In 1980 I returned from two years of living in New York with two babies and one book. We settled in Richmond, or Richstead as Leonard Woolf called it, the town where in 1914 he and his wife Virginia had set up The Hogarth Press, housed in the inappropriately named Paradise Road – inappropriate since Richmond did not suit the Woolfs. They moved to Sussex. We, however, loved the place from the moment the removal van deposited our possessions here. It was not long after moving in that I met a retired civil servant called Hugh Lee, a man of many talents who told me about a house in Sussex called Charleston, the home of Virginia’s sister Vanessa, which was now in need of renovation and financial support – a cause to which he was to devote the next 30 years of his life.
I was a pushover, easily hooked, especially as I had by then embarked on my second book, a biography of Enid Bagnold, the Sussex based writer of National Velvet and The Chalk Garden. Bagnold longed to be accepted by her more famous Sussex neighbours, Virginia and Leonard Woolf then living at Rodmell. But the Woolfs however never warmed to Enid, describing her as “a scallywag who married a very rich man” or on another occasion as one of Vita’s “second rate women friends.” The Woolfs considered Lady Jones, as she was thanks to her husband, Sir Roderick Jones of Reuters, slightly vulgar, belonging to London’s “smart set.” But Enid never gave up on her quest to count herself a friend of Virginia’s and be part of the Woolf’s circle.
So, as any biographer will attest, I too, living vicariously through my subject, found myself caught up in the Bloomsbury magic still alive in Charleston when I first saw it in the early 80’s, a magic that weaves its spell the minute you walk through the front door into a uniquely decorated kingdom. It’s a magic which has only grown over the past 30 years and which is why I am an Omega supporter of the house now. Soon after I finished my biography of Enid I wrote a biography of Laura Ashley, the woman who gave her name to a range of textiles in the seventies and eighties which conveyed a type of Victorian English country living which had probably never existed but which thousands apparently craved. Laura was in fact a textile designer manqué, an autodidact who had never had the luxury of studying art history but was absorbing from direct experience in her late middle age. She too fell in love with the concept of Charleston and in 1982 started working with The Charleston Trust hoping to reproduce some of the original 1930’s Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant designs which her company could then market commercially as part of a ‘Bloomsbury Collection’ to include lamp bases, plates, vases and a fruit bowl designed by Quentin.
Laura Ashley plc donated £50,000 to the Trust to acquire the rights to some of the designs. Experts set about unpicking hems to acquire unfaded slithers of cloth but then concluded that, rather than reproducing the fabrics in their original bright colours, it was more in keeping with the faded aura of the rest of the house to find a shade halfway between the original and the present state. Some of Charleston’s fabrics including Grapes and West Wind can still be bought today in the Charleston shop.
I was reminded of the enthusiasm of the young Laura and Bernard Ashley recently when, as part of an Omega group outing, we paid a visit to the Emma Bridgewater operation in Stoke, housed in a restored nineteenth pottery factory. Here was the same enthusiasm for creating something both utilitarian and charming, something which was original, unfussy, high quality and with ‘soul’ – a word Laura Ashley’s son Nick often used to describe what he believed made the Ashley company products special. Here was the same family involvement, husband and wife (Matthew Rice, the designer, is Emma’s husband) soon augmented by children. (Just as I was thinking that a daughter popped her head around the corner while we were there!)
After lunch, entertained by Matthew, we set off to explore the nearby Bethesda Chapel, big enough to house 2,000 at a sitting in its heyday, and then to the new Wedgwood Museum, reinvigorated since 2014 by the Victoria & Albert Museum. This was spellbinding, with far too many treasures to take in during one short visit. But my eye was caught by the Wedgwood slave medallions as Josiah, opposed to the slave trade, began producing in the 1780s a series of small round pieces advocating abolition. The medallions had the same image used on other anti-slavery material, including needlework samplers; a slave in chains on his knees asking: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ and were sold as brooches, hatpins and necklaces. They are believed to be among the earliest examples of a fashion item used to support a cause. As my current research has focused on women during the Nazi occupation of Paris who often used fashion as a form of resistance, I was fascinated. Fashion, history, art, politics all coming together just as they do at Charleston and it’s the interconnectedness of things which is of course just one of the reasons why I love being part of the Omega Group.
Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes How the women of Paris Lived, Loved and died in the forties will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in July 2016