DIOR Men Summer 23 © Brett Lloyd

Charleston comes to Lewes – exploration of the Bloomsbury Group through fashion opens new exhibition space

This autumn, Charleston brings a season of exhibitions and a programme of community projects to central Lewes for the first time.

Following a period of consultation, Charleston’s educational and cultural activities are being expanded into the former district council offices on Southover Road.

This new space will open in September with Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion, the first major exhibition to explore the influence and legacy of the Bloomsbury group on fashion. It will feature catwalk fashion by the likes of Dior, Fendi and Burberry alongside never-before-seen Bloomsbury portraits and personal items including Virginia Woolf’s handbag, embroidered by Vanessa Bell. A second exhibition will be the first UK survey show on leading British contemporary artist Jonathan Baldock, opening concurrently with an exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Alongside this will be a free programme of co-produced community projects, artist-led workshops and gallery activities.

It will welcome families, young people and other community groups to Charleston’s new spaces. There will be a learning programme for local state schools, further education and higher education groups; alongside a pop-up café for the town operated by Lewes-based Caccia & Tails and a shop providing retail space for local artists and makers will complete the offerings.

“Since Charleston reopened after the pandemic, we have been working in partnership with the council and community groups to develop a bold and ambitious vision which could transform the cultural life of Lewes,” said Charleston Director, Nathaniel Hepburn. “It’s exciting to be able to announce plans to launch this space in time for a major cultural season happening across Sussex to coincide with the largest contemporary art prize in the world – Turner Prize – being hosted in Eastbourne. It’s a great moment to put Lewes on the map as an important part of the region’s cultural offer.”

The exhibition will also highlight a new generation of designers, such as LVMH Prize winner S.S. Daley.

Daley 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.

Charleston 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 a variety of 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 bring together a range of these installation pieces in a colourful, rich and immersive exhibition.

 “Growing up between Kent and East Sussex, I’ve always felt as if Charleston and the Bloomsbury group are part of my DNA,” said Baldock. “I’ve visited Lewes and Charleston so many times, as a child and through to adulthood, 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.”

This initial season of programming in Lewes will enable Charleston to continue consultation with the local community.

They can explore long-term potential for developing a cultural centre in a town that has never had a major civic art museum. Plans for a Bloomsbury gallery bringing 100 of the most important Bloomsbury works back to Sussex, already has the endorsement of the National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the V&A. A community engagement programme would improve Charleston’s ability to engage with local community groups, and the creation of an archive and collection store would better enable researcher and visitor access to this significant cultural asset for Sussex.

Councillor Zoe Nicholson, Leader of Lewes District Council, added: “I’m very excited that Charleston, a world-renowned cultural institution, will soon have a presence in the centre of Lewes. Extending the reach of Charleston to people who may not have visited their home in Firle is an ambition shared by many who will warmly welcome this move. I’m also delighted that we will have a new reception area in the town centre where residents can have all their enquiries handled quickly and efficiently, in addition to the systems we now have in place online.”

Charleston has been operating as an independent cultural charity in the Lewes district for over 30 years. Founded in 1980 to safeguard the former home of Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, and her friend and fellow artist, Duncan Grant, it opened to the public in 1986. Today Charleston welcomes visitors from all around the world to its rural site in Firle to experience the extraordinary house and studio, a portfolio of festivals including the renowned annual literary festival, and a critically acclaimed programme of exhibitions. www.charleston.org.uk

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