Interview with Professor Michael Farthing

Professor Michael Farthing was Principal and Professor of Medicine at St George’s before becoming the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex from 2007 to 2016. He has also held posts in Addenbrooke’s and St Bartholomew’s specialising in Gastroenterology.

Michael is Chair of the Charleston Trust – a charity which seeks to conserve Charleston in Firle, Lewes, and the Bloomsbury group. Charleston hosts a number of special events throughout the year, most notably the Charleston Festival which celebrates art and literature.

Michael reminds us of the transformative powers of art

From 1904 a group of artists, writers and intellectuals gathered in the Bloomsbury district in London. In 1916, on Virginia Woolf’s recommendation, her sister, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (both painters) and Duncan’s friend and lover David Garnett moved to Charleston, a 16th century farmhouse in East Sussex, together with Vanessa Bell’s two young sons, Julian and Quentin. Charleston became a country outpost for the ‘Bloomsbury’ group and was ‘brought to life’ by their family and their friends for the next sixty-two years.

When I took up my post at the University of Sussex in 2007 we moved to Sussex to become immersed in the area and to be part of the community. I built relationships with a wide range of organisations in Sussex including arts organisations like Charleston. The University became a major sponsor of the literary festival and I was asked from time to time to chair talks during the event and eventually became a Trustee. When I left the University, I was invited to become Chair of the Trustees.

We have a Director and a strong executive team who run everything day to day. The Board of Trustees exists to support them in their work and to oversee the future strategic direction of Charleston. The Trust has just been through a ten-year period of capital development which has seen the regeneration of two beautiful barns close to the house and the creation of a new exhibition space effectively making Charleston a comprehensive arts centre. This major conservation project has allowed us to create more flexible space for events, a 200-seat auditorium and a much improved food and drink offer.

One of our latest exhibitions ‘In Colour: From Sickert to Riley’ positions the work of former Charleston residents Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant with other great British colourists. It has been curated by textile-designer Cressida Bell who is the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell and daughter of her son Quentin. It is this ongoing connection with the original Bloomsbury dynasty which makes our work very authentic. Indeed, Cressida’s mother ‘Olivier’ Bell was Charleston’s president until she died last year at the age of 102; she has been succeeded by her other daughter, the writer Virginia Nicholson.

We are a small charity and fairly unique in that we have a very diverse offer – our greatest asset is the house itself which needs to be conserved as well as gardens which require specialist care and we have festivals, events and exhibitions to promote. We rely on charitable donations and must ensure that our events and facilities such as the shop and restaurant work to produce a surplus to support Charleston’s activities.

Yes and it has had the same artistic director since its conception, Diana Reich, who has been remarkable. There have been too many highlights to mention but each year we give a special award, the John Maynard Keynes prize, which celebrates outstanding thinkers. In 2017, the prize was awarded to Professor Stephen Hawking. He was sadly unable to attend but the prize was accepted on his behalf by his daughter Lucy Hawking, and close friend and colleague, Professor Kip Thorne who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics the same year.

In 2018, we were delighted that Sir David Attenborough was able to attend to accept his award and he gave an incredible talk on how animals can recognise beauty.

In 2019, the Festival hosted talks and performances by Alan Bennett, Simon Callow, Michael Palin, Vanessa Redgrave and Melvyn Bragg among others!

Stephen and I have always been great pals but very different. We diverged around the age of 14 when he went into the fine arts and I into science and medicine. Five years ago, we were asked to do a gallery talk on Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings by the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor. Working together on this project eventually led us to write a book together, ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Under the Skin’ which we launched at the Royal Academy earlier this year.

The most important aspect of working together is to have complete respect for each other’s skillset. The book evolved through conversation – we examine the scientific and artistic significance of the drawings. We have come up with new ideas on why Da Vinci did some things really well, and others he might have got wrong. We try to understand why this might be and the ideas behind his work. Stephen is able to look at his drawings in a critical way and I offer the physician’s viewpoint.

Some people may not have agreed with how they chose to live their lives, but they wanted to give everyone the freedom to be creative, to break new boundaries and to not be constrained by what has gone before. They were not just artists, historians or writers – they were all of these things and they functioned in an inter-disciplinary way with a shared belief in the transformative powers of art.

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