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Bohemian brilliance

One bright day in June, I stood in the dim-lit living room of Vanessa Bell’s farmhouse in Charleston, Sussex and wondered at the route that had led me there. Not the journey, which was no more than about two hours driving from London through English countryside covered in wildflowers. But the far-flung combination of reasons that had made it an imperative for me to stand in that room and breathe in air permeated with old books and threadbare rugs.

One of the reasons was Virginia Woolf’s book, a A Room of One’s Own. Which girl struggling to write would not be thrilled by Virginia Woolf’s essay on the impossible odds against women writing? It spoke in a voice that was true, witty and clear, despite the decades between the author’s time and ours. My friends read it, I read it, and then we worked our way through much of Woolf’s fiction, idolizing her as other teenagers might a rock star. For years the same postcard of young Virginia sketched in wistful charcoal was thumbtacked onto our bookshelves, glancing away from us, its gaze as elusive as her writing.
And then there was the cover of A Room of One’s Own, painted by the author’s sister Vanessa Bell. An arrangement of blobs of colour and handpainted type, that cover was memorable for its very clumsiness. Vanessa Bell painted all the covers for her sister’s books and the books were published by the Hogarth Press, which was run by the author’s husband, Leonard Woolf. The three of them were at the centre of the Bloomsbury Group, that included writers such as E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. Their literary and artistic experiments were as fabled as their sexual ones.
As I read about the Bloomsbury Group, I read of Charleston. This was the farmhouse to which Vanessa Bell retreated with a few other members of the group during the first world war when conscription made it compulsory for men to join the army. They fled to this farm because agricultural labourers were not forced into joining up.
The valley of Charleston sits under the shoulder of the Downs which separates it from the English Channel. When Vanessa Bell moved there in 1916, it was a spartan 17th-century farmhouse of flint and brick, with a hand-pump for water and no electricity or telephone. Only, it was no ordinary farmhouse. Charleston was an explosion of colour, passion, secrets, artistic adventures: an experiment in living differently in the 1920s. It was a large, unruly household, with Vanessa, a governess and her lover, five children, a cook, kitchen maid, as well as the artist Duncan Grant and his lover David Garnett. It was the location for liaisons between the same set in seemingly inexhaustible combinations and for the making of a great deal of art.
Such bohemian freedom and such casual brilliance! Charleston came to embody an exotic, unreal way to live, so far removed from the rickety Calcutta classroom in which we thumbed our worn-out college textbooks that it became our stuff of fantasy.
Today the area around the farmhouse is still mainly agricultural, and this June morning, with bleating sheep on the slopes not far from the house, it smelled of warm grass and flowers. The garden has mosaics and ponds and in one corner a young shrub grows out of the headless torso of a woman chopped off at her thighs. As you go from room to room, you pass flamboyantly painted cupboards, bathtubs, windows, fireplaces, lampstands, tables, chests. Flowers, nudes, vases, and vines dance and leap all over the furniture in blues, greys, pinks, oranges and reds. There are painted fireplaces and windows. Many artists scorn this kind of domestic art as a variety of decoration; few remember that Renoir too once painted on porcelain and curtains for a living.
Inside Charleston (Source: Melbourneblogger)
The pottery was made, glazed and painted by members of the family. The textiles that cover the sofas were designed by them. From children of five to renowned artists, anyone who passed through the house appears to have slapped paint onto the nearest table or chest of drawers. The charming thing about the house is this equality between high art and childrens’ daubs of paint. In the same room there might be lampshades made by one son, cupboards painted by another daughter while the painting on the wall is a Picasso.  
At Charleston, the home itself had been turned into an artefact. It became the design hub for Omega, a London design studio run by Roger Fry, once Vanessa Bell’s lover. Inside its lushly painted rooms, it was hard to tell apart life from art.
My mother had never heard of Charleston, but she painted. Normally she painted watercolours on paper, but often she painted things in the house too. We had a lot of chunky old furniture and in those days one never threw out old things on a whim. You lived with what you had. Her way of renewing our furniture was to take a tin of enamel paint and a brush to whatever had begun to displease her. The house would smell of turp and soon the cupboard or table would go from grey to red or green. She had seen doors and walls painted gorgeously by folk artists in Rajasthan, where she had grown up. She must have thought she would do the same to her own house. It was somewhat eccentric behaviour for a woman of her generation.
As soon as my brother and I could handle brushes we joined her and our house changed by degrees into a forest. Yellow and blue and orange macaws grinned behind tropical palms on the once oil-spattered stretch of wall behind the gas stove in our old, untiled kitchen. Blue sunbirds drank nectar from red hibiscus on an Electrolux fridge discoloured with age. A stretch of plywood (it hid a defunct cooler fan) became aquamarine and green water floating with bulbuous fish and fronds of weed. I have shelves in my kitchen today covered in purple morning glory, and wonky little cupboards and plywood tables made new via Berger and a brush. 
A cupboard I painted, including Ranikhet's lilies and leopard
For me, therefore, going to Charleston was not a trip to yet another literary home preserved as museum. It was a long-planned expedition to see a house painted as mine might have been — only I had neither the talent nor a Sussex farmhouse. It was also a pilgrimage to see where several of my favourite books had been dreamt up: in nearby Rodmell is Monk’s House, where Virginia Woolf lived and wrote. The river Ouse that Woolf drowned herself in after a nervous breakdown still flows behind Monk’s House, shaded by serene trees.
I lingered for some minutes gazing at the river, trying to sense ghosts, but Rodmell village has nothing spooky about it. At the Cricketer’s Arms the benches outside are full with people drinking cider and eating sausages. A little distance away, is the Berwick Church whose walls are decorated with playful murals by Vanessa and her menage. Charleston itself, on this June day, buzzes with students at an art workshop. The teachers murmur companionably to each other drinking tea from bright, big mugs. It’s all so cosy and tame it doesn’t seem possible that this was the epicentre of artistic hedonism and literary agony a century or so ago.
Inside the painted house, with its plump beds and shelves full of books, it feels as if the family will come back any time, aghast at our invasion. Staying seems intrusive. Outside in the garden, a weatherbeaten old statue peers out of the shrubbery at a bank of red poppies, and tall heads of allium nod over the sunlit pond. 
(published in National Geographic Traveller India, July 2013)

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