Standard entry £14.50 / 50% off entry with National Art Pass
By contrast, Charleston, where I headed next, is a summerhouse from a very different era, though equally distinctive and design-led. A few miles outside Brighton and hidden away in the Sussex countryside, it was the residence of Bloomsbury Group artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. They rented the house as a refuge from the First World War, and it soon became a creative hub for many of Britain’s leading thinkers, writers and artists of the early 20th century, including Virginia Woolf, EM Forster and Lytton Strachey. A National Art Pass gives you free admission on Sundays and half price entry for a 90-minute guided tour.
The rural setting is a peaceful haven. When I visited, an artist was sitting at his easel beside the large lily pond, framed by an arresting sculpture of the Levitating Lady. Waiting for the house tour to start, I strolled around the walled garden dotted with neoclassical sculptures and mosaics fashioned from broken crockery.
Inside the 16th-century farmhouse, not only are the walls covered with paintings, practically every surface has been turned into a canvas, decorated in muted pastels. In each room are pieces shaped by the hands of the artists who occupied them. John Maynard Keynes’ room contains a striking camouflage-pattern desk where the economist – and Art Fund founder – looked out at the lily pond while he wrote.
There are dashes of fun everywhere – wonky doors adorned with acrobats, fireplaces decorated with ‘circle and crosshatch’ pattern, and cupboard doors brought to life with Russian ballet dancers. Much of it has a rickety, playful charm, like the beaded lampshades and Clive Bell’s cockerel and dog panels. The house feels ‘lived in’ and there’s a sense that they treated this rented space as their artistic playground. In the dining room, you can see where the paint has dripped from the hand-stencilled walls.
The tour saves the house’s most impressive room for last, winding up at the huge, luminous studio, which remains much as the last surviving occupant, Duncan Grant, left it when he died in 1978.