Keeping house at Charleston

Charleston house was a hotbed of creativity and free-thinking in its heyday, but what about life behind the intellectual debates and painterly passions? Writer Jo Rodgers explores the domestic life of this fascinating farmhouse.

At around seven o’clock in the morning, there were descending footsteps on the narrow back stairs above the kitchen at Charleston farmhouse. In the early twentieth century, most of the family and guests at Charleston – the rural Sussex home of the down-from-London Bloomsbury Group, including the artist Vanessa  Bell, her sons Julian and Quentin, her lover Duncan Grant, and occasionally her husband, Clive Bell, with or without his mistress Mary Hutchinson – wouldn’t turn up in the dining room for bacon and eggs until eight, when summoned by a hand bell. But Grace Higgins, who ran the kitchen for fifty years, was awake first to light the range cooker and ferry dishes of water to each of the bedrooms. In the winters, before a heating system was installed, the water was liable to freeze. The residents would have to crack through the ice in order to brush their teeth.

Charleston was a place of meaningful artistic output, underpinned by organised domestic support. The residents didn’t see it as a conventional household. Virginia Woolf, Vanessa’s sister and a frequent local visitor to the house, characterised the group’s intention for Charleston: ‘We were full of experiments and reforms. We were going to do without table napkins... we were going to paint; to write; to have coffee after dinner instead of tea at nine o’clock. Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.’ 

And they did, in fact, have coffee instead of tea (Vanessa Bell’s preference). But regular meals were cooked and served by Grace at eight o’clock, one o’clock, and eight in the evening, and laundry was picked up by Mr White on Mondays. Daily women came to do housework, a dedicated one-armed gardener worked outside, and a slaughterman came to prepare the family’s livestock for the table. 

During breakfast each morning, Vanessa would visit the kitchen, take a seat, and discuss the arrangements for the day with Grace, who stayed on her feet. A butcher and baker both travelled from the local market town, Lewes, to make deliveries to the house, and milk was brought in from a nearby farm. The proprietor of the village store in Firle, Scovell’s, would have a cup of tea with Grace in the kitchen and tell her about the local goings-on when he made his deliveries. Lunch was generally simple – cold meat, salad, and cheese – but dinner could be more extravagant depending on who was visiting.

‘When T. S. Eliot came for supper with ten other people, Vanessa accidentally over-provisioned, and the table groaned under eleven cooked grouse.’

Clive loved to hunt, and the South Downs are rich with game, particularly grouse and pheasants. After answering his correspondence, writing, and reading The Times in the morning, Clive would sometimes shoot in the afternoon and return with a hare for dinner. When T. S. Eliot came for supper with ten other people, Vanessa accidentally over-provisioned, and the table groaned under eleven cooked grouse.

For much of the First World War, the garden was planted with vegetables and fruit trees to support the needs of the family (Grace also kept chickens and ducks, as well as pigs). 

Eventually, the garden was pulled up and reconfigured by the painter Roger Fry, who created the central lawn and gravel paths, and the heavily planted borders that are still in place today. Vanessa and Duncan decided what sorts of flowers to plant based on what they wanted to paint. In a letter to Duncan in 1921, Vanessa writes about the garden as ‘masses of artichokes in flower and hollyhocks as tall as the apple trees and...lots of Canterbury bells and columbines.’ A sanctuary for family and friends then, and for the rest of us now. Paintings adorn every surface at Charleston, including in the dining room and artists’ studio. 

With special thanks to Darren Clarke, head of collections, research and exhibitions at The Charleston Trust.

Jo Rodgers is a journalist who lives in London with her husband and two children. She is a contributing writer at Vogue, Conde Nast Traveller, House & Garden and Country Life.

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