

In 1917, at Charleston, Grant painted the portrait of his lover, the economist John Maynard Keynes. This is where Keynes wrote The Economic Consequences of Peace predicting thatdemands made on a humiliated Germany following its defeat in WWI would result in a terrible revenge. The best seller published in 1919 made him world famous. Keynes influenced the creation of the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank.

Vanessa wanted a child by Duncan. In 1918, she, almost forty, gave birth to their daughter Angelica at Charleston. David Garnett was in the room. He said that one day he would marry ‘it’ (the baby). Angelica, brought up to believe that Clive Bell was her father, was not told the truth until she was seventeen. Vanessa forbade her to speak about it to Grant or Bell.

Although Duncan brought male lovers to Charleston, he and Vanessa remained close until her death. They painted together and admired and criticised each other’s work. She, like Leonard Woolf, had to divert physical desire. His went into writing, publishing, gardening and pets. Vanessa’s into looking after children, numerous guests and, when she could fit it in, painting.

Vanessa’s life became much easier in 1920 when Grace, seventeen, joined the household. She stayed for fifty years. When she married a local man, Walter Higgens, he became the gardener.

In 1934, Roger Fry died suddenly following a fall at his London home. A devastated Vanessa decorated his coffin, Virginia wrote his biography. In 1936, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when Julian decided to help fight Fascism, Vanessa begged him not to go. To please her, he compromised by becoming an ambulance driver but in 1937 was hit by a bomb and died. Vanessa was never the same again.

Virginia and Leonard divided their time between Rodmell and London until 1940 when their town house was bombed during WWII. Bombers also flew over Monk’s House. Rodmell is near Newhaven, where the Germans planned to land under Operation Sea Lion. Virginia and Leonard had no idea they were on Himmler’s list for immediate arrest, but as Leonard was a Jew, knowing what their future held if he arrived, made plans for a joint suicide.

In 1941 Virginia drowned herself. She was fifty-nine. Her suicide notes expressed deep gratitude to Leonard and to Vanessa for all they had done for her. Leonard buried her ashes under one of two elm trees they called Leonard and Virginia. Her suicide made Vanessa’s life even more tragic. To make matters worse, in 1942, she and Angelica became estranged. Despite Vanessa pleadings, Angelica married David Garnett. He was fifty, she was twenty-four. No-one, not even her mother, told Angelica that Garnett had been her father’s lover. She didn’t find out until many years later.

Around this time, Vanessa and Duncan received a commission to decorate the church in nearby Berwick. Duncan painted Christ in Glory, Vanessa painted The Nativity and The Annunciation. Crucifixion was finished in 1945. The rest of the church was decorated on and off up until 1978, Quentin being the final contributor. Angelica posed for the photographs taken to help in the composition of the paintings. She was the model for the Madonna in The Annunciation and in The Nativity. St Michael and All Angels attracts 10,000 visitors every year who come to admire the wonderfully uplifting murals.

Vanessa died in 1961 at Charleston age eighty-one following a bout of bronchitis. She was buried in nearby St. Peter’s Church, Firle. Grace said: ‘Mr Grant, Angelica, Quentin and I went to the funeral…There was no one there, no clergyman, no flowers except what I and Angelica took and no service, we did not go into the church, the undertakers just put the coffin into the grave, we looked into it, then left.

Leonard suffered a stroke and died at Monk’s House in 1969. His ashes are also buried there. The lovely garden is as Virginia and Leonard left it. The house has furniture and china decorated by Vanessa and Duncan whose paintings adorn the rooms.

Grace remained at Charleston looking after Duncan Grant until 1971 when she retired to a new house in nearby Ringmer. Grant died in 1978, age 93, at a friend’s home. He was buried beside Vanessa. You can’t help thinking she would be pleased. After Grant’s death, The Charleston Trust was formed to save the house. Grace in 1983. It was the end of an era.

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