A Bloomsbury Pilgrimage

One bright mid-autumn morning my partner and I set off from Jane Austen country to make a pilgrimage across the South Downs National Park to visit the homes of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, the extraordinary sisters at the heart of the Bloomsbury Group. The journey between Jane Austen’s House and the sisters’ houses, which are clustered around the Sussex market town of Lewes, is easy and expansive; good roads, running in broad sweeps around ruined castles, impressive country houses and stunning chalk downland, make the drive a pleasure. The link between Austen and the Stephen sisters (as they were before their respective marriages) is also clearer and more direct than one might think. Woolf was a great admirer of Austen, writing an essay called “A Jane of One’s Own” in 1913, which captures that intimate relationship so many readers have with the earlier author. Woolf’s famous 1927 essay “A Room of One’s Own” (written in her writing room at Monk’s House, the first destination on my pilgrimage) articulates Austen’s own need for space and security to write, a need that we see evidenced by the extraordinary outpouring of creativity during those last eight years of her life, when she found a safe, permanent home in what is now Jane Austen’s House. 

Monk’s House is in the little Sussex village of Rodmell. It is at almost the end of a lane which flows gently down the side of a hill and is lined with flint cottage with roses around the door. Beyond the entrance to the small car park the tarmacked lane turns into a muddy track which disappears off around a tree-shrouded bend. I could imagine Woolf stomping down there in gumboots and tweet, her mind full of characters and plots, or pondering life and love and the tribulations they bring.

Monk’s House itself is a long, low cottage, perched high above the road, with steps taking you up to the entrance. It is now owned by the National Trust; I am a member, so my visit was free, but otherwise it would cost £7.50 for a standard adult ticket. I visited during Covid times, so both opening times and the visitor experience where a little erratic, and I would definitely recommend checking the website before you visit: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/monks-house

We had to wait to go in, so took some time to explore the gardens and of course, visit her writing room. This is a large shed, with big windows on each of the long sides, giving in one direction a view onto the pretty orchard and on the other looking across a smooth bowling-green lawn to the wide valley beyond. A dark line of hills frames the picture, which is both pastoral and dramatic. Woolf’s view would have been inspirational, regardless of the weather.

Virginia Woolf's desk
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lizzie Dunford

I love seeing writers’ rooms and desks; there is something so intensely personal and inspirational about them, something so ordinary and yet extraordinary about them. We all have spaces from which we work, or create, with our own nick-nacks and accoutrements, yet it is a rare desk that becomes a “writer’s desk”. Woolf’s desk is divided from the view behind a pane of glass, and one looks at it from a kind of anteroom. There is something very sanitized and clinical about the way this is interpreted, and I found the very definite division of space very off-putting; something that was amplified by a tinny video playing very loudly on repeat.

After pottering around the gardens, we went into the house, entering through a joyously overgrown conservatory which leans against the back of the house. A domesticated jungle, its vines and succulents set the tone for the house, and as I sit at my desk a few months later, my abiding memory is of green, not just in the greenhouse and in the garden, but also of the bright living green in which the rooms have been painted. There are three smallish rooms (this is truly a cottage, rather than a baby manor house masquerading as one) with low, beamed ceilings and plenty of marvelous early 20th Century furniture. A beautiful painted table by the Omega group and cozy armchairs by the fire were particularly memorable. The paintings and objects, of which they are many, are all powerfully evocative of the era and the multifaceted talents of the Bloomsbury Group. Despite its homeliness and natural beauty, there was an uneasiness about the cottage. Whether that came from the strangeness of the visit as experienced under the NT’s covid restrictions, or something intrinsic to the place itself only a repeat visit in different times will tell. The literary significance and beauty of Monk’s House certainly warrants a repeat visit, despite its small size.

And now to Charleston Farmhouse. Whilst it had been a long-held dream to visit Monk’s House, this was my second visit to Charleston. My first was as a young teenager, and then I had walked through the deliciously painted rooms in a form of mazed delight, taking in the complex interwoven romances of its inhabitants with a detached interest. The house remained with me, and as my knowledge of the Bloomsbury Group and their art deepened, so too did my wish to go back. I was not disappointed. My mazed delight returned, enhanced this time with a far increased understanding of how truly unique this place is. It is a complete art work, the home of artists Vanessa Ball and Duncan Grant, as well as their respective lovers and friends. To describe the complexities of those interwoven, overlapping love lives is the work of biographers, but suffice to say, these carefully painted walls must have seen pain and heartbreak aplenty in their time, as well as joy.

Walls painted everywhere
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lizzie Dunford

The house is on a swell of a hill at the end of a lane, about ten minutes or so by car outside Lewes. Today it is run by the Charleston Trust, who do far more than just open the house to the public, running a vivid contemporary exhibition and performance programme, as well as the Charleston Press. Tickets cost £16 for an adult ticket and can be purchased in advance from their website: https://www.charleston.org.uk/

Painted walls, ceramics, and statues everywhere.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lizzie Dunford

You are welcomed at light and airy modern visitor reception, while catering can be found in a beautiful old barn. Two spacious galley spaces were hosting two complimentary and interesting exhibitions when we visited.

Bookcases filled with well read books
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lizzie Dunford

But this is all secondary to the main show, the utterly glorious, compelling house. There is nothing ordinary, nothing of magnolia-tinted suburbia here. Everything that can be made beautiful, is, in a scrap-work of textile, paint and ceramics. Vanessa Ball and Duncan Grant filled their home with art, creating rooms for each other and this is truly decorating the rooms with a pallet Giotto would have envied, designing fabrics, and making use of the beautiful things that surrounded them. It is a house replete, groaning with books, and as you scan the bookshelves, the faded, slightly tatty spines are evidence that these are books that have been read and re-read, rather than just purchased and stuck on shelves. Duncan Grant’s studio, with its huge painted figures holding up the mantlepiece surely must be one of the most extraordinary rooms in the country.

Part of Duncan Grant's studio
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lizzie Dunford

Outside, the gardens are a perfect mixture of Italianate formality and the English cottage garden. Beyond, there is another blissfullness of green and a pond, with a slowly sinking boat, and an astonishing levitating sculpture, which only add to the sense of being somewhere other, somewhere outside of time.

For Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the house was an escape from the panic and propaganda of the First World War. They created a home that was entirely theirs and which manages to be otherworldly and completely earthy at the same time. You simply must visit.

As we drove back to Hampshire across the hills of the South Downs, back west into the setting sun and with this domestically grand landscape around us, we discussed all that we had seen and all that we had learnt. The homes of these two women were so important to their creative lives, as was Chawton Cottage to Jane Austen, and relative freedom from society’s domestic conventions and repressions allowed all three women to create ground-breaking work.

I came back from my pilgrimage with a couple of postcards, which are currently acting as bookmarks, a poster, now hanging in my office and a very strong desire to be as creative as possible. I will visit these two incredibly important places again, but in the meantime, I’m off to paint flowers on the back of my kitchen door.

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Lizzie Dunford

Lizzie Dunford is the Director of Jane Austen’s House, the final home of the globally beloved author and the birthplace of all six of her era-defining and influential novels. Jane Austen’s house is in the little Hampshire village of Chawton, and Lizzie enjoys her walks through the fields and footpaths of the South Downs as much as Austen did. A trained conservator, and experienced museum leader, Lizzie has worked in the museums and heritage sector for over 15 years, with a focus on house museums.