Hannah Collisson visits Charleston which is to feature in a new BBC series that paints an intimate portrait of the influential Bloomsbury group

The country retreat of the famous Bloomsbury set, the ground-breaking early twentieth century group of artists, writers and intellectuals, Charleston farmhouse, near Firle, is awash with history.

Last month, filming took place on location for a new three-part BBC drama, Life In Squares, which centres on sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, artist and writer respectively.

From 1916, Charleston was the summer home to Vanessa, artist Duncan Grant with whom she later had a daughter Angelica, Duncan’s lover the writer David Garnett, and Vanessa’s children Julian and Quentin. Vanessa’s husband, art critic Clive Bell was a regular visitor, though the two did not live as a married couple.

Other Bloomsbury members included economist John Maynard Keynes and writer Lytton Strachey.

The title for the BBC series, Life in Squares, is taken from a quote in which it was said that the Bloomsbury group “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.”

Playing the younger Vanessa and Virginia are Phoebe Fox (A Poet In New York), and Lydia Leonard (Wolf Hall), with Eve Best (Nurse Jackie) and Catherine McCormack (28 Weeks Later) as the sisters in later years. The cast also includes James Norton (Happy Valley), Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks) and Finn Jones (Game Of Thrones).

Much has been made of the complicated and unconventional romantic relationships and living arrangements of members of the group.

However executive producer Lucy Bedford says that Life in Squares is by no means a racy exposé.

“The relationship between the sisters is probably the central pin. They had an extraordinary close, quite fraught relationship,” says Lucy.

“Our show starts in 1901 with the death of Queen Victoria and their father died and they escaped Hyde Park Gate where they had lived a very oppressive life, and tried to live a life by their own design – emotionally, physically, and artistically.

“In the process of doing that they met the people who became the other members of the Bloomsbury Group, and together they almost accidentally started to work out a way that they wanted to live their lives.

“We tell their story over 40 years. It’s all about their excitement, their endeavours, and then many years on the fallout of that, the repercussions, and the unexpected lessons they learned.”

As such, two actors play each part, which made for extremely complicated casting, adds Lucy.

It is through lengthy discussions with Vanessa’s granddaughter Virginia Nicholson, who is closely involved with Charleston, that the filming was made possible.

Following Vanessa’s death in 1961, Duncan Grant and then his daughter Angelica Garnett, also an artist, lived at Charleston until 1980 when The Charleston Trust was formed.

Now 10 rooms of the house are open to the public, and it is in effect a museum, with much of the original artwork and furniture remaining in situ from the 1950s.

Conditions are very carefully monitored to protect the house and its contents, and blinds shut out much of the light, while humidity is controlled electronically.

In the rooms where filming for Life In Squares took place, much of the original collection was taken out, and the art department used a touch of artistic licence to make the place slightly more bohemian than perhaps it would have been in reality.

However, in all of the rooms the influence of the Bloomsbury group is present, in the form of their paintings, decoration, and designs for soft furnishings.

The scenes filmed at Charleston are from the 1930s and 1940s, and this is reflected in how the rooms have been dressed.

In the studio, for example, fake pieces of artwork were arranged, based on Vanessa, Duncan, and Quentin’s sketches for the Berwick church murals, while in Vanessa’s bedroom the surfaces were dressed with domestic clutter, including posed photographs of the actors based on old family photographs.

  •  Life In Squares will be aired as a three-part series by the BBC.
  •  Charleston house and garden are open to the public Wednesday to Saturday from March 26 to November 2. For full details visit www.charleston.org.uk or call 01323 811265.