Review: Charleston in Firle & Charleston in Lewes ★★★★★
We check out the cultural day trip potential on offer at the East Sussex home of the Bloomsbury group, Charleston in Firle, and its impressive new gallery in nearby Lewes.
Charleston has opened a new gallery in Lewes, as a test run for a more permanent venue planned to bring 100 of the most important works by the Bloomsbury group back to Sussex with the support of the National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the V&A, alongside an expanding programme of events and exhibitions. With an initial season running until January 2024, and an art shuttle bus running from the house in Firle to the gallery, it felt the perfect time to check out the cultural day trip potential of this corner of the thriving Sussex arts scene, set amongst the beautiful South Downs.
Charleston house itself was once the home and studio of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and a rural gathering point for the radical artists, writers and thinkers that made up the Bloomsbury group. But a good place to start is the new gallery, situated just a few minutes’ walk from Lewes train station, which is holding Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion, the first ever exhibition to focus on the clothing of the collective, and their impact on 21st century fashion. This might appear to be a challenge to put together as hardly any of their garments still exist, but there’s a wealth of other means to find about what they wore, plus plenty of items inspired by their work from both celebrated fashion brands through to new commissions created especially for this exhibition by young designers.
Particularly striking are costumes designed by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons for an opera in 2019 based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography, with a lead character who lives across the centuries and transforms from man to woman.
As a contrast, artist and designer Jawara Alleyne presents a series of works for Bring No Clothes – including a denim-clad sculpture – responding to Vanessa Bell’s free-spirited hand-making, using upcycled and deadstock materials.
Back among the larger fashion houses, Duncan Grant was the inspiration for Dior Men’s spring/summer 23 show, with artistic director Kim Jones creating a collection to show how fashion is influenced by Bloomsbury not just for its look, but for its ideas.
There’s plenty more here, from an examination of clothing in queer portraiture to a video of a catwalk show by Fendi. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell would say ‘bring no clothes’ or ‘don’t trouble to dress’ to signal a rejection of formal Victorian attire, marking a way of looking at fashion differently. Throughout the exhibition, the modern terms we now have to describe queer identities and lives mark a refreshing way to examine directly what would have been far more coded at the time to those not ‘in the know’.
Upstairs, the free exhibition by leading contemporary artist Jonathan Baldock, Through the Joy of the Senses, is a bit of a show-stopper. Across just one room, there’s a lot going on – large-scale sculptural forms in fabric, paint and ceramics, some spilling out from gallery wall to floor. He repeats motifs across mediums, making a coherent body of work while avoiding the repetition that can be the downside of developing a distinctive arts practice.
Immersive without being gimmicky, he demonstrates a mastery of art and craft with new ideas. The diversity here echoes the Bloomsbury group activities, so it makes sense as the gallery’s first contemporary solo exhibition, but it’s also a great space for the work. With the light pouring through this gallery and views out to the town and countryside beyond, it’s easy to forget that this is, in fact, an initial phase to develop the gallery in former council offices.
On reaching Charleston house – a true countryside retreat with stunning views up to the Downs and deep into Sussex – we dropped into two exhibitions in the dedicated gallery space. The first, David Hockney: Love Life, displays some of the artist’s rarely seen early drawings. The gallery is kept dark to preserve the delicate sketches, so if you have any problems reading small captions in dim light, ask for a printed information sheet which has much larger type. With Hockney exhibitions elsewhere concentrating on his current exploration of digital art and immersive displays, it’s an interesting contrast to see the very early sketches, including views from hotel and home windows, and portraits of friends and lovers from long ago.
Next, we visited the solo exhibition of work by the British-born South Asian artist Osman Yousefzada. A new series of large-scale textiles titled Queer Feet represent defiant queer bodies and are embroidered with found objects and Afghan rugs. The way the carefully crafted and striking collaged materials spill into the gallery is reminiscent of the Jonathan Baldock exhibition at Charleston Lewes, with a similar immersive, inviting effect. Also included is a new series of works on paper, partly inspired by characters in the Falnama, book of omens used by fortune tellers in Iran, India and Turkey during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Charleston house itself is accessible with a timed ticket, with slots lasting for approximately 50 minutes. After moving to Charleston in 1916, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant began to paint on all the surfaces, transforming the house itself into a work of art. There are also collections of their books, paintings by their friends, and the preserved art studio that looks like someone is just about to start work. There’s a lot to take in throughout, as you begin to notice all the embellishments and personally-created artefacts that have completely taken over the space.
Our visit coincides with a performance of A Clear Comfort by Ian Giles, commissioned by non-profit contemporary arts organisation Van Gogh House, London. The immersive play engages with the legacy of queer homemaking, exploring the lives and homes of film maker Derek Jarman and American photographer Alice Austen, alongside the origins of house music in 1970s Chicago. Starting in the idyllic garden during the late evening sun, we’re taken on a tour in which we imagine we’re travelling between different countries and times.
It helps to know a little beforehand about the people presented, because there are references you might not otherwise catch, but the engaging performances draw you in, as if you’re directly being shown round by a guide or a resident. The music by Sophie Crawford adds atmosphere – you’ll want to join in with the dancing at the end. Charleston makes a great setting for a piece which investigates how queer people make alternative communities, whether in a rural retreat or in a city dance club.
The Bloomsbury group engaged in all types of creativity, as well as experimenting with new ways of living. The house itself might preserve their living space exactly as it was, as if they had just stepped out of the room, but the continuing events, exhibitions, performances and festivals taking place on site preserve the group’s legacy in the wider sense of providing a forum to generate fresh ideas, using the past as a springboard to the future. And the extraordinarily wide range of their activities provides opportunities to present work across a uniquely broad spectrum. The new gallery in Lewes promises to capitalise on this potential, attracting more visitors to both connect with the those that have gone before, and to find new inspiration.
Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion and Jonathan Baldock: Through the Joy of the Senses run until 7th January 2024 at Charleston in Lewes.
David Hockney: Love Life and Osman Yousefzada solo exhibition run until March 10th 2024 at Charleston in Firle.
Plan your visit to both venues here.
The Sussex Art Shuttle bus runs from Friday to Sunday and costs £2.50 for a day ticket. As well as the Charleston venues, it takes in The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, currently hosting the Turner Prize, the iconic Seven Sisters cliffs and Cuckmere Valley, together with the picturesque villages of Alfriston and Litlington.
Lucy is a scriptwriter and producer in theatre and film – find out more about her work here – and a researcher who enjoys getting out from behind the desk to find new things to do and sometimes review.