The decorated furniture, flamboyant fabrics and wall paintings of Charleston, the Sussex home once shared by artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, are now so fragile, and the rooms so small, that tourists go round in groups of only 10. From next week, however, curator Darren Clarke will be squeezing in extra provision. A surge in interest is predicted with the broadcast on Monday of the new BBC2 drama Life in Squares, which will chronicle the tangled love affairs and bohemian tastes of their social circle.
“People on our tours are often surprised the beds are not bigger,” said Clarke. “We may get more of those sort of questions. To cope, we are stepping up the tours, with more than one every 15 minutes.”
Towards the end of a Charleston tour visitors are confronted by two powerful paintings hanging above the bed where the aged Vanessa slept at the end of her life. Even now they carry an emotional load that is easily understood. Inches above her headboard is a portrait of Julian, the elder son she lost in the Spanish civil war. It was painted by the love of her life, Duncan Grant. To the side is her own sober oil painting of her sister, novelist Virginia Woolf, who took her own life four years later.
The room pulls together many of the complex strands of the lives of the artists, writers and theorists known together as the Bloomsbury Group. Vanessa raised her sons, Julian and Quentin, in this farmhouse near Lewes, sharing it with Grant and then with Angelica, the daughter he had secretly fathered with her. “We don’t have a family tree on display,” explained Clarke. “Instead we have a relationship diagram, with different colours for different relationships.”
Just as well, because it gets knottier. Vanessa’s estranged husband later moved in, too, while Angelica went on to marry writer David Garnett, now best known as the author of Aspects of Love. As a young man he had been the lover of her father, Grant.
Public interest in the inhabitants and in the unique decor of Charleston has waxed and waned since it opened to the public in 1986, with an average of 20,000 visitors a year now usual. But this summer bigger crowds are set to travel up the long driveway to see where key scenes in the lavish drama were filmed. Those not attracted by the romantic and sexual freedom on display in the series, which stars James Norton, Lydia Leonard, Jack Davenport, Eve Best and Rupert Penry-Jones, are likely to be lured instead by glimpses of the extravagant cottage-style garden, exquisite this wet weekend with daintily dripping petals.
Also on the tourist trail will be Monks House at nearby Rodmell, where Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived, and Berwick church, which viewers may spot being painted in a final episode. The key players in the drama are joined by Lytton Strachey, the historian, and economist John Maynard Keynes, who were both regular guests at the house. The wider set, or “Bloomsberries”, which included poet TS Eliot, novelist EM Forster, aristocratic writer and garden designer Vita Sackville-West and artist Roger Fry, provide a backdrop for the drama, all having been equally tarred by association with a movement considered by some to have been neurotic, amoral and privileged.
Members have frequently been objects of fun and even the title of the new drama alludes to an oft-repeated joke: members of the group, according to a remark attributed to Dorothy Parker, “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”.
The grand London squares in question were Gordon Square, Tavistock Square, Russell Square, Fitzroy Square and, of course, Bloomsbury Square, all then in the less fashionable part of town north of Oxford Street. Although fans of the TV drama can still see their splendour, there is little trace left of their former creative stars. Bell and Grant moved to Sussex before the first world war because Grant and his lover, Garnett, were conscientious objectors and needed a refuge. The Woolfs, staying nearby at a house in Asheham, discovered that Charleston was available to let and so a new aesthetic hub was founded by the south coast.
At the heart of the group, and of the drama, are the sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen, the critic and mountaineer. As a result Vanessa’s granddaughter, Virginia Nicholson, is braced for a fresh public judgment on the two women. “There was a time when I thought all this interest was going to fizzle out. But it has done the exact opposite,” she said this weekend. “We will haveVirginia Woolf on Ice next, I suspect.”
The producers of Life in Squares came to see Nicholson four years ago and she admits she was wary. “The idea of the Bloomsbury Group gets a mixed response and my slight concern is that the drama will play into a perception that they were self-indulgent, bed-hopping poseurs, whereas in fact they were a group of people who between them changed the cultural face of Britain,” she said.
After seeing the drama series she is “very positive”. “What it manages in the end, by following their relationships and what they wanted, is quite moving: for me particularly, of course, because I am looking at my grandmother, whom I remember well. They have brought out her conflicts and her difficulties on screen, and it is compelling.”
In the Charleston gift shop, a member of staff tries to explain the Grant/Bell domestic setup to a visiting family. “Oh, watch the series on Monday and then you’ll know all about it. Bear in mind it is fiction, though!”
Nicholson also takes this cautious approach. “Their ideas were way ahead of their time, but then that’s not so dramatic. So I would say, even after this series goes out, television has yet to show what the Bloomsbury Group really was. They were not just people who jumped into bed with each other. Many of our modern ideas about art, economics, history, sexuality and feminism come from them.”
Her grandmother and her social circle were, she argues, conduits for new thought. “What I would say to interested viewers is visit Charleston and find out more. They wanted to change the world and I know from my childhood times at Charleston just how liberating they were.”
THE BLOOMSBURY LEGACY
Art Paintings by Duncan Grant, right, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Dora Carrington, and criticism by Quentin Bell, brought post-impressionism to Britain.
Literature ‘Only connect…’ from EM Forster’s Howards End, Woolf’s stream of consciousness in To the Lighthouse and The Waves. The Woolfs’ Hogarth Press.
History Lytton Strachey’s influential cultural study Eminent Victorians.
Design Fry’s Omega workshops. The eclectic bohemia of Charleston, continued since the 1980s by Laura Ashley.
Economics John Maynard Keynes’s 1919 warning The Economic Consequences of the Peace, the birth of modern macroeconomic thinking, written at Charleston.
Film The Ismail Merchant/James Ivory films of Forster’s Room with A View and A Passage to India; Tilda Swinton in Woolf’s Orlando.
Feminism Virginia Woolf’s quest for solitude in A Room of One’s Own.
Poetry Plays and poems by TS Eliot, such as The Wasteland.
Mental health The nervous breakdown of Septimus Smith in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
Sexuality Forster’s groundbreaking gay novel, Maurice.
Gardening The disciplined abundance of Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst in Kent.