We visited Charleston Farmhouse, in Sussex, a week or so ago. This was the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who were part of the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers, which included people such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.
Inside, the house is large and rambling, and just about everything has been crafted and decorated by its inhabitants. The interior is fundamentally quite shabby, but every surface – walls, floors, fireplaces, furniture – has been decoratively painted. The furniture is a motley collection of different styles but it’s been covered with decorative designs, and old chairs were re-upholstered with hand painted textiles. Lampshades are made out of pottery and attached to the ceiling with wires in a Heath-Robinson-ish sort of way. Every inch of the place displays the creativity of its inhabitants. Paintings – their own and others – cover the walls, and one room is lined with old books.
It was a place where artists and writers came to stay, to sit by open fires and talk of life and ideas late into the night, and to relax, play and paint in the walled garden and grounds.
What struck me most was what an idyllic life it seemed to be. They did have some money problems – although coming from a fairly gentrified background this was all relative – but they used their creativity to make a wonderful, welcoming home out of what must have been a rather scruffy old farmhouse. Instead of employing interior designers, or buying expensive furniture, they used their own skills and talents to create one of the most individual places I’ve ever seen. And they pretty much did whatever they wanted to do there – painting, writing, creating, talking.
They also made a stunningly lovely walled garden. Walking into it through the door in the wall takes you into a magical space – it’s criss-crossed by narrow paths which are almost hidden by the luxurious spilling over of vividly coloured flowers and plants. In many places the plants grow up to shoulder-height so that you only see the bit of the garden you’re in and the rest becomes an intriguing mystery. It was:
“a summer garden for playing and painting, an enchanted retreat from London life. As Vanessa Bell wrote in 1936, “The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes… lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.”
I love that phrase ‘dithering blaze’, don’t you? It sums it up entirely – a cottage garden of the best kind, an untidy abundance of everything summer has to offer.
I’m sure it wasn’t quite as idyllic as it looks to us now, but I love the idea that these people created the kind of life they wanted, doing what was important to them, following their passions, and making a life where being creative wasn’t a thing apart, but spilled over into every area of their lives.
Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed inside the house, and the garden was so full of people on the sunny August Sunday when we went, that photography on anything other than a fairly small scale was almost impossible. However, I did manage to get these small vignettes that I hope give a little flavour of how it was.