Crafters in History: Vanessa Bell

If you don’t recognize the name of Vanessa Bell, you’re certain to of her younger sister, Virginia Woolf. The two sisters were born in London and educated at home by their parents, but where Virginia devoted herself to writing, Vanessa’s creative outlet was more visual.

vanessabellstilllifeImage above: Vanessa Bell still life, 1933 from the BBC

Painting was her first love, but like many creatives, her complete environment was her canvas. Vanessa started working serious on about decorative schemes when she created designs for the Omega Workshop, a studio established to blend the lines between fine arts and decorative arts (and in the process to help young artists make a living). Vanessa was one of the co-directors and produced designs for fabrics, rugs and clothes. The Workshop was open to any types of commissions and once, she even painted an animal mural for a child’s nursery.

lampbases_OmegaImage above: lamp bases created for the Omega Workshops made in 1912-1918, from the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Image above: Library at the Charleston House

The 1910s had a lot in common with the 1960s — a penchant for the romantic, a yearning to get back-to-the-land, and also the free love ethos. Vanessa, a true romantic, and her husband, Clive, had an open relationship. Looking to get a slice of country life, she and fellow artist, Duncan Bell moved 54 miles south of London to Sussex. It was a complicated relationship. Vanessa was deeply in love with him, but Duncan’s romantic relationships were nearly exclusively homosexual. (However, the pair did have a child together.)


Image above: The fireplace in Duncan Grant’s studio at the Charleston House

While the romance might not have been entirely successful, the house certainly was. For the next fifty years, the Charleston House was a gathering place for British artists and writers. The house also became Vanessa’s largest canvas. It was an experiment in decorative artists and nearly every inch of the space was painted — the walls, doors, stairways. From the ceramics to the needlework pillows, almost everything in the house was decorated or created by an artist.

Vanessa paid attention to every detail. Particularly to the textiles. Painted canvases became cushion covers, fireplace screens and rugs. Most of the needlework was executed by Duncan Grant’s mother, Ethel, although, Virginia chipped in here and there as well. The atmosphere was so inspiring that the couple’s artists friends were always anxious for an invitation. It was the perfect place to create.

Image above: Painted door detail at the Charleston House

What is most inspiring about Charleston House is how the most mundane objects were transformed into something beautiful through paint, fabric and a little elbow grease. The result is a place that is utterly unique, but completely relaxed. Where no one minds if you spill a glass of wine as long as you bring a bit of life to the party.

Image above: Sitting room at Charleston House

Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden – This book will take you through the house and tells the story of Vanessa and Duncan’s DIY masterpiece.
Bloomsbury Needlepoint: From the Tapestries at Charleston Farmhouse– If you feel inspired by looking at the textiles, this is the book for you. It provides the patterns to create your own.

Image above: The armchair in the Library is covered in a Laura Ashely reproduction of the Clouds fabric designed by Duncan Grant in 1932 from Bloomsbury Needlepoint

Image above: The mirror in the Charleston House bathroom has a wool embroidered frame that was designed by Duncan Grant and made by his aunt Violet McNeil in 1940 from Bloomsbury Needlepoint

Image above: embroidered objects on a desktop from Bloomsbury Needlepoint

Image above: Fireplace in the Charleston House Garden Room from Bloomsbury Needlepoint