Charleston lets its hair down in honour of Diana

From left: Nathaniel Hepburn, director of Charleston; Diana Reich and Virginia Nicholson
From left: Nathaniel Hepburn, director of Charleston; Diana Reich and Virginia Nicholson

Charleston loves to throw a party – and last Saturday (September 7), they did it in style, with friends and colleagues of Diana Reich gathering to pay tribute to her for 30 years of directing the Charleston Festival.

Diana has decided to stand down from the festival, which began with a handful of speakers in an old apple shed and is now spread over ten days with more than 40 events by some of the world’s top writers, journalists, performers and artists.

But Diana was involved with Charleston long before the house was open to the public.

Inspired by the writing of Virginia Woolf and biographies by Michael Holroyd and Frances Spalding, she became interested in the art and literature of Bloomsbury – which led nexorably to Charleston.

In the early days she was focused on preserving the house for posterity, led by the indefatigable Deborah Gage. Diana’s role included persuading Laura Ashley to reproduce some of the original Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant fabrics, which were required for the restoration of the house.

The company also produced some of the range for their stores and they are still sold in the Charleston shop today.

“Amazingly,” as Diana told her audience on Saturday, “given that Angelica Garnett (who owned the patents) and I did not have an ounce of business acumen between us, we convinced them to pay for the privilege!”

During these years and for some time after the house was opened to the public, Diana frequently stayed at Charleston, which was an unforgettable experience.

“I did once have to leap out of Duncan Grant’s bed as visitors arrived,” she recalled. “Opening times were a bit more erratic in those days – at least, that’s my excuse.”

Once the house was opened to the public, it could have remained a heritage artists’ museum like so many others – evocative but fossilised.

But the original Trustees, presided over by Quentin Bell, followed by Nigel Nicolson and Robert Skidelsky as Chairs, felt it would misrepresent the spirit of Charleston if it did not remain in touch with living culture and continue to set the agenda.

“So we decided to hold some talks in an old apple shed, crossed our fingers, held our breaths and designated the nine events a Festival – at a time when there were hardly any others in the literary landscape.”

As the stream of cars leading up the lane to Charleston grew steadily longer, Diana and a team of volunteers had to rush to find more chairs.

That first Festival in May 1990 had a coherent theme – Bloomsbury Looks East – to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall the previous year. Every session connected with Bloomsbury’s European outlook.

The annual festival led to summer schools, which took place for several years, and subsequently to Small Wonder , dedicated to the art of short fiction, lyrics and essays, which celebrated its 15th year in 2018 and will be revived in 2020.

After 30 years, Diana has a host of vivid recollections, but one of the most moving was Quentin Bell and Stephen Spender discussing the Spanish Civil War.

“Quentin’s brother Julian had been killed fighting for the Republicans and Stephen Spender had been in Spain as a war correspondent. It felt like a time warp into a different era,” she recalled.

Rather different was her account of how Iris Murdoch, the leading blue-stocking novelist cum philosopher of the time, demanded to be driven to the sea during a break in one of the summer schools.

“Despite her advanced years and girth, she strode completely naked into the waves and swam very far out. I could just see the headlines: ‘Charleston responsible for the death by drowning of England’s foremost novelist’.”

Diana believes that the original ambition for Charleston to be part of living culture, in the spirit of its founders, has been realised. “The barn is now a permanent venue for year round events and our stylish new galleries host unique temporary exhibitions,” she said.

Her association with Charleston has been a love affair, and although long term, she always knew that a separation would ultimately be inevitable: “But I am sure that my attachment to Charleston and everyone associated with it will endure.”

Plus, as she explained, she has started a late-life romance with Charleston’s namesake in South Carolina, whose festival she is now programming.

Thanking everyone for their support over the years, Diana ended by paying tribute to Henrietta Garnett, the daughter of Angelica Garnett and eldest grand-child of Vanessa Bell, who died this week.

“In many ways, she exemplified the essence of Bloomsbury: a free and courageous spirit, a natural Bohemian, talented and graceful. I am as sure as I can be that she would have wished us all to carry on and enjoy the party.”

There were tributes to Diana from Charleston’s Director Nathaniel Hepburn and from the chair of trustees, Michael Farthing.

President of the Charleston Trust, Virginia Nicholson presented her with a print of Vanessa Bell’s painting Girl Reading.

Visit www.charleston.org.uk.

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