The Country Retreat Where the Bloomsbury Circle Lived and Loved Is Once Again a House in Bloom

updated 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/1986 01:00AM

On bright summer days Virginia Woolf came calling, her husband, Leonard, in tow. Art critic Roger Fry and writer Lytton Strachey turned up for weekends. Economist John Maynard Keynes beavered away on a manuscript in an upstairs bedroom. Like moths to the candle, the players in the avant-garde English literary circle known as Bloomsbury were drawn to Charleston, a magical house in the heart of Sussex. Today, after years of neglect, Charleston's rooms are once again filled with sound. Legions of Bloomsbury lovers are flocking to the house, recently restored to its eccentric glory.

It was Virginia Woolf who advised her older sister, Vanessa Bell, to rent Charleston. The Woolfs lived four miles away. "It has a charming garden with a pond, and fruit trees, and vegetables, all now rather wild, but you could make it lovely," Woolf wrote in May 1916. "The house is very nice with large rooms...It sounds a most attractive place." Five months later, Bell took her advice and moved into the 18th-century farmhouse with her lover-companion, Duncan Grant. (The house sits on a 10,000-acre estate owned by a local family named Gage.) There, bohemia reigned. Vanessa's husband, art critic Clive Bell, and Grant's male lover, writer David Garnett, also lived on the premises at one time or another. A cook, gardener, rabbits, hens and a donkey all added to the general chaos and merriment.

With its new residents on the loose, Charleston began acquiring its special charms. Although not world-class painters, Vanessa and Duncan were energetic and accomplished. Treating Charleston as their private canvas, they dashed paintings and decorative fantasies onto walls, door frames and mantelpieces. Pots of flowers were splashed above door frames. The downstairs bathtub was festooned with abstract red designs, and Vanessa covered the dining room table in giddy swirls of lemon, pink and lavender.

Bell lived in Charleston until her death in 1961. Grant stayed on, painting until he died 17 years later. By 1980 Charleston, lashed by heavy rains and invading dampness, was in a soggy and sorry state. Mold clung to the walls. Moths fluttered in the closets. Deathwatch beetles burrowed into the paneling in the upstairs library. Vanessa Bell's son Quentin, a former professor of art history at Sussex University and a biographer of Virginia Woolf, had been unable to figure out a way to save the house. "I was fiddling about in an ineffectual male manner," confesses Bell, 76, "and then this whirlwind came around. We should never have gotten anywhere without her. She really has been heroic."

The whirlwind in question was art consultant Deborah Gage, a distant cousin of Charleston's owners. Born in Zambia, Gage grew up in Kenya and was educated in England. She had recently returned from eight years in New York, where she worked as a specialist for an antiques company. Hunting for a place to buy, she heard that Charleston was for sale. Although Gage had ridden by on horseback, she had never gone inside. "I was always very diffident because of the landlord-tenant relationship," she explains. "I didn't want them to think we were spying on them."

This time Gage swung open the pale-pink front door and went in. Thrilled by what she saw yet stricken by the widespread decay, she visited Bell, who lives a half mile away, in hopes of persuading him to set up a committee to save the house. With the support of the Bell family(which has been renting Charleston since 1916), Gage then won the tentative backing of the National Trust, the British organization dedicated to preserving historic sites. The Trust agreed to put the house under its aegis if it were renovated and self-supporting. With characteristic energy, Gage set to work, soliciting contributions for the Charleston Trust on both sides of the Atlantic. To date, a little more than $1 million has been raised. Another $350,000 is needed to make the house self-supporting.

Even before the old roof was taken off in the summer of 1981, work crews swarmed through the interior. They cataloged the contents of the houseā€”the rickety furniture, the hand-designed pottery, even the cigarette butts in the fireplace. To rid the house of worms, the windows were sealed and gas was released into the interior. Before the walls could be strengthened with steel bands, the hand-painted wallpaper was painstakingly stripped with tiny palette knives and stored on rolls.

All along Gage, 36, insisted that Charleston be returned to its former state. "Restoration should be like a good haircut," she says, "unnoticeable." The pine floors, stripped and waxed, were treated with acid to add a bit of character. Smoke stains were re-created with gray paint, and fingerprints were left unwashed on doorjambs.

Outdoors, landscape architect Sir Peter Shepheard has been struggling to re-create the original tangle of flowers, bushes and apple trees that ran wild in the 1920s. Like everyone else, past and present, Shepheard has fallen under the spell of Charleston. "I want the ghosts," he says, "to come back and say, This is the way it was.' "

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