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Caring for Charleston

Caring for Charleston

Kathy Crisp is the conservation cleaner at Charleston House, originally the summer sanctuary and now spiritual home of the group of artists, writers, commentators and creatives that have become known as the Bloomsbury Group. Here, she talks us through her vital work looking after the house, conserving and protecting the precious art and designs, and what life has been like at the farmhouse during lockdown, without the usual influx of visitors.

Nestled at the foot of the South Downs sits Charleston, the former home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. The farmhouse is the most important remaining example of Bloomsbury decorative style. March saw us close our doors to the public due to the pandemic; the blinds are down, and the house is strangely silent apart from the crowing of pheasants and the rumble of passing tractors.

However, there is lots that needs to be done and I am dealing with less welcome visitors such as insect pests. Moths, for instance, just love a quiet and undisturbed dark places. Silverfish too.

The rugs and other textiles also require some tending. The physical wear and tear from thousands of visitors a year walking through the house can take its toll. There are hundreds of objects, paintings and thousands of books to be checked, cleaned and conserved. It’s my job to conservation clean while keeping a close eye on the condition of everything within the house.

One such textile lives in the garden room; a woollen macramé radiator cover which hangs as a curtain. Vanessa Bell made this in 1928. The cream, yellow and burgundy cords hang in symmetrical groups, knotted at the top and bottom and weighted with glass beads. I removed it to a flat surface to examine it thoroughly. There was a lot of accumulated dust especially on the knots which I gently removed with the tiny brush nozzle head of the conservation vacuum.

The many painted surfaces and furniture need infrequent and gentle cleaning. One of my favourites is the large circular table which has been the centrepiece of the dining room since 1934. Bell decorated the top with swags and rosettes in pink, green, white, yellow and black. Her enhancement of this simple but important piece, gave her family and friends a lively surface to share good food and conviviality. The design has worn off a little in areas, particularly where she would sit and serve the food. When cleaning off the dust accumulations, special brushes are used, thus reducing the risk of damaging the delicate surface, and the vacuum is employed so dust is carefully swept into the hose.

After the relentless rain we’ve endured this winter, the original black stencilled wallpaper in the dining room will need some attention from the paper conservator. I’m catching many more silverfish than usual at this time of year, maybe because it’s so quiet and dark. They’re nocturnal insects typically, feeding on paper or other carbohydrates, so they love the blinds of the house being closed and no padding around of guided tours.

I love caring for this important place and driving up the bumpy lane in the morning while carefully avoiding the numerous pheasants. The Downs above always look so beautiful and I understand why the artists lived, loved and painted here for over 50 years. Together, over many years, they transformed Charleston into a work of art.

Many of us have a desire for these places we cherish to remain unchanged, and we value them precisely for their apparent timelessness in a changing world. Keeping time at bay takes a lot of work behind the scenes.

I must confess, I do miss the chatter and laughter of visitors and the sound of their footsteps on the gravel as I open the shutters for another day. I hope my small part in the conservation effort means Charleston is kept for future generations to enjoy, and that its collection will be in the best possible condition when we reopen.

Charleston today

Whilst Charleston is closed, it’s still possible to support the Charleston Trust’s work to preserve and conserve the house. The online Charleston shop sells fabrics designed by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant by the metre, an exclusive range of home products designed by artist Cressida Bell, and Virginia Nicolson’s new edition of Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden. You can also support by donating to the Trust’s current appeal to help safeguard the house and garden.

Visit Charleston Trust for more information and the Charleston online shop.