Clutter Can Be Beautiful – Let This Historic Home Be Your Guide

When I was in college in New York, my art history professors occasionally touched on the pavilions of artist groups. I sat up in any European cottage that crossed the projection screen, imagining an extended version of an artistic summer camp. But one really got me excited: Charleston, the wacky, craft-filled, maximalist farmhouse of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant of the Bloomsbury group, located in the gentle hills of East Sussex, England, so different from the California open air where I grew up.

The Stone Farmhouse, Charleston, in bucolic East Sussex, England.

Bell and Grant, both painters and interior designers, were key members of the progressive group of artists, writers and intellectuals who originally congregated in the Bloomsbury district of London in the early 20th century . The duo called Charleston home during World War I, prompted by Bell’s younger sister and fellow Bloomsburian, author Virginia Woolf.

Bell and Grant filled every inch of the house with paints, some applied directly to the walls. The duo’s pastoral scenes, portraits and forays into abstract art are among the works of their contemporaries. And when they weren’t creating canvases, they applied decorative paint by hand to almost every other surface, from dressers to window moldings.

In the kitchen, porcelain transfer trays, remnants of a buttoned-up London life, contrast with whimsical handmade light fixtures.

Despite my collegial fascination, it wasn’t until I returned to London a year ago that I set out to visit the house. It has been run as a private museum since Grant’s death in 1978 and now holds contemporary exhibitions alongside tours of the interior of the house.

The changing style of English homes helped fuel my renewed interest in Charleston decor. West Londoners shunned sleek minimalism to cram quirky bobs next to oil paintings and drape their furniture in suzanis and vintage saris. The finesse of traditional English design was being filed down in favor of a stripped-down version of the abundant craftiness I remembered from those Charleston slides.

The dining room features a table painted by Vanessa Bell as well as a circa 1913 portrait of writer Lytton Strachey by Duncan Grant.

I had chosen a very English day to visit, cold and drizzly, unfriendly for anyone not wearing rubber boots. I dashed through the rain into the vine-covered 15th-century stone farmhouse and, leaning through a side door, entered the kitchen first.

A bulky white Aga stove warmed the room while my eyes focused on the light fixtures. They look like ceramic colanders hanging from strings of beads at a street fair, each hand-painted in the folk, primitive style of pottery, handmade by Duncan Grant, strewn throughout the house. On the mantel rest four blue and white porcelain transfer trays, remnants of a past life in London, buttoned up bedfellows to those wacky lights. Somehow, the couple look confidently funky, even when joined by a teapot splashed by Vanessa Bell’s son, Quentin Bell.

In the living room, the blocky graphic rug gives the eye a place to rest in the hustle and bustle of Duncan Grant’s trumeau painting, the spongy marble pattern and the busy Spanish and Italian ceramics.

I then entered the dining room. There reigns a heavy round table, painted by Vanessa Bell in concentric looped patterns. A vaguely art deco pattern repeats on the wall, block-printed by Duncan Grant and Quentin Bell in 1939, the year after Adolf Hitler began his march across Europe. In his book “Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden”, Quentin Bell wrote that he believed the model had a “sedative effect” on Grant. Letting my eyes linger on the geometric yet painterly zigs also smoothed my nerves, a little rattled after the morning run to East Sussex. Later, I asked Manhattan interior designer Sean Scherer how this activity could be so calming. “Your eye likes to see repetition,” he explained. “It helps create a sense of calm even if a little time passes.”

The palette of the room, too, is angelic. You could match the deep blue of the walls and the soft pinks and gray-greens of the kitchen table with the pigments of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance elegance. The cheap chalk paint used throughout the house even mimics fresco paint. Interior designer Sarah Stacey, from Austin, Texas, told me that the muted palette is part of what “tones down the decor a bit,” for a resulting “casual maximalism.”

Another key element of Charleston’s enduring appeal: its artful blend of shreds and sophistication. Picky creations, like a gleaming marquetry table Vanessa Bell received as a wedding present, cohabit with threadbare rugs and worn armchairs. Moving from room to room made me want to wrap the prim sofa in my London rental with my collections of mud rags and frayed French sheets. A far cry from crumbly mansions, English designers like Ben Pentreath and Emma Grant marry heavily weathered furniture with shiny pieces in big-budget projects.

In one bedroom, the rag rug, made by a local artisan, echoes the right angles of Duncan Grant’s mixed-media firescreen.

Back in the States, textile designer Serena Dugan, formerly of Serena & Lily, also witnessed the rise of highly personal layered design. “Items that are passed down or tell a story carry more weight than store-bought things,” she said. Tess Newall, a local artist whose hand-painted furniture often references the Bloomsbury aesthetic, said of Charleston: “By surrounding themselves with painted things that gave them joy, they uplifted everyday life. .”

Ceramist Sophie Wilson, who created her Grant-type collection, 1690, in a crumbly English house much like Charleston, cites the close relationships between members of Bloomsbury and how those relationships affected the house, as part of her attraction. For her, Charleston suggests that “who and what we choose to surround ourselves with is our most creative endeavor.”

Create your own Bloomsbury group

Six Pieces That Channel Aesthetics

Clockwise from top left: Beautiful Pastels Vintage Suzani, $650,; Bloomsbury lamp, about $682, ​​; Large Savernake Chair, $18,800,; 1690 Vase, $680,; Hand-painted closet, from around $1,115,; Mahogany Daybed with Bode Upholstery, from $12,500,; Perrotine Vintage Sari Lamp Shade, about $407,


F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal (COVER)

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