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“Radical, unconventional and international… much like the artists who lived here”

The Bloomsbury Group may be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean their work and relevance has to be. In this spirit, Charleston, the exquisitely decorated one-time home of Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury Group in East Sussex, has opened a new development to complement their tours of the historic house. The new buildings comprise of a reception space, restaurants, and most importantly an exhibition space designed by Jamie Fobert, the architects behind the major extension of Tate St Ives in 2017.

But, aside from its stunning architectural appeal, what will be the draw of this new gallery space? Charleston are planning to use it in order to explore the Bloomsbury Groups work, how it is relevant in today’s society, and how it is reflected in the work of contemporary creatives. And, unlike other galleries dedicated to exploring the work of singular artists, they’re in no danger of running out of material. From the writings of Virginia Woolf to the art fabrics of Vanessa Bell, the economic explorations of John Maynard Keynes to the Post-Impressionism of Roger Fry, there is an endless range of themes for the gallery to draw upon for their programme, which will be, in the words of the Charleston Trust’s Director Nathaniel Hepburn “much like the artists who lived here… radical, unconventional and international.”

Matt Smith, Pink, 2017, Wool, © Matt Smith, Courtesy Matt Smith

They’re kicking off which three exhibitions, the first of which, Orlando at the present time, celebrates 90 years since the original publication of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, which tells the tale of a fictional poet (based on her friend and lover Vita Sackville West) who mysteriously changes gender. The renowned exploration of gender fluidity and identity is a landmark text for those who study gender theory, and the themes are so relevant to contemporary discussions that it could have been written in the 21st Century rather than the beginning of the 20th.

It is therefore understandable that it has inspired numerous contemporary artists’ practices, the result of which is featured in the exhibition. From faceless embroidery representations of Rococo paintings by artist Matt Smith to The Image (2018), a surreal film response to the novel by Paul Kindersley, there’s loads of modern masterpieces to feast your eyes on, as well as some historical portraits that were Woolf’s original inspirations for characters in the book, such as The Two Sons of Edward, 4th Earl of Dorset (c. 1642 – 51) off which Woolf based the novel’s eponymous protagonist.

The second exhibition, Faces and Phases, also ties into the themes of Orlando. It’s a series of black and white photographic portraits by South African artist Zanele Muholi that analyse black lesbian and transgender experiences. Two of Zanele’s images are also part of Orlando at the present time, which creates a nice sense of cohesion between the two exhibitions.

Image Credit: Axle Hesslenberg

The triptych is completed by Charleston’s most recent acquisition and jewel in their crown, the Famous Women Dinner Service by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Originally painted in 1932 as a commission by Kenneth Clark, the service feautures a interesting and apparently random selection of inspirational women, from more traditional choices including Jane Austen, Marie Antoinette and Helen of Troy (and in a bout of self-promotion Bell and Grant themselves) to more interesting choices including Miss 1933(the winner of the Miss America beauty pageant) and Greta Garbo. It was painted at Charleston whilst Bell and Grant lived in the property, so it’s thrilling that it has been returned to its place of creation. Charleston are in fact currently fundraising to ensure the service stays at its artistic home, and has even had endorsement from the Duchess of Cornwall, who sponsored the Jane Austen plate! If you are interested in donating to support the acquisition email fundraising@charleston.org.uk

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant Famous Women Dinner Service, 1932, Courtesy PIANO NOBILE, Robert Travers (Works of Art) Ltd.

And of course, a trip to Charleston wouldn’t be complete without a tour around the historic house itself, which is described as the only completely preserved Bloomsbury interior in the world, and one of the Bloomsbury group’s finest works of art. This claim is hard to refute when you enter the house, which appears to be the living embodiment of the groups artistic values, style and taste. Every available surface is covered with charming, paintings by Bell, Grant and others, so much so, if it wasn’t for the other tangible humans on your tour, you think you’d been transported into an oil paint world. The house’s quirky interior is made even better by the guides who lead you around, who know the history and contextual information inside out, and are able to give you insightful information about the property. Also don’t miss out on a stroll around the wild, charming and romantic garden, which featured in many of the Bloomsbury groups paintings, and is currently being restored to its former 1920s/30s glory by head gardener Fiona Dennis.

Duncan Grant's Studio. Photo credit Tony Tree

The current exhibitions in Charleston’s new gallery space run until 6 January. Charleston is located at Firle, Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 6LL