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Project Brighton: Darren Clarke, Head of Collections, Research and Exhibitions at Charleston, on its annual literary festival & new brand Sussex Modern
Brighton and Hove is never buzzier than in May, but you don’t have to venture very far from the boundaries of the city to pick up a different kind of buzz, and I’m not talking about the bees and the wasps. Behind hedgerows, down leafy lanes, East Sussex abounds with cultural treasures and events that keep the county a hub of creative activity.
A group of nine museums and galleries, including Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, Farley Farm in Chiddingly, the home of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, and Charleston in Firle, the former home of the Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, recently got together to develop the brand Sussex Modern. The first result of this partnership was the exhibition Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, hosted by the Bulldog Trust at Two Temple Place in London. The exhibition asked what was it about Sussex that brought such a diverse range of artists down to live and work in its farm houses, villages and coastal towns during the twentieth century?
These are exciting times at Charleston. The usually bucolic skyline of the undulating South Downs is currently dominated by a large red crane, lifting into place the walls and roof of a new gallery, part of Charleston’s major capital development project. Once work is finished visitors will have more reasons to visit, with a programme of exhibitions, an extended public programme of learning and events, a bigger café and even indoor toilets!
Whilst building work continues, Charleston is gearing up for its annual literary festival (19-29 May). 28 years ago it began as a weekend gathering of die-hard Bloomsbury fans, but has grown year on year to be, not only one of the highlights in the Sussex cultural calendar, but a national and international event. The buzz of conversation echoes around the marquee and the garden.
Reflecting Charleston’s status as a pioneering hub of art, ideas, debate, dissent and conviviality, this year’s festival brings together world-renowned thinkers and creators of many disciplines including history, politics, literature, art and media. This year we present the third Keynes Prize to Professor Stephen Hawking. Each year a recipient is selected who embodies John Maynard Keynes’ innovation, celebrating outstanding thinkers who have put their gifts to the enhancement of humanity.
In turbulent times there’s inspiration from the work of many of the speakers, including Harriet Harman, who joined a 97% male House of Commons in 1982 and became a lifelong campaigner for women’s rights. Brighton’s very own Caroline Lucas will be welcoming poet and broadcaster Michael Rosen to the stage to discuss his book The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case, that charts the unhappy period Zola spent in London after being prosecuted for libel in France.
Art has been a fundamental part of life at Charleston since Bloomsbury group artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant moved there more than a hundred years ago. The former’s own work, life and loves are chronicled through a series of letters read by stage and screen legend Vanessa Redgrave. Maggi Hambling discusses her controversial work with Simon Martin, the Director of Pallant House Art Gallery, and Deyan Sudjic reveals his vision for the new Design Museum.
Also appearing are prizewinning authors Richard Ford, Helen Macdonald, Sarah Perry, Colm Toíbín, Philippe Sands, Elif Shafak, Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Strout. Barry Humphries will be sharing his passion for literature and music. Nick Clegg PC MP and child prodigy violinist Min Kym are guests of honour at the second Charleston Festival Dinner.
So put on your hiking shoes and explore what’s going on right on your doorstep.