Life in Squares: Charleston Farmhouse and life in colour
If Dave or either of the boys had been given a tranquilliser shot strong enough to fell a rhino, they could not have been knocked out much faster than being forced to sit in front of the first episode of the BBC's "Life In Squares", which attempts to dramatise the lives of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. Punctuated by intermittent snoring, I watched Episode 1 as the fey actors and actresses mooched around rooms painted shades of Elephants Breath and Dead Salmon, talking in drab monotones in an effort to convey the overbearing ennui of being as privileged, intelligent and louche as the Bloomsbury Group were rumoured to be. Every few minutes - about as often as the adverts interrupt dramas on other channels - there would be a quick and whiskery illicit coupling as the Bloomsburies passed each other in sepia corridors.
After watching the first episode of "Life in Squares", I began to think about why I return to Charleston time and again. Starnash Farmhouse is only 10 minutes drive from Charleston Farmhouse and I like going there; there is something enduringly appealing about it. It feels like a home, rather than a museum.
If you know anything about the Bloomsbury Group at all, you will probably have a view on them: priveleged fops and snobs maybe, or cutting edge writers, artists and intellectuals of their time. Their alternative liaisons are well known; they weren't shy of a bit of sapphism, homosexuality and marital re-arrangement. However, in the grand scale of the many long lives that were played out in a farmhouse at the foot of the South Downs, these relationship quirks and shifts are just some of the facets of the well documented lives of an enduring social group.
Charleston Farmhouse is not a place of perfection or a showcase for wealth and grandeur; quite the opposite. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted spontaneously with whatever came to hand - a door, a fire surrond, a table or a wall. They painted all the time...simple domestic scenes, the nooks and crannies within the house, a view from a window, food being prepared, a guest reading...so that the minutea of daily life were recorded beautifully over many decades.
Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf were close as sisters and Virginia would often visit Charleston from her Sussex home at Monks House in Rodmell. Many years back I came across Virginia Woolf's diary, 'A Moment's Liberty', in a secondhand bookshop. Her fictional stream-of-consciousness style of writing can be heavy going and she was often tortured by the act of writing her novels. Her diaries however, are so completely different. They weren't written to be publicly read and so they are a chatty release from the act of writing – witty and gossipy, flitting over matters of life and death, politics, sex and the daily trials and tribulations of domestic life. You can open a page of one of her diaries on any date and she immediately seems to be there, as if talking directly to you: Wednesday 17th August 1938
The old woman who lived up at Mount Misery drowned herself three days ago. The body was found near Piddinghoe - my usual walk. Her son died; she turned queer; had been a midwife in Brighton; lived in the broken windowed half of Mr Bradfield's house. She used to moon over the downs with a dog. Once she came into the shop late on Sunday to beg twopennyworth of paraffin - she was alone in the dark. They threatened to turn her out - farm wanted. She had killed her dog. So at last off she goes, on Monday perhaps when the tide was high in the afternoon, and jumps in. Louie says her brother found a drowned woman the other day at Barcombe Mills - a horrid sight. So I order dinner hastily and come out here to brew more 'Roger'.
So, at supper, we discussed our generation: the prospects of war. Hitler has his million men now under arms. It is only summer manoevres or -? Harold [Nicholson] broadcasting in his man of the world manner hints it may be war. That is the complete ruin not only of civilisation, in Europe, but of our last lap. Quentin conscripted &c. One ceases to think about it - that's all. Goes on discussing the new room, new chair, new books. What else can a gnat on a blade of grass do? And I would like to write 'Pointz Hall'; and other things: and have half a mind one day to explain what my intention is in writing these continual diaries. Not publication. Revision? a memoir of my own life? Perhaps. Only other things crop up. From her diaries and the letters that she and Vanessa wrote to each other, the details of their everyday lives are conveyed to us as personally and eloquently as they were for each other, their intended recipients. So, when we visit Charleston Farmhouse or Monks House it feels not so much as if this is just yet another heritage house that we are visiting, but that the one-time inhabitants are not so far away...almost as if they could be in the garden.
The reason why the Bloomsbury group and Charleston Farmhouse remain engaging to many people is that, whether they were priveleged and elite or not, their lives were as ordinary as the next person's on a day to day basis. They were experimental, they had a healthy disregard for convention and the stuffy ways of their forebears, but more than anything they were just a family and an enduring group of friends. People came and went, friends grew ill, died, others grew old, children grew up, proteges came along, and all the time they experimented with ways of making a living through their art and literature. Charleston Farmhouse was the backdrop where the ordinary dramas of daily life were played out over sixty years, through two world wars until 1978 when Duncan Grant died, but it still resonates with the spirit of its one time occupants.