Virginia Woolf famously wrote that a woman needed a room of her own if she hoped to write successfully. Woolf found her sanctuary in East Sussex, not far from where her sister the artist Vanessa Bell had already discovered the joy of making a house into a partner for the expression of creative life.

Two decades later, the photographer Lee Miller and her husband Roland Penrose moved to the same county, and their farmhouse became a center of Surrealist thought and shenanigans. Not long after that, the curator Jim Ede took four derelict row houses in Cambridge and turned them into a modern enclave for the unconventional collection he shared with students.

Finally, the architect Charles Jencks remade his entire home into a monument to the postmodern theories he so devoutly espoused.

These houses are far from the stately, aristocratic piles for which England has become known. Instead, they exemplify what Woolf understood to be the paramount importance of a dwelling: as an incubator for creativity and conviviality. All are open to the public.


On the outside, it was a proper British country house. Inside, it was the de facto headquarters of the Bloomsbury Group.

Charleston House, Lewes

Vanessa Bell moved to Charleston House, in East Sussex, in 1916, at the height of the Great War, with her lover, the polymath artist Duncan Grant, and his lover, David Garnett—both draft resisters—and her two young children.

The vernacular house was not modern—no telephone, no radio, no heat—but the inhabitants and interiors made up for that. “Bohemian” doesn’t begin to describe the household where the progressive artistic, sexual, and domestic ethics of the Bloomsbury Group reigned.

Grant was omnivorous: his liaisons ranged from intellectuals such as Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes to what his and Bell’s son Quentin described as “semi-criminals.” Bell’s writer-critic husband, Clive, whose theories about art were revered, also made periodic, chaste visits (unless he brought his mistress). Bell’s daughter, Angelica, didn’t know until she was 17 that her father was, in fact, Grant.

Vanessa Bell, circa 1910.

Nonetheless, they all managed to stay devoted to each other. “Ours was an elastic home … it never broke,” said Quentin.

Bell and Grant decorated Charleston’s ceramics, textiles, and furniture with their colorful arts and crafts and hand-painted and stenciled designs, and began the Omega Workshops to make some money through these labors of love. Group haircuts, gardening for the soul as well as the stomach, and long hikes on the Sussex Downs were complementary pastimes.

By evening, displays of the day’s accomplishments—a headboard, a simple stool, a breakfront—and a seated dinner were accompanied by animated conversation, juicy gossip, and often a reading or performance.

An interior at Charleston House, including a bust of Woolf by the artist Stephen Tomlin.

Life eventually became less jolly: Bell’s son Julian was killed in the Spanish Civil War; the Picasso and Cézanne had to be sold when funds were low; Angelica married Garnett; and Bell grew increasingly depressed and withdrawn, a family leitmotif.

What lingers nevertheless is the extraordinary charm and wit of an enterprise where no lines were drawn between work and life. A lost collection of hand-painted plates by the pair, called the Famous Women Dinner Service, was re-discovered and is now again on view at Charleston. Bell and Grant—the only man featured in this series—are among those honored.


Woolf’s writing room, in the garden at Monk’s House.

Monk’s House, Rodmell

From 1919 until the day Virginia Woolf put some heavy stones in her pocket and walked into the River Ouse, Monk’s House was everything nearby Charleston House was not—even if it shared some of her sister Vanessa’s vibrant decorations. Here, Woolf had the quiet and seclusion needed to summon her profound insights into history and the human condition. Yet she was fully engaged with the political and social movements of the day.

Though the house was as primitive and “unpretending” as Charleston, Woolf and her husband, the writer Leonard Woolf, took every opportunity to upgrade. Vita Sackville-West, Virginia’s lover and frequent visitor, wrote about the newly installed plumbing, and how “every now and then [they run upstairs] and pull the plug just for the sheer fun of it.” They, too, had houseguests of note, such as T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster, but the ribaldry and controlled chaos of Charleston, where Bell “presides over the most astonishing ménage,” was something Woolf was happy to visit … and to leave.

Woolf in 1930.

Instead, often fighting off depression, every morning at 10 she would proceed to the separate writing lodge she had proudly built behind the garden with the proceeds from her work. You still can see her typewriter—she wrote on her lap in longhand first—and the excellent vistas into her garden, the gentle Downs in the background. Between “spasms of anxiety and rushes of confidence,” Woolf wrote her greatest books at Monk’s House: A Room of One’s Own, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves, The Years, and her final novel, Between the Acts.

In 1941, Leonard found her suicide note, and then her walking stick by the river. Her body was discovered three weeks later, floating in the water.

“Monk’s House is haunted by Virginia Woolf’s writing … because she turned it so vividly and lovingly into her words,” wrote her biographer Hermione Lee.


Neighbors spoke of seeing nudes on the lawn of Farleys House, whose owner, Lee Miller, often invited friends such as Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst to dinners and costume parties.

Farleys House, Muddles Green

In the late 1950s, if you saw the photographer Lee Miller churning butter at Farleys House, the Sussex farm she shared with her second husband, the Surrealist painter and scholar Roland Penrose, and her son, Antony, you’d likely not take her for the same woman who’d once posed for two infamous nude bathtub photos: one taken by her father when she was 21; the other in Hitler’s Munich apartment, taken by fellow war photographer David Scherman just after they had arrived from documenting the devastation of Dachau for Vogue.

Miller’s life had not been dull. She was a talented, beautiful woman, a free spirit who was not content to rest on her natural gifts but sought to participate in the important events and movements of the 20th century. Despite a childhood rape by a family friend and her father’s unsettling attentions, she became a high-fashion model, married an Egyptian businessman and moved to Cairo, and became photographer Man Ray’s muse, collaborator, and lover—and an intrepid photojournalist. Each new adventure was a way to shed her troubled past.

Miller’s son, Antony William Roland Penrose, next to a photo of his mother in Hitler’s bathtub.

She was not, however, an easy fit as a wife and mother, and though she relished inviting friends such as Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst to dinners and costume parties—neighbors spoke of seeing nudes on the lawn—and surprising them with surrealist culinary confections, the horrors of war, the loss of her beauty, and her troubled past combined into a toxic brew of alcoholism, anger, and depression. Miller buried the writing and the photography in deep storage, as if they had been from another life.

Though Penrose was once the more vaunted of the two, Miller’s maverick reputation has now eclipsed his. Besides the many international exhibitions of her archive, Farleys now has added two art galleries showing her own and allied works in converted sheds nearby the sculpture garden. But it is still the simple farmhouse filled with Surrealist artworks and objects, family photos, and memorabilia that evokes the time when Miller and Penrose were at the center of an artistic revolution.


“It is a playful house, not a house to play in.”

The Cosmic House, London

The American architect Charles Jencks, postmodern architecture’s team captain, could often be found under the disco ceiling of the Spring Room in his Cosmic House, in London, the voluble center of a lively group of friends and colleagues. Between 1978 and 1983, he had radically remodeled this 19th-century structure according to the principles of the new movement. No more the stripped-down, clean white spaces of modernism! Instead, a distillation of scientific theory, ornament, and symbolism: Jencks put everything back and then some.

The architect Charles Jencks, at home at the Cosmic House.

The genre may now be out of fashion, but when you enter through the gate with angel’s wings, all of that is forgotten. Every floor, molding, ceiling, and carpet is part of the built manifesto. “You can’t sit on a cushion without having it mean something,” said a friend of Jencks’s. Each piece, whether rooted in Egypt, Greece, or celestial realms, is bursting to tell you something of itself, its history, where it fits in the grand scheme of things. And where you fit, too. Before his death, in 2019, Jencks would have delighted in telling you himself, in this place for “thinking, conversing, talking.”

The Black Hole Terrace in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, in Dumfries, Scotland.

A companion project to his Garden of Cosmic Speculation, in southern Scotland, the house is a whirligig of thoughts: about life, the seasons, the cosmos. Up spiral staircases, down levels, with quotations on the moldings and something as mundane as a kitchen cabinet tricked out like a pyramid, Jencks incites visitors posthumously—as he did his family and friends during his lifetime—to consider how architecture influences the way we engage with each other. Though his wife, Maggie—who said “symbolism stops at my door”—was a partner in both adventures, and though he had many collaborators in the design and furnishings, it is Jencks’s prickly intelligence that reigns over his magic kingdom.

Jencks’s daughter, Lily, the engine behind the house being opened to the public for tours, talks, exhibitions, and studies of the vast archive, remembers what it was like to grow up amid a philosophical treatise. “It is a playful house, not a house to play in,” she says. “If you can’t stand the kitsch, get out of the kitchen,” Jencks long ago wryly suggested.


A collector’s home turned art gallery.

Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

Kettle’s Yard, the Cambridge museum established in the former 1957–73 home of the curator and collector Jim Ede and his wife, Helen, should give all flea-market junkies heart. Ede was what is called a great “picker”: with an open mind and a discerning eye, he was able to see the value in under-appreciated art, along with, well, pebbles.

Jim Ede at home at Kettle’s Yard.

To display his growing collection and put the disparate objects in dialogue with each other and with students of the nearby university, he carved light and space out of four row houses. By inviting them to share in the joy of his discoverïes in almost daily salons, Ede challenged the students’ notions of what art is and how to appreciate it. His taste ran to the English naïve artists as well as to Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, who became his friends.

Ede, too, had studied to be an artist but found he was more suited to curating. Yet he bristled at the restrictions imposed on him at the Tate Gallery, where he was assistant curator in the early 20s. Museums were too formal, too impersonal, too hidebound, to experience art properly.

An extension to Kettle’s Yard, designed by Leslie Martin in 2010.

Ede had been in the Great War, and had suffered from PTSD. He needed a refuge. He first built an expansive modernist house in Tangier and entertained wartime servicemen. It’s there he began formulating the welcoming ethos of Kettle’s Yard.

Now, with two expansions, the house is again home to the musical evenings Ede cherished. Contemporary artists are in dialogue with his original collection. And the house still oozes intimacy and charm. You feel as if, at any moment, Ede himself might appear and invite you to sit down to tea.

Charleston House, Monk’s House, Farleys House, the Cosmic House, and Kettle’s Yard are open to the public

Patricia Zohn was the culture columnist at the Huffington Post and is a contributor to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Artnet, and Wallpaper