Thursday, January 20, 2011

Charleston: a Bloomsbury house & garden by Quentin Bell & Virginia Nicholson

6. Charleston : a Bloomsbury house & garden
by Quentin Bell & Virginia Nicholson
photographs by Alen MacWeeney
nonfiction, 1997
first book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge
finished, 1/20/11

If I had the money I would buy everyone who wanted one a copy of this book. Who will love it? Well, anyone who is interested in the Bloomsbury people, anyone who is interested in art, and anyone who is interested in house design and decorating. Because I fit all three criteria, I was completely happy while in the pages of this book. It is beautifully, beautifully done.

Ever since the first January of this blog, in 2007, I've done something a little special to honor Virginia Woolf in her birthday month.

This year I celebrated by visiting Charleston, the home of Virginia's sister, Vanessa Bell, and a large group of people who came and went, for longer or shorter periods of time. Quentin Bell was Vanessa Bell's son, and Virginia Nicholson, his daughter.

The book is really perfect. You know how so many adult 'picture books' are just that - a book you peruse rather than read. Well, this one has as much reading as photography, and they are exquisitely balanced. I would read a chapter at a time, first looking at the photographs and reading the explanations of them. Then I'd go back and read the whole chapter, looking again at the photos within the context of the story. The book explores the whole house and the garden, giving a chapter to each space: The Kitchen, Vanessa Bell's Bedroom, The Green Bathroom, on and on. Virginia doesn't play a large part in this book because she and Leonard lived not too far away so they didn't have to stay at Charleston. There is this picture of her in the garden. She's on the left.

We hear so often of the care taken of her by others when she would have her dark times, but here is a Virginia I had not heard about. Vanessa's son Julian, Quentin's older brother, died in 1937 in the Spanish War. Quentin writes:
Vanessa was completely shattered.
We took her back to Charleston and for the rest of that summer Virginia devoted herself completely to her sister and gradually restored her to a quiet and very sad convalescence. On one of the few days when she could not come to Charleston, Virginia sent her sister a note. I found Vanessa quietly crying over it in the garden. 'Another love letter from Virginia,' she smiled very faintly.
In the preface, Virginia Nicholson tells us that her father was eighty-five when he started writing this book. He had put together a first draft by 1996, but was ill, and had to go into the hospital.
when I visited him there he was worrying about the second draft and asked me to help him with the work he had taken on. During his final weeks, when he could not write, I sat by his bed at home near Firle and we talked about his memories of the house where he had spent so much of his life. I placed a tape recorder on the bedside table. The day he died he was too weak and tired to talk much to me and I realized his last book would be left incomplete. Between them, my mother and the publishers encouraged me to take on the task of finishing it.
So this book is a composite, with our respective contributions indicated by our initials.
What a last gift to the world this is, and how wonderful that father and daughter got to share the work. This is the story that needed to be told - the story of a home that sheltered, encouraged, and inspired so very many artistic souls. We see their young selves and the work they produced, for Charleston is a work of art. It was decorated and painted, and is filled with lamps and tables and curtains and dishes that were created by those who lived there, and visited there. I don't believe there is anything like it. A really tremendous book. Please do visit the website for information and photographs.

Here is a picture of the co-author with her grandmother.


  1. I know nothing about Virginia Wolf other than there was a play or movie titled "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Your post kept me interested and I googled Virginia Woolf afterward.

  2. This book looks pretty wonderful, Nan. I have another one for you.

    I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before on your blog or not, but what the heck, here goes:

    BLOOMSBURY AT HOME by Pamela Todd.
    It looks similar in flavor to the book you're showing. It is full of photos and artwork and info about the 'group'. I bought it because of the artwork, also I'm a big fan of painted furniture which was a big hit with the Bloomsbury crowd.

    But I learned a lot more about these people as well. One of my favorite books. I think I'll feature it on my blog next week. :)

    By the way, Nan, I found my copy of TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, the next step is to find the time to read it. I put it near the top of my tbr pile, so it will get read at some point. Also Nigel Nicolson's bio. which I found on my shelves.

  3. Thank you , thank you for telling about this book. I am fascinated by them too.

  4. This sounds like one I would reallllly like. Thanks for the review.

  5. It looks indeed like a book you will open again and again, it does not matter how many years you will own it, it will not get boring.

  6. An inspiring post about an inspiring book. I have Virginia Woolf on my personal challenge list (trying to fill in the many gaps in my education).

    I'm off to view the Charleston website now.

    Thank you.

  7. Oh how I would love this book! I am ashamed to say that despite living a mere hour away (when I was in England), I have never visited the house. I shall do so when I return. The Bloomsbury set were endlessly fascinating and I think you can tell a lot about them from the surroundings they chose to live in.
    There was a wonderful exhibition at The Courtauld in London last summer about the Omega group, and many of the fabrics and furnishings Vanessa Bell designed were on display. Absolutely breathtaking - I wish you could have seen it.

  8. Well, Larry, your note made me so happy I posted this little book report. I love, love, love Virginia Woolf!

    Yvette, it really is 'pretty wonderful' - no, I haven't heard of Bloomsbury at Home but will sure go look it up right now - thanks! To The Lighthouse is so wonderful, so unique. In my book journal I wrote:
    "Wonderful writing. I couldn't ask for anything better! Fascinating way of
    telling a story. The first part is the family life on vacation at a summer house, the second part is time passing - deaths of people, gradual decline of the house and garden, and the third part is of the family ten years later. Achingly beautiful book."

    Then you will love this book, Julie.

    Lisa, it is so wonderful.

    Val, it is fascinating. I could read endlessly about these people, but the special quality of this book was seeing the house and all its beauty - the beauty they created. But it wasn't 'precious' - they really lived in it. They painted without preparing. They repainted.

    Librarian, you are absolutely right.

    Thanks, Sallie. Wonderful book, fascinating and talented people, every single one of them.

    Rachel, I thought of you as I was reading the book! And when you get home, I shall eagerly await a report of your visit to Charleston! And oh, to have seen the Omega exhibition! My heart aches.

  9. Nan..I've been wracking my brains On why I could see the pictures in this book in my head and why it was so familiar...A past TV programme ? but no finally clicked when I looked at the publication date...I took a copy that book home from the library, when it was first published, before I moved to a different funny is's got the most beautiful photographs of the decorations and gardens inside hasn't it ...I can still picture them ..and yet hadn't realized why lol

  10. I love this book, too, and I've also been lucky enough to have had the moving and wonderful experience of visiting Charleston, as well as Monk's House and Sissinghurst ... Charleston has wonderful programs about art and writing. Even just reading their schedule of events points me to books and artists I want to learn about & read (and of course, makes me want to plan more visits!)

  11. I have to admit that the idea of Virginia Woolf intimidates me. I do not do well with stream-of-consciousness. I need to get brave and at least attempt To the Lighthouse!

  12. It sounds like a lovely, touching book--and I'm not even (I shudder to admit it) a big Woolf fan. Maybe I'll go back and try her again--or do more Bloomsbury. Thanks, Nan.

  13. Val, that is so amazing. You oughtta buy yourself a copy. :<)

    Kamala, you are oh so lucky. We went to Monk's House one time but it was closed. I was so very disappointed.

    Jen, you might begin with Mrs. Dalloway. You know what I find is that her books are the way I think. One impression leads to a memory and then something in that memory reminds me of something else. I really, really feel like she writes as I, at least, think. Maybe this will encourage you - a few years ago, I wrote this in my journal:

    "This book feels like real life - the way we notice things during a day, and how they remind us of something, and then we think about that for a while. Clarissa is about my age, which makes it interesting to me. The last time I read this book, I was in my twenties. I loved it then, but this time it has a greater dimension."

    Tinky, I fear that people are intimidated by her, but please read what I wrote to Jen. To me, Virginia's work is just so real - so like regular life.


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