'I JUST scrounge bits of junk off antique dealers who are friends, then draw on them using a pencil, a rubber and a ruler. Afterwards I paint them,' says Cressida Bell, summing up the mystique of the Bloomsbury style as a kind of happy collision between junk and genius.
There it is. Simple, stylish, intimate and domestic. Much more accessible than all the intellectual stuff, the political economics, the complicated relationships, the novels and poetry, that poured forth from the Bloomsbury Group. Love them or hate them, the fascination continues. New books are published and different aspects are found to be enjoyed.
These days it is the interiors, specifically those of Charleston in Sussex, the house lived in by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, that inspired a generation of decorators, artists, potters and textile designers. There was already a strong interest in the rediscovery of decorative painting and stencilling skills at the end of the Eighties, encouraged by writers such as Jocasta Innes in her book Paintability (to be reissued next month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at pounds 9.99) and by the glossy style magazines. The Bloomsbury look is seen now, therefore, as the next natural step into freestyle painting. The message is that you can throw away the stencil. Paint from your head and your heart.
Admirers of the style today tend to be pilgrims, willing to visit Charleston Farmhouse to see how it was done, or to track down the whereabouts of some of the third generation Bloomsbury artists. In the case of Cressida Bell, granddaughter of Vanessa, this means finding a warehouse in one of the more deprived inner-city areas of London.
'People turn up here looking worn out,' says textile designer Cressida, daughter of the potter and art historian Quentin Bell. Her studio is in a backstreet in Hackney, east London - nowhere near that exclusive mile of the Fulham Road, where all the country's most prestigious designers exist side-by-side in a rich man's ghetto. 'It is in a horrible grey factory block with toilet windows, and the street isn't in all the A-Zs.'
But once they are inside, the travellers are rewarded with an explosion of shapes and colours, printed and painted on to everything from scarves to cushions; on to wool, velvet and silk; on to lamps and lampshades, benches, boxes and a battered deck chair.
'I remember my father writing Virginia Woolf's biography and us all thinking Bloomsbury was a bubble that was about to burst. I must have been about eight years old at the time,' says Cressida. 'It never did.'
And when the highly painted house of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell was opened to the public in 1986 the Bloomsbury bubble simply expanded to take in the decorative arts. This was where they retreated to in 1916, with Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry in a cottage over the hill. They continued to contribute to
Omega Workshops, the loose-knit group of artists to which they belonged, at the same time as buying what David Garnett referred to as 'hideous objects of furniture' to transform into 'delightful works of art'. Thus they created the surroundings in which John Maynard Keynes wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which was published in 1919.
Around 15,000 people now tread through the cottagey rooms of Charleston each year, to gawp at the paintings that cover every possible surface offered by the domestic setting. Many of them know little of the Bloomsbury Group or its work. They simply go to drink in the colours and envy Bell and Grant's ability to create such a vivid and separate world.
'This opening of Charleston was really significant because it made more of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, whereas previously a lot of the interest had been in Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry and Maynard Keynes. Suddenly there was a lighter side to it,' says Cressida. Since then she has chalked up many commissions to paint houses in the Charleston style.
An American collector of Bloomsbury Group paintings wanted everything in his house painted, from the grand piano to the doors. Another client of hers wanted the walls in a bedroom hand-painted in burnt red and yellow ochre - it turned out that Bell and Grant had once lived in the house. 'So I found I was painting my grandmother's bedroom,' says Cressida.
The commercial opportunities offered by this style have not been missed either. Last year the interior design specialists Mulberry At Home produced a new Bloomsbury Collection of fabrics and objects in the spirit of Charleston. The company established itself by plucking styles offered by English interiors of the past, and made its mark with a particularly opulent look that was called The English Renaissance. 'It seemed a logical step to come to Bloomsbury. It seemed warm and summery and we like the freedom and spirit of it,' said Roger Saul, managing director of the firm.
The collection has been hugely successful - from Oslo to New York, from Munich to Madrid - with limited-edition blanket chests, hand-painted with nudes, selling at pounds 795 and fabrics at around pounds 30 to pounds 45 per metre.
At the Charleston Farmhouse, in its idyllic setting under the brow of the Sussex Downs, Christopher Naylor, director of the charitable trust that runs it, believes a reappraisal of Bloomsbury is in the offing. Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, has taken an active interest, lending pictures for show at Charleston. There are also a surprisingly large number of paintings by members of the Bloomsbury Group on display in the Tate itself. 'There is more of a distance now, and more approval than there used to be, and a re- evaluation,' says Naylor.
As he watches the crowds admiring the painted tables, chests, doors, fireplaces and walls at Charleston, Christopher Naylor detects that the charm of the style strikes a chord in the Nineties psyche. 'There is certainly a reaction against plainness, simplicity and the uniformity offered by minimalism,' he says. 'A lot of young people these days are into decorative finishes.' The idea of turning junk into gems has a certain appeal in this age of car- boot-sale economics.
Laura Ashley is another large company that unashamedly grazed through the house for ideas, choosing the Charleston Grapes design for a fabric and border print in its 1987
catalogue, along with a Vanessa Bell rug
and a West Wind fabric design by Duncan
Grant which was recoloured in grey,
apricot and aquamarine. The company paid
the Charleston Trust handsomely enough for it to open the house to the public. Laura Ashley also recreated some of the curtains that
needed replacing in the house by copying the designs exactly. But as Laura Ashley has moved on, so the Bloomsbury collection has now been quietly dropped.
Others have carried on, however. The Charleston Shop, a pit-stop beside the house, has become a focus for the new generation producing late 20th-century Bloomsburyware. Among the work being shown here are the pots and bowls of Sophie MacCarthy, the textiles of Tricia Needham and Kate Blee, the lamp-
shades and furniture of Robert Campling. They are all putting their own spin on the style. 'The passing on from one time to another - handing on the flaming torch, with different people at different times being inspired and stimulated by it - is marvellous,' says Naylor.
Sophie MacCarthy has the right connections in that her grandfather Desmond MacCarthy jointly organised with Roger Fry the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London, which caused a furore at the time. But she feels she has now emerged from the Charleston chrysalis to develop her own style that only has faint echoes of the farmhouse left in it.
'My work was much more Bloomsburyesque three or four years ago; I was doing highly patterned, freely painted designs with figures and lots of clear echoes of Charleston. It came naturally,' she says. 'But when I went down there two years ago to be resident potter for four months, it turned out that I was much more affected by the landscape.' The Sussex Downs worked their magic on her, just as they had done on Bell and Fry earlier this century. Her huge bowls now carry their bold strokes of colour in more abstract patterns.
As the art at Charleston slipped off the canvas and on to the walls, floors and teapots, so it crossed the great divide between art and design. Now the change seems hardly to matter. The pieces that turn up in the art market have shown they can hold their worth in spite of the recession. 'Vanessa Bell is more expensive than Duncan Grant, simply because of the question of supply and demand,' says Tony Bradshaw, who runs the Bloomsbury Workshop, a specialist gallery in London. 'But on the whole they were both rather prolific. Duncan Grant painted and drew every day, on the back of his bank statement if necessary. I had one drawing which was on the back of a book jacket,' he says.
Some of the drawings, lithographs and watercolours can still be bought for under pounds 500, while several of the large, flamboyant oils can fetch anything from pounds 80,000 to pounds 90,000. There are some serious buyers busy in the field at the moment, some from New York, amassing large Bloomsbury collections. 'There are so many cross-threads that lead one to the other, which is part of the fascination. People approach the Bloomsbury Group through Charleston, or the literature, or their convoluted personal lives,' says Bradshaw.
Then there are the painters of modern Bloomsbury, too. Some of them were encouraged by the gallery owner Francis Kyle, who arranged a visit to Charleston for some of his favourite artists. The results filled a whole floor of the Francis Kyle Gallery in London's West End last year. And such was their conversion that they brought back a portmanteau of work other than their canvases, including painted objects, chairs, pots, and boxes that had been picked up for 50p at a car-boot sale.
'This style was viewed rather disparagingly until the late Eighties,' says Kyle. 'Decorative art didn't seem serious or committed. But this wasn't or isn't a cottage industry. It was a mingling of French classical art and English watercolour painting, full of whimsicality and femininity. Women and pots. These things touch a universal chord. They are not trivial.'
One artist in particular produced an extraordinary portfolio of work. The French painter Lydia Corbett, former model to Picasso for his girl-in-a-ponytail series and now living in Devon, brought with her a very unusual screen painted in exuberant flowing nudes, like a piece from Charleston itself. There were lamps, pots, candlesticks and paintings too, all vibrant modern Bloomsbury. She had, in fact, never heard of Charleston before Francis Kyle sent her there (she mistakenly thought she was being sent to a town in America).
Lydia Corbett lives in a house on the edge of Dartmoor which she had painted from top to toe long before her visit to Charleston. Her fireplace bears an uncanny resemblance to the one there. For her, it is simply the result of an irrepressible urge to paint, rather than the revival of a former style. 'There is a happiness in their style, a celebration of life. They were having fun,' says Corbett. 'You know, most people are terrified of painting their walls. But I tell them that if they don't like it they can just paint white over the top. It is all about freedom of expression, freedom to paint. At the big age of 59, I realise it now.' -
THE BLOOMSBURY SHOPPING GUIDE
The Charleston Shop, near Firle, Lewes, East Sussex, tel: 0323 811265, sells Sophie MacCarthy pieces, from mugs at pounds 18 each to large bowls at pounds 300; Robert Campling's lamp bases painted with nudes at between pounds 75 and pounds 115, his hand-painted scarves at pounds 70 to pounds 95, small painted boxes for pounds 25 to pounds 45, and a screen decorated with a large blue cow (winged angels on the reverse) at pounds 600; Cressida Bell's long silk scarves at around pounds 70, lampshades at pounds 40 to pounds 80 and cushions at pounds 55. Screen-printed posters of Vanessa Bell woodcuts at pounds 12.75 and Duncan Grant back- of-envelope sketch pounds 11.50. Reproduction jugs, vases and bowls for between pounds 8.50 and pounds 18. Lampshades at pounds 75 and pounds 125, tiles at pounds 20, and plates at pounds 95 to pounds 250 by Quentin Bell, now in his eighties and living nearby. At the special Bloomsbury Sale this weekend from 12pm to 5pm much of the stock is reduced by 25 per cent and the books by 15 per cent. The place is then shut until 2 April.
Mulberry At Home, tel: 071-352 1871. Harvey Nichols, London SW1, tel: 071-235 5000, and Liberty Plc, 210-220 Regent Street, London W1R 6AH, tel: 071-734 1234. Charleston sofa at pounds 1,279, button-back armchair upholstered in Bloomsbury Blooms linen at pounds 1,175, hand-painted blanket chest decorated with nudes at pounds 795, painted log basket at pounds 495, artist's table at pounds 295, painted lamp base at pounds 125. Chaise longue covered in calico can be bought from Recline and Sprawl, 604 King's Road, London SW6 2DX, tel: 071-371 8982.
Cressida Bell Ltd, 10-22 Lamb Lane, London E8 3PL, tel: 081-985 5863. She designs and prints scarves and cushions from pounds 26 to pounds 112, and does hand-printed upholstery fabrics to order from pounds 30 per metre from any of the 20 designs she has on screen. Her painted lampshades sell at pounds 32 to pounds 55, while the lamp bases cost around pounds 100; a bench painted in a tiger design is priced at pounds 800. She will paint anything for you (from walls to furniture) at pounds 250 per day.
Carpets hand-knotted in Turkey to her designs are available through Christopher Farr Handmade Rugs, 115 Regent's Park Rd, Primrose Hill, London NW1 8UR, tel: 071-916 7690, at pounds 2,250 each.
Mulberry At Home (see above) has Bloomsbury Blooms linen with faded leaf design at pounds 45 per metre, Charleston Check cotton in red/blue/yellow at pounds 29.90 per metre.
Oxford Gallery, 23 High Street, Oxford, tel: 0865 242731, stocks Sophie MacCarthy's huge bowls selling at around pounds 3,000. Her tall, tapered jugs, plates and teapots cost from pounds 60 to pounds 70. Sophie MacCarthy can be contacted direct at her studio, 1A Wimbolt Street, London E2, tel: 071-729 4314.
Mary MacCarthy, Glebe Farm, Wells Road, North Creake, Norfolk NR21 9LD, granddaughter of Desmond MacCarthy, can decorate walls, floors, ceilings and furniture to your taste for between pounds 120 and pounds 150 per day.
The Bloomsbury Workshop, 12 Galen Place, off Bury Place, London WC1, tel: 071-405 0632, is the leading specialist. The next show, called 'Modern British Bargains', opening on 11 January, features a mixed bag of works, all of them priced at under pounds 500 - including a Vanessa Bell pencil drawing at pounds 350 and a Roger Fry at pounds 120.
The Francis Kyle Gallery, 9 Maddox Street, London W1, tel: 071-499 6870, has pieces from the Charleston Revisited exhibition, including Lydia Corbett watercolours at pounds 1,100, oils at pounds 2,000, pots and candlesticks that sell for pounds 700 to pounds 800, a firescreen painted in nudes at pounds 4,200, and a painted tablecloth by Fred van Ormer at pounds 300.
The Charleston Trust, near Firle, Lewes, East Sussex BN8 6LL, tel: 0323 811626, depends on subscriptions and donations for support. The Friends of Charleston ( pounds 17.50 subscription) provides a magazine, private views, mail order and related events. The Charleston Festival each summer features talks, numbering among its previous participants Eileen Atkins, Harriet Walter, Michelle Roberts, Alan Bennett and Denis Healey. The Charleston Summer School (10- 16 July, limited places) allows people to explore the arts and literature, paint and pot, and hear speakers such as Iris Murdoch and Frances Spalding (tuition fee pounds 395).
In last week's Bloomsbury Shopping Guide, under Pottery, we gave the wrong price for Sophie MacCarthy's bowls. They are in fact around pounds 300 each.Reuse content