The home of the Bloomsbury Set was somewhere you could say what you wanted about art, sex and religion

If you happen to find yourself in the rolling countryside of East Sussex you must visit the home of the Bloomsbury Set, Charleston. And even if you are nowhere near there, it is worth making the trip because it is such a life-enhancing place. 

Although, maybe take a picnic, because the café is not as wonderful as the rest of the Charleston experience.

Intellectual haunt

The house itself, once home to painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant who moved there at the height of the First World War, was originally a farmhouse. But it is hard to see any of its farming roots now. Instead it is a carefully preserved work of art, a tribute to the artists and intellectuals who used to gather there, including Virginia Wolf. Vanessa Bell wrote at that time: “We did not hesitate to talk of anything… you could say what you liked about art, sex and religion.” This freedom is reflected in the decoration of the house, where every wall, door panel and furnishing is hand decorated.

Inside and out

Outside the house is a walled garden, which like all British gardens, probably looks its best right now just when flowers are at their peak and everything is verdant. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant followed designs by another Bloomsbury artist Roger Fry, to create what is a mixture of a cottage garden with Mediterranean planting. There are also sculptures, classical and more modern, plus mosaic pavements and tile-edged pools.

Plus, there is an art gallery where you can see further examples of paintings in which colour sings. Right now there is an exhibition, In Colour – Sickert to Riley, which is curated by textile designer Cressida Bell, granddaughter of Vanessa Bell. This show features fantastic abstract paintings from artists ranging from Patrick Caulfield to Paul Nash.

Landscapes to die for

But that’s not the end of it. There are some inspiring landscape paintings and drawings from Philip Hughes, in another exhibition called Land. These pictures depict the landscapes of The Downs in East Sussex and West Penwith in the west of Cornwall. These were actually my favourite works of art, but perhaps this was because of their surprise element. I was not expecting to see them, and was blown away by their beauty. After already having seen such vibrant paintings in both the house and the In Colour exhibition, it was a real surprise to find myself knocked out by yet more great art.

Too much to handle

I am unashamedly a big fan of Charleston and hope to go again, as it was too intense to take in on one visit. So that is my only criticism, there was just too much to see in one go. But then isn’t that the case with so many of the great galleries we are blessed with in this country? We are so lucky to live somewhere with such riches, at least in terms of its creative collections and talents.