Textile Tourism: A Bloomsbury Adventure
A Visit to Monk's House and Charlestown Farmhouse.
BY MEGHAN MCEWEN
Long bracing walks across the South Downs in East Sussex -- cue magnificently crisp air, dappled sunlight, blackberry brambles, startled pheasants scurrying across footpaths, flocks of sheep, sweeping vistas-- was not only our preferred method of transportation on this trip, it was also essential in providing a contextual backdrop for the reason for our trip. We came to East Sussex to see the live-work country homes of Virginia Woolf (Monk’s House) and her sister Vanessa Bell (Charleston farmhouse), two of the pioneering members of the Bloomsbury group--20th-century artists, writers and thinkers known for for their experimental, anti-establishment ideals and prolific creative output, which, we discovered, includes an incredible collection of textiles and handmade decorative arts.
Monk’s House--the village house Virginia shared with her husband Leonard Woolf and now owned by the National Trust--is foremost a literary pilgrimage, but for anyone interested the decorative arts, the famous bohemian Bloomsbury aesthetic is a tribute to her deep respect and fondness for handmade objects for living as a form of self-expression. I knew I would be moved by standing in the place where Woolf wrote (her sacred one-room shed in the orchard, which inspired her famous feminist essay A Room of One’s Own), spent time with friends and family (Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster were known to be regular guests), slept (a single twin bed in a room looking into the garden and full of books) and walked (through the charming village streets of Rodmell; across the South Downs; and eventually, tragically, right into the River Ouse), but I was most moved by seeing her treasured personal possessions and learning their stories. In the dining room, a hand-embroidered mirror was a Christmas gift from Vanessa; six caned dining chairs with embroidered backs, the design--a bowl of flowers against a window--painted by Vanessa and embroidered by Duncan Grant’s mother. Lampshades and slipcovers made with fabrics designed by Vanessa and Duncan, as well as hand-painted tiles on tables and surrounding fireplaces. At the foot of her bed, her collection of Shakespeare is displayed in a bookshelf, each of the 39 books she covered herself in exquisite marbled paper from their Hogarth Press.
I was hoping to see in situ evidence of Virginia’s affection for knitting. Some of my favorite characters of Virginia Woolf’s were knitters, most notably Mrs. Ramsay in From the Lighthouse who was based on memories and impressions of her own mother. It wasn’t difficult to imagine Virignia, an avid knitter herself (Edith Sitwell once said, “I enjoyed talking to her, but thought nothing of her writing. I considered her 'a beautiful little knitter.”), sitting in front of the fireplace in one of her favorite chairs, covered in fabric designed by her sister, knitting away. In one of Vanessa’s more tender paintings of her sister, she captures Virginia doing just that.
It was at Charleston farmhouse, however, where I spied a knitting basket beside an upholstered chair. Operated by a private trust, it’s open to the public and doubles as untouched time capsule of their eclectic tastes and extraordinary talents, as if they just stepped out for a moment. Vanessa lived at Charleston with her children and partner, Duncan Grant, also a painter. We walked there from our charming coaching inn, relishing in the same sights Virginia Woolf would have seen along the same footpath she would have taken countless times. To be immersed in the environment is a sensory introduction to the wildly creative way in which Vanessa and Duncan lived and worked so freely. Every surface of the house is a canvas, covered with their chalk paint reveries and geometric designs -- walls, wallpapers, doors, mantels, furniture, lamps and shades, ceramics, even the top of their dining room table is covered with a repeating bulbous pattern in blues, yellow and pink. Their style is a loose and experimental Modernism and still feels resoundingly fresh today. In 1913, another Bloomsbury artist, the painter Roger Fry, convinced them to create the Omega Workshops, a company (and also something of a movement) designed to give rise to more creative and lively decorative arts, including their signature fabrics, embroidered furniture, wallpapers, in contrast to the staid, fussy aesthetic of their time. I’m drawn to Duncan Grant’s Clouds and Grapes fabrics, which feel, to me, like a whimsical, British cross between Alexander Girard and Josef Frank, but decidedly his own. Omega Workshops lasted only five years, but their aesthetic is far from fleeting.
Stay: Book one of the spacious second-story rooms at Ram Inn, a traditional English coaching inn in Firle (between Charleston and Monk’s House) that offers a hearty English breakfast, a cozy pub with a roaring fire, and a glimpse of everyday village life and loyal local regulars.
Tea: If you do hike across the verdant green Downs to get to Monk’s House, you may want to schedule around tea time at Abergavveny Arms.
Other Stops: Just three miles way, the small local Berwick Church, where Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and her son Quentin Bell painted beautiful murals. It’s also worth making the hour drive to Sissinghurst Castle, where Vita Sackville, who was Virgnia’s close friend and lover, lived, wrote and gardened. The vast gardens are extraordinary, and it’s documented that Vita used to give Virginia knitting wool from the sheep.
For more information about visiting Monk’s House—or to get information for yourself, from your desk—visit the National Trust’s website.