A haunting glimpse into a lost past at Charleston
- Credit: Kim Marsland
When the artist Duncan Grant died in 1978, Charleston in East Sussex lost the last of its original Bloomsbury Group residents. Art student Kim Marsland took a haunting series of photographs capturing the rooms just as Grant had left them. To mark the publication of a new book unveiling her mesmerising images, she offers a tantalising glimpse into a lost past. Words by Angela Wintle
In 1981, art student Kim Marsland wrote to the artist Vicki Walton, who was looking after Charleston, near Firle, in East Sussex, asking if she might visit. Having recently discovered the work of the Bloomsbury Group, and, in particular, the paintings of Vanessa Bell, Kim was keen to learn more about this extraordinary artist whose painterly and decorative style she greatly admired.
“At the time, little had been written about this illustrious set of people and they were not widely known,” she says. “But my art tutor had mentioned a house in deepest Sussex where Vanessa and the artist Duncan Grant had lived and worked, and where every surface had been decorated in their own distinctive style.”
Turning into a country lane one morning in late spring, Kim cycled along an uneven track, fringed with cow parsley, until she arrived at the entrance.
“Directly in front of me stood a pair of unusual rustic urns with simple, uneven handles, resting on square pillars beside the entrance gates,” she recalls. “Beyond stood the old Sussex farmhouse, which had a faded pink and grey wooden front door and drab painted windows against a pale stucco exterior. Falling blossom and singing birds gently swirled around the seemingly abandoned house. It felt dreamlike, seemingly set apart from normal life. From that moment, I knew I would grow to love Charleston and its secret location at the foot of the Downs.”
Kim took dozens of photographs that day to accompany an essay she was writing, little realising she was making a unique record of Charleston on the brink of change. At the time, the future of the house and its contents hung in the balance as the Charleston Trust, a registered charity which had been founded the year before, tried to raise the £1m needed to carry out the restoration work.
One of Kim’s first photographs depicts the garden room gently lit by the reflected sun. An old linen dust sheet covers a sofa; a painted fabric lampshade, hidden in a corner, has fallen to one side. The pale light illuminates the soft grey-and-white, hand-stencilled wallpaper, which merges perfectly with the faded yellow curtains.
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Another photograph captures Grant’s studio. “It was a large, airy room and the walls were distressed and faded,” she says. “Two large armchairs faced into the room, draped with hand-knitted throws and misshapen cushions. Behind stood a large screen decorated with semi-abstract figures. The sun lit up hand-thrown pots, postcards, books and a striking bust of Virginia Woolf. Old photographs covered every surface; visible fragments of past lives.”
In the library she found rows of dusty books unevenly placed on simple, painted bookcases. A collection of mismatched chairs half faced each other as if in conversation; the rugs were threadbare in places. The room felt empty, she says, in spite of the books. “Below the window was a mural of a large hound, grey against a burnt ochre background,” she recalls.
“The chalky paint was distressed and discoloured in places, and in obvious need of restoration, though it leant the picture an air of melancholy charm.”
Upstairs, Kim was struck by a dressing room off Grant’s bedroom where his dusty shoes were propped neatly against a discoloured wall. Old tins, boxes and glass bottles jostled for space on a window sill and it saddened her to think that this very personal collection might soon be lost.
At the top of the house, she discovered Vanessa Bell’s studio, abandoned since her death 20 years before. “The room was damp and the wallpaper flaking off the walls, visible signs of a leaking roof,” she says.
“A tall wooden easel covered in old paint dominated the room and behind it stood a large stretched canvas – one of many stacked against the walls – depicting a man leaning against an oak tree with a hunting gun loosely by his side.”
Perhaps the most obvious signs of neglect were to be found in the garden where the lake opposite the house was choked with leaves and fallen branches. The walled garden was mostly laid to lawn and relied simply on apple trees and hedges for its main structure.
“There was a charm to its simplicity and an air of calm and peacefulness,” she says. “Looking back towards the farmhouse, I stood near a solitary flowerbed where a group of white flag irises shone brightly, and knew that the atmosphere of this day would forever be a cherished memory.”
It was almost a decade before Kim returned, and by then the house and garden, which opened to the public in 1986, had undergone a complete transformation. “The house had lost none of its character,” she says.
“The unique wallpaper in the garden room – which had been painstakingly removed from the wall, conserved and put back again – looked just the same as before. The atmosphere was as it was when I had first seen it; as though Vanessa and Duncan had just disappeared momentarily from the house.”
Discovering the recently restored wall garden, she was enchanted by a place, “once enveloped in a soft, mossy stillness”, now bursting with life. “Newly made flowerbeds and borders were overspilling with herbaceous perennials, all with the distinctive Charleston exuberance of spirit and unique mismatching of colour.
“There was also a newly restored vegetable garden. In all this newness, the old twisted apple trees and long box hedges were reassuringly familiar, except the once straight-edged hedges were now clipped to echo the rounded green shapes of the Downs.”
Kim feels privileged that she saw Charleston before it was restored and believes there’s something very atmospheric about crumbling old houses.
“I visited a National Trust property a couple of years ago where the Trust had done the bare minimum, and in every room there was peeling wallpaper, dust and cobwebs,” she recalls. “It was the most fantastic and eerie experience – like visiting an old black-and-white film set.
“At Charleston, the restoration work needed to be done, and was done sensitively, and thankfully it has retained its lived-in feel – partly because you’ll still find piles of magazines and cigarette butts in the fireplaces.
“Admittedly certain rooms, like Duncan Grant’s dressing room – one of the most poignant spaces I encountered – are totally different now because the decision was made to clear the space. But on the Charleston website you’ll find an inventory of all the original contents, right down to the old bottles on his windowsill. Nothing was thrown away.”
Sadly, not all Kim’s photographs have survived and pictures of the dark, ink-coloured wallpaper in the dining room and the ornamental mantelpiece in Clive Bell’s study have been lost. But the surviving prints are a vivid and haunting snapshot of Charleston at a particular moment in time, “when the house was sleeping and dreaming of its past”.
Charleston Farmhouse 1981: A Photographic Recollection of the Home of the Bloomsbury Group in Sussex by Kim Marsland is published by the Unicorn Publishing Group at £20.
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