The Angel of Charleston - keeping house for the Bloomsbury Group
A guest post by Stewart MacKay, writer, archivist and cultural historian.
Three years ago, whilst researching Virginia Woolf’s 1911 travel journal at the British Library, I stumbled upon a fascinating collection of diaries, letters and photographs I’d never heard of. It was the collection of Grace Higgens (1903-1983) who was, it turns out, beloved housekeeper to the Bloomsbury Group (specifically the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant) in both London and Sussex. Acquired by the British Library in 2007, Grace’s collection is oddly little known and yet, as I found, it provides a unique ‘bridge’ between the 'upstairs' Bloomsbury many of us know so well with life ‘below stairs’, and spans much of the twentieth century. Arriving in 1920 at the age of eighteen into the Bell's Gordon Square home, Grace stayed through thick and thin for the next fifty years, only retiring from Charleston farmhouse in 1970, by which time Duncan Grant was the only remaining occupant.
Grace Higgens, photograph from the Higgens Papers at the British Library, Add MS 83198-83258
I was instantly drawn to Grace. The early diaries reveal her to be charming, elegant, vivacious, politically engaged and very funny indeed. Perhaps her most memorable trip with the Bell family was her first. In 1921 the household decamped to St Tropez for the winter. This was eighteen-year-old Grace’s very first trip abroad and it naturally had a profoundly formative effect. She lapped up the sights, sounds, smells and the sun - all so different from the Norfolk of her childhood. Afternoons were often spent on the beach where she swam for the first time (vowing 'never again'), there were adventures and expeditions with the Bell children (always home 'in time for tea') as well as lessons in French (useful in getting to know the burnished young men of St Tropez). Memories of this first trip were nurtured well into old age and so it is unsurprising that Grace particularly preserved this diary.
Vanessa Bell, photograph from the Higgens Papers at the British Library, Add MS 83198-83258
Grace Higgens has long been a mere footnote in the history of Bloomsbury so I was determined to bring Grace and her times to life. Unlike Virginia Woolf's often distressing relationship with her servants, her sister Vanessa Bell's relationship with Grace was altogether more pleasant. By the mid-1930s, Grace had become the lynchpin of life at Charleston, utterly indispensable to several generations of the family and their friends. Described by Grant as the 'angel of Charleston', even today, the house brims with her spirit.
Charleston farmhouse © Penelope Fewster 2012, courtesy of the Charleston Trust
Always close to Duncan Grant, who adored her intelligence, loyalty and sense of fun, Grace's relationship with Vanessa remained much as it had started - affectionate though somewhat distanced. Undeniably Grace's domestic routine was often arduous, but it was compensated by Vanessa's generous presents of Parisian clothes as well as the latest (and sometimes) scandalous modern novels. Sometimes she even posed for her portrait. Though she eventually married Charleston's gardener Walter, Grace's many offers of marriage have become legendary. Her beauty and elegance had her pursued by both artists and aristocrats. Well-dressed and far better informed about the avant-garde than most servants of her day, it was said that Duncan once mistook her for the great society beauty Lady Diana Cooper.
Grace Higgens and her incredible legacy deserves to be better known. From today you can learn more about her in a new biography published by the British Library, The Angel of Charleston: Grace Higgens, Housekeeper to the Bloomsbury Group, available from the British Library Shop.
Grace Higgens © Tony Tree