MIDSUMMER IN THE SUSSEX GARDENS OF VANESSA BELL AND VIRGINIA WOOLF
PART 1: VANESSA BELLS’S GARDEN AT CHARLESTON, EAST SUSSEX
I have just returned from a midsummer trip to the gardens of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. The two sisters had country retreats, part holiday homes and part wartime refuges, only a few miles from each other in East Sussex at Monk’s House and Charleston. From 1916 until the late 1960’s they, and later their extended families, lived rich, passionate and inspiring lives in these two comparatively simple, but intensely personal country houses.
The lives and creative output of these two women are too vast to begin to tackle in a Dahlia Papers blogpost, but what excited me about my trip was not just the heady scent and tangled multi-coloured loveliness of both gardens on a cloudless midsummer’s afternoon, but the warm and personal way both houses and gardens are still cared for and the attitudes to living that they reveal. I came away from my visits feeling genuinely welcomed and seduced afresh by the English country garden.
Vanessa Bell came to live in Charleston in 1916 with the love of her life and fellow artist, Duncan Grant, her two children, Julian and Quentin, and Grant’s then partner, David Garnett. I remembered my first visit twenty years ago very clearly. At that time you could walk around the house without a guide or a time slot and I was nervous that the new, more stringent system would dull and sanitise the atmosphere. Most of all, I remembered the Walled Garden. I had an image of it in my head: a brilliantly colourful enchanted box of a garden that led from one side of the house – the entire space literally waist high with flowers.
However, as I sit in the Folly Garden – now part of the café – eating my earnest but delicious houmous and red pepper sandwich and relaxing in a sunny blend of wall trained figs, mounding Euphorbia mellifera, brunnera, aquilegia and forget-me-nots, I begin to feel reassured that things in the main house and garden are going to be as lovely and as inspiring as I had hoped.
The house is extraordinary, not least for the tireless passion that led to every cupboard door, fireplace and bedstead being hand decorated. However much you know about Charleston (and Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson’s book, ‘Charleston a Bloomsbury house and garden’ is an excellent and beautifully illustrated way to find out more), there is something constantly refreshing about a mindset which compels a group of people to lovingly decorate and nurture their environment. What greater tenderness is there than that displayed by Duncan Grant when he painted two panels for Vanessa in the room that is now the library but had previously been her bedroom – a cockerel above the window to wake her up and a lurcher below to protect her whilst she slept? I love the idea that if one of the household designs was worn out, a family member would simply paint a new design over it. The current dining table – a gentle painted wheel of stone, rich yellow, pale grey and green – is a 1950’s version over a 20’s original. And I love the fact that the intricate stichwork which covers many of the chairs is the work of Ethel Grant, Duncan’s mother. The greater the list of contributors, the greater the intensity of feeling of lives intertwined and well lived.Cover of ‘Charleston a Bloomsbury House and Garden’ by Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson with photographs by Alen Macweeney
Throughout the house there are enticing glimpses of the garden, and the garden is a constant source of inspiration for paintings and decorative motifs. There are many references in letters and diaries to the effect of the garden on the work of those who lived in the house. On 6th August 1930 Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry that the garden was “full of reds of all kinds, scabioius and hollyhocks and mallows and every kind of red from red lead to black. Pokers are coming out…. I have of course begun by painting some flowers” and a week later “I’m painting flowers – one can’t really resist them … when the sun comes out once in a blue moon, you can’t conceive what the medley of apples, hollyhocks, plums, zinnias, dahlias, all mixed up together is like”.
My favourite painting of flowers in the house is the surprisingly cool-hued and delicate ‘Iceland Poppies’ by Vanessa Bell:
Iceland Poppies c. 1908-09, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) owned by The Charleston Trust
In Clive Bell’s pea green bathroom (Vanessa’s husband came to live at Charleston during the Second World War) there is a brilliant view onto a blaze of the wonderful orange honeysuckle, Lonicera x tellmanniana:
And the drawing room (known as the Garden Room), Vanessa Bell’s bedroom and the Studio all lead directly out onto the garden. In his book on Charleston, Quentin Bell writes alluringly about the pleasure of strolling out from the Garden Room into the moonlit garden on a summer night: “cheroots were lit and there was Haydn or Mozart on the old clockwork portable. One went out through the windows, and to Mozart was added the delicious scent of tobacco plants… we who had ventured out spoke in hushed voices as though in deference to the night. Eventually guests would begin to feel cold and we would return to the drawing room with its warm, shabby, comfortable armchairs, a tot of brandy and conversation”.
But it is only a matter of moments before I am pulled into the garden’s brilliant, kaleidoscopic centre. The scene is made up of deliciously narrow paths, billowing box hedges, and seas of oxeye daisies with spires of bright pink Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus. There are pools of rich blue Iris sibirica, flat, mustard-yellow platforms of achillea and sudden huge, luminous salmon pink flowerheads of the oriental poppy, Papaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’. Deliciously narrow paths
Wandering with smiles on our faces amongst the plants in the Walled Garden, it is not hard to imagine the happy effect this atmosphere must have had on the family in the 20’s and 30’s, especially as the garden became a haven for Vanessa’s children and their friends. In his book, Quentin Bell records his mother writing to his brother Julian in 1936: “I must say it has been rather amazing here this week … the house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes … and lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers, butterflies and apples.”
At the back of the garden, the kitchen garden beckons seductively with joyous mounds of purple honesty and outsize heads of Angelica archangelica – given celebratory space amongst the ordered wooden structures for supporting beans and peas.
Mounds of Lunaria annua and box hedging, brilliant green with new growth, with the kitchen garden behindAngelica archangelica in the kitchen garden
The kitchen garden gateWonderful onion family seed head against raised beds and cane wigwams
Throughout the garden there are pools and terraces and stone casts of sculptures or busts that each tell a further story about a friend or family member. Terraces are constructed partly from mosaics made from broken household china and Quentin Bell’s lovely fountain and pool nestle gently in the shade.
Quentin Bell’s pool and fountain
I am very taken with the cheerful, Picasso-esque ciment-fondue urns also by Quentin Bell which flank the close boarded front gate. Replica urns are available to buy in the shop for £355 and I am still trying to decide if they would work in a different garden. I think they quite possibly would:
One of a pair of Ciment-fondue urns which flank the front gate
Replica cement urns for sale in the shop
The classical busts that guard the wall dividing the main garden from the pond have an exhilarating quality against the vibrant blue of the sky:
Classical busts against blue sky on the garden wall
The pond used to be much larger and deeper, full of eels and other fish, and was home to a punt, the starting point for many elaborate Swallows and Amazon style games for the children, Julian and Quentin. My favourite story of their style of play comes from Virginia Nicholson: “Julian and Quentin were both pyromaniacs. One of their favourite games as children consisted of building a city out of newspaper and paste, complete with houses, churches and fortifications which they then bombarded with lighted torches, a splendid sport which left rather a mess”.
As I return to the front of a house I feel wistful that I must soon be moving on. I am keen to photograph a particular bench to the right of the front door and next to the gate which leads directly into the walled garden but, like most thoughtfully placed benches, it is already taken. As I photograph the excellent combination of honesty and cherry pink fuchsia – and the roses and poppies – that decorate the front of the house, a conversation about cameras begins with the elegant woman in black occupying the bench. Purple honesty and pink fuchsia by the front door
The conversation evolves and it turns out my new friend is the photographer Sue Snell whose book ‘The Garden at Charleston, A Bloomsbury Garden Through the Seasons’ I had bought just the day before:
The book is a radiant and very personal photographic diary of Charleston taken over a period of ten years. Reading the book helped me understand more fully the development of the garden, how it moved on from its early role as a productive garden, a muddy swathe of potatoes and fruit trees during the grim period of the First World War, to its transformation into the current colourful and sensual style based on a design by Roger Fry. When the garden was restored in 1986, after a period of almost 20 years of unavoidable decline, the eminent architect and landscape architect, Sir Peter Shepheard was asked to oversee the project. He was a brilliant choice, having – I discover – designed everything from the slick and practical campus at Lancaster University to elements of London Zoo, and he was known and revered as much for his exquisite drawings as for his lifelong love of the natural world. His goal was to restore the garden using plants which Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell would have chosen and to recreate “a garden filled to overflowing, the plants jostling and blending with one another as in a meadow, but not too precise but with a sweet disorder”.
Photograph of Head Gardener, Mark Divall by ©Sue Snell from her book ‘The Garden at Charleston’
Current Head Gardener, Mark Divall was part of the original team who took over after this restoration and after a long spell in the South of France is now back, keeping this enchantment alive in a sensitive and brilliant way. I read more about Mark Divall in an uplifting, refreshing gardening blog, The Garden Edit. I warmly recommend the post on Charleston for its atmospheric photographs by Ambra Rowlands and thoughtful words from Mark. One of my favourite moments in the piece is when Mark relays the wise gardening advice once given to him by a much older gardener: “the best manure is a gardener’s feet”. “It slowly dawned on me”, writes Mark, “that the more you wander around and look at your garden, the more you’ll see and the sooner one can react to anything going awry, and maybe make a difference”. For me, a Head Gardener looking and reacting constantly at the garden and indeed regarding the garden he is working at as his whilst he is there are the key reasons for Charleston’s ongoing energy and charm.
The favoured bench