The group of artists and writers known as the Bloomsbury Group would spend their time between the busy world of London and the country. In particular, the area around Lewes in Sussex was a key draw for the Bloomsbury Group. Often weekends and holidays would be spent in the rolling downs and the area would become a key source of inspiration.
For this post I want to explore some of the key locations in this part of the world. It would have been a very different feel from the city but no less important. You can read all about some of the London locations here.
Sussex Locations of the Bloomsbury Group
Charleston House, Firle
The home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and the centre of Bloomsbury Life in Sussex
One of the most famous Sussex locations associated with the Bloomsbury Group is at Charleston. The country home in the village of Firle would become indelibly linked with the group. Even now it is associated with them and the home has become a museum run by the Charleston Trust.
It was the first world war which in some way forced the move. The painter Duncan Grant and his lover David Garnett were conscientious objectors. This was a familiar position to hold in the Bloomsbury Group but unless they could find ‘work of national importance‘, objectors could be sent to prison. It was Virginia Woolf who first suggested the farmhouse at Charleston in an area of Sussex they all knew well. This would be the perfect solution and so, with Vanessa Bell and her two children, Quentin and Julian, they all moved down together in 1916.
Charleston would soon transform from an average farmhouse to a hive of creativity and thought. Room by room it was transformed with Bell and Grant in particular placing their artistic mark on the place. The garden too would be developed under the guidance of Roger Fry. He along with Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Stachey, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, amongst others, would become regular visitors.
The move to Charleston in Sussex also lays bare some of the liberal thinking of the members of the Bloomsbury Group. It has since been said that they “lived in squares and loved in triangles.” This was absolutely the case even in Sussex. Vanessa Bell at the time was estranged from her husband Clive though they remained close friends. She had since formed a close relationship with Duncan Grant which was itself not a conventional one. Grant was bisexual and at the time his lover was David Garnett. Later Vanessa would have a child, Angelica, by Grant. Though that child would grow up believing Clive Bell to be her father. Angelica would grow up and go on to marry David Garnett, the former lover of her real father and to have four children by him. The relationships of the people within the group could be highly complex.
Berwick Church Murals, Berwick
Interior murals by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Quentin Bell
The local parish church in the tiny village of Berwick contains murals painted in 1941 by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell. The murals were commissioned by Bishop Bell of Chichester. He had wanted to revive the tradition of ecclesiastical murals. Before the reformation, many churches would have had their interiors extensively painted.
Now the murals are under threat as they have decayed over time. A massive fundraising drive is underway to ensure their restoration and survival. They are, according to the campaign, a unique example of war art. Painted in 1941 “they record the landscape, the people and the way of life that was under threat”.
Video about the Bloomsbury Paintings
The former Director of the Tate, Nicolas Serota, too said they were unique:
Asheham House (now demolished), Beddingham
The home of the Woolf’s from 1912 to 1919
The country home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf from 1912 to 1919 was on the outskirts of the village of Beddingham. It was demolished in 1994 to make way for a landfill site expansion. This despite vigorous local opposition. It is where Virginia and Leonard Woolf will have spent much of their early married life together.
Now the site is now full and undergoing restoration work to blend in with the wider countryside. Sadly the former location of the house has been long since lost. the area having been completely swamped with rubbish. The house at Asham was believed to have been haunted. As such it is thought to be the inspiration for Virginia’s short story, ‘A Haunted House‘.
The two moved out in 1919 when their lease expired which prompted to Woolf’s to purchase a new retreat. First buying the Round House in Lewes. Then, when realising it wasn’t suitable for their needs, snapping up Monks House in the nearby village of Rodmell. The latter would be their home until they both died.
The Round House, Lewes
A short lived home of the Woolf’s in 1919
Bought by Virginia and Leonard Woolf prior to their purchase of Monks House. The Round House on Pipes Passage was a converted windmill originally built in 1801. However the purchase in 1919 was a bit too spur of the moment and the property didn’t really suit their needs. The Round House was sold the same year.
Monk’s House, Rodmell
The final home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf
Bought on 1 July 1919 this was the country retreat where Virginia and Leonard Woolf would really make their home after Asham. Alternating their time between London and Sussex, they moved to Rodmell full time in 1940 after their London flat at 37 Mecklenburgh Square was bombed. Virginia committed suicide in the nearby River Ouse a year later in 1941.
Leonard lived in the house until he died in 1969. It was then bequeathed to his friend Trekkie Parsons who had become Leonard’s companion after Virginia’s death. She then sold it to the University of Sussex in 1972. The national trust later acquired it in 1980. Trekkie, who had lived nearby in Kingston, died in 1995. Monks House even now has a strong link to the Woolf’s. When Virginia died her ashes were buried in the garden beneath an elm tree. Leonard too had his ashes scattered in the grounds of Monk’s House.
Juggs Corner, Kingston
Home of Trekkie and Ian Parsons
The home of Trekkie and Ian Parsons bought in 1952, it overlooked the downs. Trekkie stayed there until her move into sheltered housing just before her death in 1995. Her husband Ian had passed away in 1980. Trekkie had been a close friend and companion of Leonard Woolf after his wife Virginia had died. An artist and lithographer herself, she had illustrated a number of book covers for Hogarth Press which was the publishing house of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
The relationship with Leonard and Trekkie was a deeply loving but more than likely platonic one. Trekkie was an artist and had been introduced to the Woolfs by her sister Alice. Initially the friendship was fuelled by business with the Woolfs commissioning her to design a number of dust jackets. These would be done on behalf of their publishing house, the Hogarth Press. One of the works designed by Trekkie was Vita Sackville-Wests ‘All Passion Spent’ in 1931.
Already married to Ian Parsons she would spend a lot more time with Leonard following Virginia’s death. Often she would split her time between the two men. Leonard would even purchase a property in London to be closer to Trekkie and her husband Ian who was supportive of the arrangement. Indeed, the two men would later become business partners. Parsons publishing firm Chatto & Windus would also later buy the Woolfs Hogarth Press.
Tilton House, Firle
Where John Maynard Keynes lived with Lydia Lopokova
The economist John Maynard Keynes and his wife Lydia Lopokova moved into Tilton House near the village of Firle in 1925. A core member of the Bloomsbury Group, Keynes was an intellectual whose talents lay in economics. Even now his theories are colloquially known as Keynesian and are cited as influences by politicians and economists even today. Keynes lived at Tilton until he died in 1946. Lopakova, a former ballerina, continued to live in the house until she passed away at a nearby nursing home in Seaford in 1981.
The house at Tilton is only a short walk from Charleston, the heart of Bloomsbury’s activities in Sussex. The two would be classed as neighbouring. Keynes was a key member of the inner circle of the Bloomsbury Group. He was close with Vanessa Bell and particularly with Duncan Grant with whom he’d had a relationship. They had all lived together in townhouses on Gordon Square in London. It was here were the meetings of what became the Bloomsbury Group first started. After getting together with Keynes in 1923 Lopokova moved into rooms at number 50 with Vanessa Bell. That was in 1923 and it was only a few years later that Keynes and Lopakova would marry and move to Tilton.
Lydia Lopakova herself is often seen as an outsider to the group. Her marriage and relationship with Keynes was met with some surprise and quite possibly some snobbery. However the marriage was a very happy one and this more than anything proved their suitability with one another. Eventually she became a part of Bloomsbury by default. When they died both had their ashes scattered on the nearby downs.
St Peters Churchyard, Firle
Where a number of the Bloomsbury Group are Buried
The parish church of the village of Firle is where Vanessa Bell (d.1961), her son Quentin Bell (d.1996), her companion Duncan Grant (d.1978) and their daughter Angelica Garnett (d.2012) are buried. Charleston Farmhouse was their country home and is not far away. This is the area they loved and where they made their home. As such the village has a big connection with the Bloomsbury Group. Friends would often visit from London and the farmhouse became a hive of creativity. With the Woolf’s living nearby in Rodmell they would also visit frequently. As a result the village of Firle and its church would’ve been well known for people associated with the Bloomsbury group in Sussex.
For more related Inspiring City articles featuring the Bloomsbury Group, take a look at:
Quick Guide to Bloomsbury in Sussex
Time needed: 1 day.
A Quick Guide to the locations of the Bloomsbury Group in Sussex
- Charleston House
The home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, this was at the heart of the Bloomsbury Group in Sussex. The house and gardens even now are a work of art
- Tilton House
Economist John Maynard Keynes and the Ballerina Lydia Lopokova moved down to be nearer to their friends. Tilton House is now a yoga retreat
- Monks House
The final home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, they both had their ashes scattered in the back garden.
- Asheham House
The first home in Sussex of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. They moved out in 1919 when their lease expired. The home is now no longer there, vanished under a giant landfill pit
- The Round House
For a fleeting moment in 1919 the Woolfs bought the Round House in Lewes. It didn’t suit their needs however and so they sold up and bought Monks House.
- Berwick Church
Berwick Church has a remarkable painted interior by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quinten Bell. It is an extremely rare example of this type of decoration of a rural parish church.
- St Peters Churchyard in Firle
This is where Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Quinten Bell and Angelica Garnett are buried
Very good speaking as a room guide at Monks house and charleston you very well covered the history of bloomsbury on sussex. Well done
Thanks for that Chris that’s so good to know it’s an area I’ve been researching quite a bit and it’s a fascinating history indeed
Is it possible to find a tour of these sites? I will be visiting from USA. I would like to visit the sites but I don’t want to drive.
Hi Sam I don’t think there’s an official tour of them all that I know of. The main location is the chsrleston house so they might know better. There’s also some lovely walking routes around the Sussex downs if you wanted to see some of the locations that way
Thank you for that idea. It hadn’t occurred to me that they were walking distance.