Tag Archives: Rodmell

‘VIOLENTLY IN FAVOUR OF A COUNTRY LIFE’ – VIRGINIA WOOLF

MIDSUMMER IN THE SUSSEX GARDENS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF AND VANESSA BELL

PART II: VIRGINIA WOOLF’S GARDEN, MONK’S HOUSE AT RODMELL, EAST SUSSEX

I drive on from Charleston (see THE DAHLIA PAPERS June 2015, ‘A dithering blaze of flowers, butterflies and apples’) to Rodmell, the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf from August 1919 until Leonard’s death in 1969. Unlike Charleston, I know very little about Monk’s House. All I have to go on is a memory of a seductive pea green drawing room dull of books, paintings and scarlet pelargoniums in terracotta pots, once seen in a magazine.

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The approach to Monk’s House, photograph © Caroline Arber from Caroline Zoob’s book Virginia Woolf’s Garden

The house is right on the street in the pretty village of Rodmell. The National Trust ticket office is cleverly situated a little further down the road which means that when you open the plain wooden gate and walk up along the first brick path that leads you behind the house into the garden, you feel completely as if you are visiting a private house.

The initial impressions are a little confusing. Almost immediately I turn into The Italian Garden. Here a pair of urns flank a rectangular pool and are simply and effectively planted with Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Bevan’s Variety’. The Italian Garden looks dreamy and romantic in the tree-filtered sunshine, but was heartily scorned by Virginia Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West ‘You can’t recreate Versailles on just quarter an acre of Sussex, it just can’t be done.’

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Geranium macrorrhizum filled urns and rectuangular pool in The Italian Garden

But next up is a disconcerting towering palm tree and I am surprised to see that the entire back of the house is formed of a lean-to conservatory.

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Conservatory and palm tree at Monk’s House

Stepping inside the house I am thrown again by a clearly very personal collection of cactus, succulents and vines, together with well worn stripy canvas deckchairs, brooms and a garden table. Except for a single sheaf of leaflets in a plastic holder, the whole scene looks as if its passionate gardener-owner has just popped out to fetch something from the back of the garden.

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Cactus, succulents, pelargonium and vines at the entrance/ conservatory of Monk’s House

Once inside, I find myself quickly in the calm, green painted sitting room. I am convinced that this is the colour I need to use if I ever move into a country cottage of my own. As I read afterwards in Caroline Zoob’s completely absorbing book about the ten years she lived at Monk’s House as a tenant of the National Trust, green ‘was Virginia’s favourite colour and seems to have seeped into the fabric of Monk’s House such that one cannot imagine the house any other colour. On sunny afternoons the plants curling around the windows “green veined and quivering” cast shadows in the sunlight reflected on the walls.’

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IMG_1425Filtered light and shadows in the green painted Sitting Room at Monk’s House.

Throughout the small house there is an atmosphere of thoughtful, polished homeliness – as opposed to the academic chaos I may have expected – and it seems entirely natural to fall into conversation with a retired academic from Sussex University who remembers coming to have tea on the lawn here when he was a young PhD student with the very charming political theorist, author and publisher, Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband.

IMG_1446The Dining Room at Monk’s House

IMG_1435Portrait of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell c 1912 with flowers from the garden

More complicated is the visit to Virginia Woolf’s bedroom. The bedroom is in a stand alone section of the house which opens out onto the garden – but there is something about its simplicity and small size, with its basic washstand and single bed that makes my visit feel too intrusive.

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Chest of drawers and washstand in Virginia Woolf’s bedroom

I wish I had read Caroline Zoob’s book on Monk’s House before my visit:

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Monk’s House is now owned by the National Trust and Zoob was a tenant of the house for ten years. Her description of the layers of experience of living in a house which was so famously lived in before by such well known people is fascinating. I love her account of the experience of bathing in the same bath in which Virginia Woolf bathed every morning, reading out loud passages from a work in progress. The bath is fitted at a slight tilt so that water level is always strangely angled in the tub – a detail that makes you smile and that catapults the past into the present.

Throughout the book, Zoob highlights the Woolfs’ deep-held beliefs about the relationship between a house and its occupiers. Leonard Woolf writes about this brilliantly: ‘…what has the deepest and most permanent effect upon oneself and one’s way of living is the house in which one lives. The house determines the day-today, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute quality, colour, atmosphere, pace of one’s life; it is the framework of what one does, of what one can do, and of one’s relations with people.’ It is an enduring approach to living which makes complete sense to me and which adds an important weight to visiting and thinking about both Monk’s House and Charleston.

Before coming to live at Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf were already greatly enjoying the simple pleasures of time spent out of London and away from their busy literary and political lives. While spending Christmas at a hotel in Lewes in 1910, Virginia Woolf declared herself – rather splendidly – to be ‘violently in favour of a country life’ – and when the lease on a previous country house was not renewed, the couple were determined to buy Monk’s House. Leonard Woolf remembers their first impression of the garden in his autobiography. ‘The orchard was lovely and the garden was the kind I like, much subdivided into a kind of patchwork quilt of trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, fruit, roses and crocus tending to merge into cabbages and currant bushes.’ And on 14th August 1919 Virginia writes passionately: ‘our address will be Monk’s House, with niches for the holy water, and a great fireplace; but the point of it is the garden. I shan’t tell you though for you must come and sit there on the lawn with me, or stroll in the apple orchard, or pick – there are cherries, plums, pears, figs, together with all the vegetables. This is going to be the pride of our hearts, I warn you.’

It is a relief to get out of Virginia Woolf’s bedroom and to look back at it from the garden:

IMG_1506Exterior of Virginia Woolf’s Bedroom, Monk’s House

The planting that frames the door and window is very pretty in an abundant, cottage garden sort of way. The climbing rose, Rosa ‘Princess Marie’ – a good form is available from Peter Beales – is the perfect midsummer rose to grow around a bedroom window, scented, cupped flowers gathered in generous clusters. I love the way the outer petals fade to a bluish-white.

VW ROSE CLIMBINMy new favourite midsummer rose, Rosa ‘Princess Marie’

The rose is excellent in combination with the slightly frayed-looking, dusky pink Clematis montana ‘Broughton Star’:

IMG_1451Clematis montana ‘Broughton Star’

allium ger vw bedGeranium, lavender, forget-me-nots and alliums under the window of Virginia Woolf’s bedroom

As I make my way out into the main body of the garden along The Flower Walk, I am surprised by the intensity of the birdsong. There is a fantastically peaceful atmosphere here despite the proximity of other village houses. The Flower Walk is beautifully planted with a range of dusky to intense pinks: astrantia, Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ and Pericaria bistorta ‘Superba’ for example – with sudden bursts of the same luminous, crinkly, salmon-pink head of Papaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’ as at Charleston. The handsome, boxy steeple of St Peter’s Church is a wonderful focal point.

PALE PINK PATHThe Flower Walk with the steeple of St Peter’s Church in the background

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MUTABRosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’

PERS GERPersicaria bistorta ‘Superba’ and geranium

ch poppyPapaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’

Further brick paths thread their way though the dense planting – Virginia Woolf described this style of planting frequently, ‘our garden is a perfect variegated chintz: asters, plymasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums and so on: all bright, cut from coloured papers, stiff, upstanding as flowers should be.’ There is the pair of handsome terracotta urns much used in portrait photographs whilst the Woolfs lived at the house and a stand of brilliant crimson lupins which light up the view from every direction.

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mh conservatory 2Dense planting at Monk’s House – crocosmia foliage amongst geranium, iris and honesty, backlit by the late afternoon sun with the conservatory behind

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One of the terracotta urns much photographed in portraits taken when the Woolfs were at Monk’s House

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Crimson lupins catch the eye from every direction

One of the most fascinating aspects of Caroline Zoob’s account of her years at Monk’s House is her thoughtful and detailed research into the timelessly troubling practical and financial side of creating an idyllic country garden. The available archive material ranges from diaries, letters and published ficiton and non-fiction writing and it is riveting to see how elements of the house and garden came about as the couple became increasingly successful and increasingly solvent. A surge in income, from Virginia Woolf’s novels in particular, would translate directly into new furniture, pictures, hot water, the car. In 1926 Leonard and Virginia quarrelled about priorities and how best to spend their money. Virginia wanted to buy rugs and armchairs and complained of Leonard’s ‘assumption that we can afford to saddle ourselves with a whole time gardener, build or buy him a cottage, & take in the terrace to be garden. … we shall be tying ourselves to come here; shall never travel; & it will be assumed that Monk’s House is the hub of the world.’

But they did continue to invest steadily in the garden – even if it was Leonard  who would devote days and days in the winter to meticulously pruning the fruit trees – and the garden continued to give them both huge amounts of pleasure. They managed to buy additional land beyond the original curtilage of the house and the orchard they created there was an important addition. They loved it as a ‘the very place to sit and talk for hours’, for its intense spring beauty when the trees were in blossom, and for its productivity.

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The orchard at Monk’s House, with mown and paved paths, and beehives nestled in the long grass

I walk through the timelessly seductive space, making the pilgrimage to Virginia Woolf’s Writing Lodge – a wooden building with a brick terrace outside and an apple loft above, tucked into the furthermost corner of the garden. For 22 years Virginia worked here writing her novels. On the day of my visit, the writing lodge has a slightly dry feel and is disappointingly shut. However, reading Caroline Zoob’s book when I get home brings the writing lodge back to life. Zoob tells how Leonard describes VIrginia’s disciplined approach to her work – when she was well – making the journey across the garden to her writing lodge ‘with the daily regularity of a stockbroker.’ I smile at Virginia’s rather more romantic version: ‘(tomorrow I) shall smell a red rose; shall gently surge across the lawn (I move as if I carried a basket of eggs on my head) light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday.’

But the terrace which emerges from a sea of cow parsley is lovely and alive and I can quite imagine the conversations over tea here, looking out over the water meadows.

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The Writing Lodge Terrace

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mh grasses downsView from the Writing Lodge Terrace

This spacious, flat, tightly-mowed area of lawn is the final surprise. It was a perfect place to play bowls – and the Woolfs played competitive games of bowls against each other and against their friends almost every evening. Virginia wrote in her diary ‘now I am going to beat L. at bowls, on a fine blowing evening with the children playing with their dolls in the meadow , all the trees in blossom, and some heat in the sun for a wonder.’

Visiting Monk’s House is revelatory and a great privilege. I have learnt so much. I would not have put Virginia Woolf down as an enthusiastic jam maker or a keen bowls player, neither did I know that it was from the house – despite her love for the place even in the depth of depression (she wrote during a dark period in November 1921, ‘the worst of it is that the country is lovelier and lovelier. We have put brick edges to the flower beds. We have a garden room … every flower that grows, blows here. We have pears for breakfast’) – that she walked off on the morning of 28 March 1941, with stones in her pocket, to drown herself in the River Ouse.

It was heartening to discover that Leonard Woolf continued to live at Monk’s House until the late sixties, gardening, writing, entertaining and enjoying a lasting and seemingly completely viable romance with a colleague’s artist wife, Trekkie Parsons. The conservatory and collection of cactus and succulents belong to this later period – which all makes perfect sense. Monk’s House is a wonderful house and garden which has hugely influenced – and indeed influenced by – those who have lived there.

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Leonard and Virginia Woolf in the garden at Monk’s House

Photography © Woolf Estates.

CHARLESTON: ‘A DITHERING BLAZE OF FLOWERS BUTTERFLIES & APPLES’

MIDSUMMER IN THE SUSSEX GARDENS OF VANESSA BELL AND VIRGINIA WOOLF

PART 1: VANESSA BELLS’S GARDEN AT CHARLESTON, EAST SUSSEX

IMG_1392crazy daisyA sea of foxgloves, iris and oxeye daisies in the Walled Garden at Charleston, East Sussex, the garden of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant

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.

charleston establishThe entrance to Charleston

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.

IMG_1312Folly Garden at Charleston with wall trained figs, Euphorbia mellifera, Brunnera, forget-me -nots, aquilegia and water lilies in the pond.

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.book coverCover 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:

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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:

geissblatt-tellmaniana-gold-geissschlinge-m002096_h_0Lonicera 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”.

view to garden roomThe path leading from the french windows of the Garden Room

Once outside, I follow the same path into the heart of the garden. My pace is slowed at first as I admire the immaculate and restrained shady planting near the house:ch shade door

ch polygonatum Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, ferns, aquilegia and Solomon’s Seal (Poygonatum x hybridum) against the house

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’.ch oxeye head path                                                         Deliciously narrow paths

ox gladGladiolus byzantinus and oxeye daisies

ch irisIris sibiricach meadowYellow achillea with oxeye daisies

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hedge viewBillowing box hedgesch poppyPapaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’

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.

IMG_1349Mounds of Lunaria annua and box hedging, brilliant green with new growth, with the kitchen garden behindfennelAngelica archangelica in the kitchen garden
ch gatreThe kitchen garden gatekitchengWonderful 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.

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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:ch urn

One of a pair of Ciment-fondue urns which flank the front gate

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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:

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Classical busts against blue sky on the garden wall

pond chThe pond at Charleston, today

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”.

glad front gate View back to the front gates from the pond

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.  lunaria fuchs                                    Purple honesty and pink fuchsia by the front doorrose window 2

poppies front hseSilvery grey Senicio cineraria, roses, poppies and alliums at the front of the house

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:

snellCover of ‘The Garden at Charleston’ by ©Sue Snell

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”.

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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.

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The favoured bench