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Experiments in Living

Gay men and lesbians have long been active in radical housing alternatives, building and creating their own families and communities, out of choice and out of necessity.

Charleston Farmhouse

In 1916 the artist Vanessa Bell and her lover Duncan Grant rented Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, together with Grant’s then lover David Garnett. Bell’s husband stayed there frequently and her children grew up there.

Charleston Farmhouse with climbing roses and bedding plants in bloom.
Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell lived together at Charleston Farmhouse © Creative Commons/Phil Bartle

Friends and relatives who visited regularly included Virginia Woolf (Bell’s sister), art critic Roger Fry and eminent economist John Maynard Keynes. Charleston thus became the country home of the Bloomsbury Group, the writers and artists whose complex relationships criss-crossed homo, hetero and bisexuality.      

Members of the Bloomsbury group at Charleston. Vanessa Bell is cutting Lytton Strachey's hair while Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Duncan Grant and an unidentified guest look on. Photograph c.1920
Members of the Bloomsbury group at Charleston. Vanessa Bell is cutting Lytton Strachey's hair while Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Duncan Grant and an unidentified guest look on. Photograph c.1920 © Granger Historical Archive/Alamy

The artists among them redesigned the house with decorative artworks, furnishings and wall coverings. English modernism inspired a striking domestic style.

Interior of sitting room at Charleston Farmhouse.
Interior of sitting room at Charleston Farmhouse, where Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell lived together © Elizabeth Whiting and Associates/Alamy

Charleston was a deliberate attempt to reorganise home and family life to allow alternative sexual relationships, new gender roles and artistic creativity to flourish.

Duncan Grant in the studio at Charleston with some of his work.
Duncan Grant in the studio at Charleston with some of his work © Keystone Pictures USA/Alamy

Communal living

After leaving his rooms at the Albany in Piccadilly, George Ives’s unconventional life continued from his 196 Adelaide Road home near Primrose Hill in northwest London. The villa was home to his non-traditional family of former lovers and their wives and children, including James (Kit) Goddard, his wife Sylvie and their daughters until Ives’s death in 1950.

In 1940 artists Cedric Morris and his partner Arthur Lett-Haines moved to 16th-century Benton End in Hadleigh, Suffolk where they lived until their deaths in 1982 and 1978 respectively. Here they created the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing as an alternative to the commercial London art scene.

It was a communal domestic and artistic space, welcoming both live-in and day students, and hosting famous dinner parties. With visitors including Vita Sackville-West, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Maggi Hambling, the two men created an atmosphere which ‘was robust and coarse and exquisite and tentative…faintly dangerous.’

House and driveway at Benton End with trees in foreground.
Benton End, the 16th-century home of Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines © Creative Commons/Martin Evans

Squatting

In the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of the gay liberation and women’s movements, squats in places such as Brixton and Hackney, in London, became the centres of community and political organising. They included men and women, some with few resources, and others who were committed to the political goals of squatted communities.

Black and white photo of communal meal hosted by Henry Pim and Andres Demetriou at 148 Mayall Road (late 70s)
Communal meal hosted by Henry Pim and Andres Demetriou at 148 Mayall Road (late 70s) © Ian Townson, Courtesy of the Hall-Carpenter Archives, London School of Economics

Radical housing, radical families

In March 1974, South London Gay Liberation squatted 78 Railton Road in Brixton and opened the South London Gay Community Centre. The Centre brought together a range of people who together squatted the parallel streets of Railton Road and Mayall Road, with a common garden between them.

Alastair Kerr answering a telephone call in the upstairs back room at the South London Gay Community Centre.
Alastair Kerr answering a telephone call in the upstairs back room at the South London Gay Community Centre © Ian Townson, Courtesy of the Hall-Carpenter Archives, London School of Economics

People came to the Railton Road squats for many reasons. Some sought to escape oppression and others to find a shared community. Communal living might include giving up private property and sharing sex partners. The exploration of gender roles was encouraged in order to break down rigid systems of difference.

Close up of policeman in front of the South London Gay Community Centre with a notice stating that the gay centre had moved to the women's centre at 207 Railton Road.
Close up of policeman in front of the South London Gay Community Centre with a notice stating that the gay centre had moved to the women's centre at 207 Railton Road © Ian Townson, Courtesy of the Hall-Carpenter Archives, London School of Economics

Many of these squats would ultimately be dismantled from the late 1980s or incorporated into housing co-ops. At the Railton Road squats the communal gardens remain, but the buildings were divided up into single occupancy units. They have been incorporated into the Brixton Housing Co-operative, which continues to reserve homes for LGBTQ tenants

The Squatters' Handbook, with an image of Olive Morris climbing the roof of 121 Railton Road, Brixton.
The Squatters' Handbook, with an image of Olive Morris climbing the roof of 121 Railton Road, Brixton © Reproduced by permission of London Borough of Lambeth, Archives Department http://lambethlandmark.com/

In Notting Hill, West London other Gay Liberation Front communes included the Colville Terrace commune and the lesbian feminist Faraday Road commune, both off Ladbroke Grove.

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Experiments in Living Photo Gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Black and white photo of a policeman standing in the doorway of the South London Gay Community Centre while three men look at notices in the window to the left of the door.
  • Members of the Bloomsbury group in the garden at Charleston
  • Duncan Grant and his daughter Angelica Bell at Charleston
  • Black and white photo of Vanessa Bell wearing a headscarf at Charleston.

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