The Bloomsbury group were, of course, linked to a place - Bloomsbury, obviously. But they had a country outpost. Actually it was more than an outpost; it was the main home for Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and their friends during the two world wars, and a weekend and holiday retreat all their lives; indeed it’s where they spent their old age. Bell’s sister Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard lived in a nearby village; Grant’s lovers came and went.
That place was Charleston, a house at the foot of the Sussex Downs. Bell’s children by her husband Clive Bell grew up here in Arcadian freedom, as did her daughter by Grant, Angelica. Clive, and Clive’s mistress Mary Hutchinson, were visitors too – Grant painted Hutchinson with unflattering green shadows.
Here they lived their bohemian Bloomsbury lives in rural peace and quite extraordinary harmony, given the cat’s cradle that was their tangled relationships. The rural idyll was broken by death – in 1937 when Julian, Vanessa’s son, was killed while working as a stretcher bearer in the Spanish civil war, and in 1940, when Virginia took her own life in a stream not far away.
This new exhibition at Philip Mould gallery, Charleston, the Bloomsbury Muse, is a tribute to the creativity that Charleston nurtured in Grant and Bell, from their arrival in 1916. Grant and his lover David Garnett needed employment as agricultural labourers to save them, as a conscientious objectors, from conscription. Bell found and rented Charleston, near to a farm where the two men could work, and there they stayed, painting and decorating and gardening. There’s a painting by Grant (in full-on post-Impressionist mode) of Bell lying in a hammock with one son boating, another reading next to his tutor, and little Angelica – presumably conceived at Charleston after Bell’s successful assault on Grant’s homosexuality – toddling along a rose-bordered path.
As soon as they arrived, Bell and Grant tackled the bourgeois interiors, replacing the middle class wallpaper with a warm chalk wash, and decorating every surface in sight (these interiors are still intact, lovingly cared for by the Charleston Trust, and are well worth a visit).
In this show, we get the chest Grant decorated with a vaguely cubist male nude swimmer on the front and a take on Leda and the Swan under the lid, the swan being replaced by a duck. There are unprepossessing cupboard doors painted with a bold fruit bowl and a vivid jug of crimson wine and glasses. There’s a series of panels (owned by the gallery’s director Philip Mould himself) where Clive and Vanessa joined forces to make preparatory images of the muses for John Maynard Keynes’s rooms in King’s, Cambridge (he was Grant’s lover too). One of the respects in which the group were ahead of their time was in ignoring the divisions between fine and applied arts. If there was a nice flat surface, they painted it.
This is an insightful exhibition, which does justice to both artists over time. It’s hard not to see Grant as the more considerable painter, though there’s a striking, boldly executed still life of flowers here from 1912, which reminds us that much of Bell’s early painting was obliterated when a bomb struck their studio in Fitzrovia. There’s also a terrific snow study of the barn at Charleston, with Bell in Monet mode, with blue shadows on snow, and strong, angular lines. The still life of a simple jug painted after her son Julian’s death does, with this knowledge, seem moving. Her preparatory painting for an Annunciation for the parish church is here too.
As for Grant, the best pieces here are perhaps the portraits – there’s an engaging depiction of Keynes reading, with his feet tucked under his chair and engrossed in writing a telegram. But the standout painting is something like a nativity scene, only without the manger: a picture of the barn with a shaft of light striking the hay with vivid luminosity.
So for Charleston, Bohemia in a Sussex farmhouse, you could make the slightly inconvenient trip there, or you can make for Pall Mall.
Philip Mould Gallery, September 14 to November 10, philipmould.com