NOW AND THEN: Inspired by the Bloomsbury Group

By Lynn Byrne.  When a designer talks about decor inspired by the Bloomsbury Group, they really mean the farmhouse known as Charleston in Sussex, England. 

Charleston was exuberantly decorated primarily by artists, Vanessa Bell and her partner Duncan Grant who moved there in 1916.  Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell, David Garnett and John Maynard Keyes also lived at Charleston for long periods.  Vanessa’s sister Virginia Woolf, her husband Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry visited often.  It was (and is) considered a hot bed of creativity, emphasis on “hot bed.”  Everybody was sleeping with everybody else at various points.

There.  Did I get your attention?

The term “Bloomsbury” actually refers to the London neighborhood where this group met to discuss and exchange ideas.  Charleston was their country retreat.

But it is the decoration found on the walls, doors and furniture at Charleston, not the neighborhood of Bloomsbury, that actually holds significance in the decorating world and continues to inspire designs today.  Vanessa Bell’s son Quentin Bell and her granddaughter Virginia Nicholson, wrote the definitive book on Charleston’s decor.  I just ordered mine from Amazon.


Recently in Vogue, Virginia Nicholson recalled her visits to her grandparents’ house.  She describes the rooms as “a progress of color and pattern….Flowers and sculptural forms in pink, lemon, and green processed across doors and cupboards, while, against an azure sky, full-bosomed goddesses presided over the fireplace.”

She remembers being bribed, a sixpence an hour, to pose while her grandmother ‘Nessa and Duncan painted her.  She recalls the household pottery too, and her father spending summers working with clay to replenish it.  When Virginia is in the dining room, she envisions her grandmother sitting in her favorite red chair drinking coffee and giving young Virginia sugar cubes that she first dunked in her coffee as a treat.

I am captivated by Virginia’s memories.  They bring to life members of  the Bloomsbury Group.  No longer are they just legends but were real people, with Charleston, a true home.

Virginia says on her website that “the house was always a place of uninhibited, messy creativity.  There was always paint, clay, paper, glue and matches to play with.  I grew up believing Art was something everyone could do.”

Perhaps it is this essence that continues to inspire design today.

Here’s a look at the source of all that inspiration.

Detail of doorway painted by Vanessa Bell

Detail of doorway painted by Vanessa Bell

The dining room at Charleston

The dining room at Charleston

Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant

Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant

Plant pot by Quentin Bell, c.1951

Plant pot by Quentin Bell, c.1951

Duncan Grant textile designs

Duncan Grant textile designs

The pond at Charleston by Vanessa Bell

The pond at Charleston by Vanessa Bell

Sanderson has done a wonderful job capturing the mood and feeling of Charleston in its new Bloomsbury fabric range.


In addition, even though it is not billed as such, I also think Suzanne Kasler’s new fabrics for Lee Jofa have a Bloomsbury feel.  Do you agree?


Since I have been reading up on Charleston, I feel like I see it everywhere.  This home featured in the January 2012 UK Country Living has Swedish roots, but I still sense Bloomsbury when I look at it.  Don’t miss that decorated door in the second photo. 


And do you remember that wonderful spread in Domino where an entire Brooklyn apartment was done up a la Charleston?


The homeowner, Kate Bolick, even dressed the part, wearing an outfit by British designer Alice Temperley with a period feel.  So romantic. 


The Bloomsbury world is seductive (and I don’t mean their sleeping arrangements  ).  I am looking around to see what I can recover in one of the new fabrics.  Or perhaps I will borrow artistic son Patrick’s paints (or better yet, enlist his help), to start decorating the walls.

I think Virginia Nicholson is right.  Art is something everyone can do (or at least appreciate and experience).

 Photo credits: 1. Virginia Nicholson’s website  2. 2thewalls tumblr  3. Silive  4. Telegraph  5. Virginia Nicholson’s website  6. Guardian  7. 2thewalls tumblr  8. Bloomsbury in Sussex  9. Brighton and Hove magazine  10. Collecting 20th Century Rural Culture  11. Little Augury  12. South Downs

Domino photos via Roseland Greene and Moodboard.  The Vogue article appeared in the December 2011 issue.