Blessay 43: Charleston on a Hot Evening

It was August 1976. I was studying English at Sussex, making notes for an extended essay for my course on “Arts and Letters in Britain from 1900-1930.” But it was hot, blisteringly hot. Not the best time to go for a long walk on the downs. But, heat wave or not, I’d arranged with Michael, a student on the same course, to visit Charleston, in the village of Firle. This was the country house meet-up place of the legendary elite of Sussex artists and Bloomsbury writers. Duncan Grant and members of his family were still living here. The University would have had to have asked permission to grant a student group visit – pretty unlikely. So Michael and I decided to attempt it ourselves.

We started off at 4 and reached Charleston at dusk, sometime after 8. I remember the light being on in the kitchen where a woman was preparing food on a large wooden table. The door was wide open. Out of the darkness of the back garden we appeared: thirsty, hungry and grubby from walking. At the very least we expected to be given a glass of water (I felt like a sentimentally depicted country tramp, of a fifties cartoon, who stops at a picturesque cottage and asks the occupants to quench my thirst.)  The real kitchen occupant wasn’t shocked by tramps or worn-out walkers, nor patronising, but welcoming.

“You poor things, you look done in. I’ll fix you a sandwich and a drink.” The fair-haired woman, wearing an apron, was in her early thirties and her accent was English-rose (without any cut-glass affectation.) She apologised for only making a snack, as she was preparing a large family meal that night. We thanked her and described our Sussex course. She listened carefully, between chopping up vegetables.

“That’s so nice. Both of you studying the old family members of the Bells and Grants. Grandfather will be delighted.”

“And who is grandfather?” I naively asked.

“Why Duncan. Look, Duncan and Paul are having a drink in the studio. I’m sure they’d be delighted to meet two students from Falmer.”

We were led into an enormous room (Grant’s studio) with large windows, a couple of set-up easels, with new paintings, older canvases stacked against the wall, lots of books and some oddly shaped chairs (Roger Fry’s Omega workshop I later discovered). Two men were chatting and we were introduced. They were genuinely surprised and flattered to be included (well really only Duncan) as subjects for a B.A. degree course. For a short time after WW2 Bloomsbury went out of fashion. It took the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s to latch on to its “experiment in living.” Gradually serious critical attention was paid not just the obvious luminaries like Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf, but artists Roger Fry, Eric Gill, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

Duncan, aged 91, with his long beard, smock-like shirt, large body and straw hat looked an impressionist patriarch: a dead ringer for the painter Auguste Renoir. He was very charming. His friend Paul Roche (who I later learnt was his lover) was initially a little suspicious and protective of Grant. Yet once he realised that we were just “students out on a walk” (my words) and not rivals, he relaxed. He was handsome in that old-fashioned English chiselled face manner; wearing a light black-cord suit, white shirt and cravat. Roche, in his forties, was a poet (now largely forgotten) and a renowned classical scholar.

Duncan was keen to show us his new painting whilst Paul holding a copy of one of his ‘slim volumes of verse’ looked eager to read at a moment’s notice. We wanted to talk about Bloomsbury past, but it was Duncan and Paul who did most of the talking. We were plied with questions about our interests, details of our degree, and life generally at University. I also sensed was that they were two kindly gay / bi-sexual men who were looking us over. It was only half an hour of chat, during a freakish heat-wave, but long enough to sense a world of bohemian values still continuing.

Back in the kitchen we ate some biscuits. “I’m sorry that I haven’t prepared enough food for guests, but the whole family’s here. Otherwise we’d have loved you to join us.” She said this with a genuine sense of disappointment. “But let’s top up your wine. I’ll lead the way into the dining room and you can say your proper goodbyes to all of us.”

Michael and I trailed behind her as she carried, on a tray, a huge steaming casserole dish of food. We walked along a corridor decorated with original Picasso and Braque drawings. This was the first time I’d seen valuable works of art in a domestic setting. They looked at home as if they’d been created with Charleston in mind. She opened the door and we saw Duncan, Paul, one older and two much young children seated round an Omega table. Again another book-lined room lit by a green and gold art-noveau lamp. The family beamed with warmth and well-being, not just for themselves but us. Duncan and Paul raised their glasses. And we raised ours back. “Good luck with your studies, young men” cried Duncan. Then we gently closed the door and left.

Going back home on the train, I cherished the image of a family wishing us well. It was a meeting of strangers brimming with affirmation. We didn’t want to impose on them. They didn’t see it as an imposition. We’d glimpsed how they lived and they welcomed us. It was an encounter that had nothing to do with class, power or any celebrity narcissism. It was an epiphany of quiet goodness and generosity. A civilised response to travellers who knock on your door. A country welcome. An empathy. A lovely balance between informality and protocol. An opened reality. And a dream of human kindness.

I’m writing this on a day in late June 2017 almost as hot as it was in the summer of 1976. It’s the fifth day of a London heat-wave. In April I went to the exhibition at 2 Temple Place, London called Sussex Modernism, Retreat and Rebellion: covering (care of the programme note) “radical artists and writers drawn to the rolling hills, seaside towns and quaint villages of Sussex in the first half of the twentieth century.”

There was a great diversity of art, sculpture, film and photography. And amongst them two paintings by Duncan Grant of Paul Roche, posing nude, in Grant’s studio. Seeing that remind me of the very clothed pair of lovers on that Charleston evening, a long gone Bloomsbury idea; the late nineteen seventies with its end of a socially progressive agenda: the winding down of liberal, higher education ideals and the unforeseen shock of an eighties, ‘individualism’ with its absence of political consensus.

Charleston may have housed its artistic elite. Yet those genuinely creative people, with all their human upsets and difficulties, gave us a vision (quite aristocratically privileged) but still retaining much that was spontaneous, inherently decent, kind and generous.