Charleston Trust, the organisation that looks after the country home of the Bloomsbury Group, has unveiled a significant off-site exhibition space in Lewes, East Sussex. This marks the first step towards a permanent cultural centre in the heart of the town that will complement its rural home at Firle.
The gallery opened on 11 September with a gala celebrating Bloomsbury’s connection to fashion. The Trust has marked the first step towards achieving their long-term goal of opening a permanent Bloomsbury gallery, that will bring 100 of the most important Bloomsbury works back to Sussex. With the support of the National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the V&A the gallery will become a place of international importance. The vision also includes housing the growing Bloomsbury archive in a central location that is accessible to researchers and visitors. The gallery will be using this initial season of programming to talk to the local community about how this vision for a permanent cultural centre in Lewes could shape up.
Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion is the first exhibition to explore the fashion of the Bloomsbury group and how the 20th-century cultural collective still impacts on global style over 100 years on.
Curated by writer Charlie Porter, the exhibition highlights the relationship that radical figures such as Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell had with clothing while celebrating 21st-century fashion designers who have found inspiration in Bloomsbury art and life. Christian Dior Couture is sponsoring the exhibition Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion.
Highlights include: Catwalk fashion by Dior, Fendi, Burberry, Comme des Garçons, Erdem and S.S. Daley. Personal items exhibited for the first time, such as necklaces worn by sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell; Virginia Woolf’s bag, hand-embroidered by Bell; pieces worn by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Never-before-seen portraits by Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant will be included in the exhibition. A new commission by Jawara Alleyne will also be on display.
The Bloomsbury group was a loose collective of artists, writers and thinkers, first formed in London at the beginning of the 20th century. Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion use original garments, archival objects, paintings, photography, manuscripts and spoken word to examine how the Bloomsbury group explored liberated sexuality, feminism, queerness and pacifism, helping to set the foundations for how we dress today.
Developed from extensive research, the exhibition in Charleston’s sizeable new gallery space focuses on six protagonists: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes and Lady Ottoline Morrell. The title comes from a letter by Virginia Woolf to T.S. Eliot in 1920, inviting him to stay: “Please bring no clothes: we live in a state of utmost simplicity”. Woolf and Bell often used such words, signifying their break from traditional society.
The exhibition will present many previously unseen items, including necklaces worn by Woolf and Bell in an iconic 1896 photograph with their sister Stella Duckworth; looks from the wardrobe of Bloomsbury patron Lady Ottoline Morrell; a bag, hand-embroidered by Vanessa Bell, which belonged to Virginia Woolf; a first edition of Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, inscribed to her then lover Vita Sackville-West; and the manuscript for a pioneering essay from 1888 by the painter and critic Roger Fry titled, ‘Shall we wear top hats?’.
Fashion from contemporary designers, including designs by Kim Jones from his Fendi Spring-Summer 2021 Women’s show inspired by Virginia Woolf and from his Dior Spring-Summer 2023 Men’s collection inspired by Duncan Grant, will be woven through the exhibition. The legacy of the group will be explored in designs by Erdem, Christopher Bailey for Burberry, and Comme des Garçons pieces on the theme of Woolf’s Orlando, designed by Rei Kawakubo for the catwalk and the Vienna Opera House. Meanwhile, Charleston will be seen as a fashion source, with a series of photographs by Tim Walker for Italian Vogue shot in and around the House.
The exhibition will also highlight a new generation of designers, such as LVMH Prize winner S.S. Daley, who takes inspiration from the characters created by E.M. Forster; Jawara Alleyne, who will install a new work modelled on Vanessa Bell’s use of safety pins in her dressing; and Ella Boucht, who uses tailoring to reimagine gender. There will also be a focus on the role of fashion in Bloomsbury portraiture, particularly mid-20th century works by Bell and Grant, many previously unseen, and an examination of the queer coding of clothes in Grant’s portraits.
A new book by Charlie Porter, Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and the Philosophy of Fashion, written during the research period of the exhibition, will be published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin, on 7 September 2023, coinciding with the opening of the show.
Charlie Porter says: “The Bloomsbury group engaged with fashion in dynamic ways, from philosophical thinking to radical dressing. Bring No Clothes uses garments to shed new light on their lives and bring insight into how we dress today. By mixing the past with the present, I hope the show will encourage visitors to reconsider their future relationship with fashion.”
Charleston’s second exhibition in Lewes, Jonathan Baldock: Through the joy of the senses, will be the first UK survey show of leading contemporary artist Jonathan Baldock, coinciding with his exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Baldock works with various materials such as fabric, paint and ceramics to create large-scale sculptural installations that often explore our relationship to the body and the space it inhabits. The show will combine these installation pieces in a colourful, rich, immersive exhibition.
Jonathan Baldock says: “Growing up between Kent and East Sussex, I’ve always felt as if Charleston and the Bloomsbury group are part of my DNA. As a child and in adulthood, I’ve visited Lewes and Charleston many times and could even see Sissinghurst Castle, the home of Vita Sackville-West, from my bedroom window. So, the opportunity to show my work in connection with a place that has influenced me feels incredibly magical.”
Nathaniel Hepburn, Director at Charleston, says: “It is exciting to launch Charleston’s new building in central Lewes with two very different exhibitions. In Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion, Charlie Porter takes a fresh angle that brings us new stories on the extraordinary lives of the Bloomsbury group members, showing again the continued relevance of their ideas to contemporary culture. Jonathan Baldock’s bold installation brings his colourful, sensory world to our spaces and indicates the scale of the contemporary exhibition the new building will enable for Charleston.”
This season of exhibitions forms part of a cultural season in Sussex accompanying the Turner Prize in Eastbourne.
Charleston is a place that brings people together to engage with art and ideas. The modernist home and studio of the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Charleston, was a gathering point for some of the 20th century’s most radical artists, writers and thinkers known collectively as the Bloomsbury group. It is where they came together to imagine society differently and has always been where art and experimental thinking are at the centre of everyday life. Today, Charleston presents a dynamic year-round exhibitions, events and festivals programme. Charleston believes in the power of art, in all its forms, to provoke new ways of thinking and living. Charleston.org.uk
Charlie Porter Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion is curated by the writer and critic Charlie Porter. Charlie writes for titles such as the Financial Times, where he was previously a men’s fashion critic, New York Times, i-D and Luncheon. He has worked at The Guardian, British GQ, Fantastic Man and The Times. His most recent book, What Artists Wear, was published by Penguin, and he was a juror for the Turner Prize in 2019.
Christian Dior was the designer of dreams. As soon as his House was founded in 1946 and consecrated by the revolution of the New Look, his visionary spirit never ceased to glorify women worldwide. “Fabric is the sole vehicle of our dreams (…). Fashion, in sum, comes from a dream, and dreaming is an escape,” he wrote. Season after season, this exceptional heritage is reinvented by the singular creative passion, force and modernity of the House’s Creative Directors who – from haute couture to perfumes – make the Dior magic live on with audacity, excellence of savoir-faire and its unique beauty of the gesture.
Jonathan Baldock was born in 1980 in Kent, UK, and lives and works in London. He works across multiple platforms, including sculpture, installation and performance. He graduated from Winchester School of Art with a BA in Painting (2000-2003), followed by the Royal College of Art, London with an MA in Painting (2003-2005). Baldock’s work is saturated with humour, wit, and an uncanny, macabre quality that channels his interest in myth and folklore. He has an ongoing focus on the contrast between the material qualities of ceramic and fabric in his work and works in a performative way through his sculptural assemblages. Jonathan Baldock is represented by Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Nicelle Beauchene, New York.
Top Photo Photo1: Holly Wood © All rights reserved
Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion 13 September 2023–7 January 2024, Charleston in LewesExhibition
Jonathan Baldock: through the joy of the senses 13 September 2023–7 January 2024, Charleston in LewesExhibition