The Charleston Papers

Scope and Content

The main body of the Charleston Papers consists of photocopies (and a few originals) of correspondence which had accumulated in the Bell family home, Charleston, in Firle, East Sussex. The items are in the great majority addressed to Clive and Vanessa Bell but include a few addressed to Vanessa Bell's brother Thoby Stephen and to her elder son Julian Bell, and to Duncan Grant. The largest group is nearly 700 letters and postcards from Duncan Grant to Vanessa Bell. The Bells correspondents included John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Frances Partridge, and other friends and relatives of the recipients less connected with the Bloomsbury group.

As an addition to the collection are about 900 letters from Maria Jackson (ne Pattle) to Julia Stephen (her daughter) and some to Sir Leslie Stephen (her son-in-law), c. 1865-1891, the addressees being the parents of Vanessa Bell.

Administrative / Biographical History

The main body of the Charleston Papers consists of photocopies of correspondence which accumulated at Charleston, in Firle, East Sussex, while the home of Clive and Vanessa Bell.

(Arthur) Clive (Heward) Bell (1881-1964), art critic, was born in 1881 at East Shefford, Berkshire. He was educated at Marlborough and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He became at once associated with a remarkable group of fellow undergraduates, Leonard Woolf, Thoby Stephen, Lytton Strachey, and others. Bell went down in 1903, and spent the following year in Paris, where he studied the Old Masters in the Louvre and wasted his time most profitably in the company of painters. His Cambridge group was reinforced on his return to London by Thoby's two sisters Vanessa and Virginia. In 1907 Bell married Vanessa (1879-1961) and in 1912 Virginia became the wife of Leonard Woolf. This was the nucleus of the so-called Bloomsbury group.

With the painter and art critic Roger Fry, in 1910 Bell searched Paris for suitable exhibits for the historic first Post-Impressionist exhibition which opened in London that autumn. Bell wrote the introduction to the catalogue of the English Group which exhibited at the second Post-Impressionist show (October 1912). The book for which he is chiefly remembered, Art , was published in February 1914. During the war of 1914-18 he was a conscientious objector. Another famous publication was Civilization, an Essay (1928). Other books included Pot-boilers (1918), Landmarks in Nineteenth-Century Painting (1927), a sympathetic study of Proust (1928), and Enjoying Pictures (1934). He died in London in 1964.

(Based on the article by Benedict Nicolson, first published in 1981 in Dictionary of National Biography 1961-1970 .)

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), painter, was born in London in 1879, the eldest child of (Sir) Leslie Stephen. With her sister Virginia she educated at home; in 1896 she began to attend Sir Arthur Cope's School of Art and in 1901 the Royal Academy Schools.

Follow their father s death in 1904, she moved with her sister and two brothers from Kensington to Bloomsbury, a respectable but unfashionable district, where they set out to follow their own pursuits without undue regard to the conventionalities and constrictions of formal London society. Increasingly they found themselves in the company of the Cambridge contemporaries of the elder brother, Thoby Stephen. In 1905 Vanessa founded the Friday Club in order to provide a meeting place for artists and persons interested in art, and this led to a closer friendship with Clive Bell, and to their marriage in 1907. The Bells' home at 46 Gordon Square was thereafter one of the focal points of the Bloomsbury group.

Following the Post-Impressionist exhibitions which her husband and Roger Fry organised in London in 1910 and 1912, Vanessa's painting grew increasingly bold, with a simplification of design and form and a free and joyous use of colour, a progression which was to lead her, before 1916, to paint some of the first totally abstract pictures in Britain. In 1913 Fry founded the Omega workshops to enable artists fired by Post-Impressionism to apply their gifts to the decorative arts. Although it failed in 1919, Vanessa Bell was a wholehearted collaborator in this venture from which she derived a permanent interest in the use of ornament and decoration. Textiles, embroideries, ceramics, mosaics, painted furniture, and the many book-jackets designed for the Hogarth Press remain to show her remarkable and felicitous talent as a decorator. The mural decorations of Berwick Church, Sussex (1940-2) and rooms at nearby Charleston, Firle (which became her country home in 1916) survive from among the considerable body of work which she carried out with Duncan Grant, mainly for private patrons. From 1913, while remaining always on terms of amity with Clive Bell, Duncan Grant and Vanessa lived virtually as man and wife.

Her method was not radically changed for the rest of her life. She contributed regularly to group exhibitions (particularly the London group, of which she became a member in 1919); her first solo exhibition was held in London in 1922, and others followed in 1930, 1934, 1937, 1941 and 1956. Between the wars Vanessa Bell lived very privately, mainly in London, devoted to her painting, her family, and her close friends. With the outbreak of World War II she again began to live almost wholly in the country, with Duncan Grant and Clive Bell, painting industriously to the last; she died at Charleston in 1961.

(Based on the article by Anne Olivier Bell, first published in 1981 in Dictionary of National Biography 1961-1970 .)

Duncan James Corrowr Grant (1885-1978), painter, was born at Rothiemurchus, Inverness, in 1885. His early years were spent in Burma; he returned to England in 1893. He studied at the Westminster School of Art, in 1902-3 visited Italy and spent 1906-7 in Paris. Thereafter he was increasingly in London where he soon had many friends, notably J. M. (later Lord) Keynes, Virginia Stephen and, of greater professional importance, Clive and Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry. After 1910 Grant became recognized as one of the most gifted proponents in Britain of modernism .

In 1913-14 Grant's aesthetic partnership with Fry and the Bells was given a new form by an emotional attachment to Vanessa Bell, who brought him to Charleston, the Sussex home in which he was to spend most of the rest of his life. In 1918 she bore him a daughter, Angelica, who married David Garnett (1892-1981). Grant joined Fry in 1913 as a decorator in the Omega Workshops and, when Omega came to an end in 1919, continued to seek decorative commissions. After the peace of 1945 Grant became aware that he had gone out of fashion. In 1961 Vanessa Bell died and he was left to live alone; but in his last decade he was rediscovered by some younger artists and critics. He died at Aldermaston, in 1978.

(Based on the article by Quentin Bell, first published in 1986 in Dictionary of National Biography 1971-1980 .)

Access Information

Items in the collection may be consulted for the purpose of private study and personal research, within the controlled environment and restrictions of the Library's Special Collections Reading Rooms.

Acquisition Information

Quentin Bell, 1989

Other Finding Aids

A handlist is available in the Library and also on its website .

Alternative Form Available

Another set of photocopies is at King s College, Cambridge.

Conditions Governing Use

COPIES FOR PRIVATE STUDY: Subject to copyright, conditions imposed by owners and protecting the documents, the Library can supply, at a charge, photocopies, photographs or digital copies. Most items in this collection are photocopies of original documents which are in copyright. The Library is able to supply copies of them, only with the written permission of the copyright owner or representative.

PUBLICATION: A reader wishing to publish material in the collection should contact the Head of Special Collections, in writing. The reader is responsible for obtaining permission to publish from the copyright owner.

Custodial History

After the deaths of Clive and Vanessa Bell, their son and literary executor, Quentin Bell, arranged for the disposition of their papers. In November 1965, with the approval of his half-sister Mrs Angelica Garnett and of Duncan Grant, he agreed with King's College, Cambridge that the papers should be deposited there and two photocopies made. One copy was to remain in perpetuity at King's, and the other (now this collection) was given to Professor Bell. At the time Bell was about to embark on research for his biography of Virginia Woolf. He made a preliminary arrangement and hand-list of the letters. In 1979 his work was reissued as a revised and corrected catalogue by the Modern Archivist of King's College, Michael Halls.

The owners retained the freedom to withdraw the originals from King s. Over the ensuing years some of the original letters were withdrawn and put up for sale by both Duncan Grant and Angelica Garnett. Most of the remaining originals were withdrawn by Quentin Bell and auctioned at Sotheby's on 21 July 1980 in aid of the charitable trust set up with the objective of preserving and restoring Charleston Farm House.

After the completion of Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf and the publication of her Diaries (edited by Anne Olivier Bell), and with the agreement of Kings College, Professor Bell in December 1989 offered his copies of the Charleston papers to the University of Sussex Library.

Related Material

Other collections at the University of Sussex relating to the Bloomsbury group are:

SxMs 13 Leonard Woolf Papers

SxMs 18 Monks House Papers (Virginia Woolf and related papers of Leonard Woolf)

SxMs 58 Birrell Papers (Francis Birrell)

SxMs 61 Nicolson Papers (Nigel Nicholson)

SxMs 70 A. O. Bell Papers (Anne Olivier Bell)

A deposit of Julian Bell's papers is at King's College, Cambridge, while other papers of Clive Bell have gone to his college, Trinity, Cambridge.

Additional Information

Dispersed by sale, principally at Sotheby's, London, on 21 July 1980. A significant proportion was acquired by the Tate Gallery Archive, London.