"It will be an odd life, but . . . it ought to be a good one for painting," said Vanessa Bell as she and Duncan Grant settled into Charleston Farmhouse, near the village of Firle in Sussex, England. They first moved to the house in 1916, and over the next 60 years or so, they, their children, and various friends of theirs in the Bloomsbury Group (like Vanessa's sister, Virginia Woolf, and their friend, the economist Maynard Keynes) crafted lives that were quite unconventional for any era, but that were also deeply grounded in friendship, beauty, and art.
When my husband and I first met nineteen years ago this fall, we talked often about finding ways to make life and the daily living of it an aesthetic and moral process--a way of living consciously, ethically, and creatively. Can this always be achieved? Perhaps not every moment of every day, but still we try. Over the years, we have looked to certain people as models for a creative life. Among those models are people like Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. We have long held Charleston in our imaginations as a domestic ideal of the kind of home we wish to create for ourselves.
On this past trip to England, we were at last able to visit Charleston. Would it, we wondered, be all that we had imagined? It is easy to mythologize a place so much that it can never live up to our imaginative weavings and embellishments. The journey there took on all the weight of a pilgrimage. This was, I think, especially true for Todd, who is a Bloomsbury scholar and who has devoted much of his professional and personal life to studying the lives and work of these writers, artists, and thinkers.
We needn't have worried. Charleston is much more than we had hoped for. I'm sharing just a few of the images I captured there, but I hope they will give you some sense of the aesthetic integrity of the place. No photography is allowed inside the farmhouse, but if you'd like to take a peek inside, visit the Charleston Farmhouse website. You can also read the book about Charleston co-authored by Vanessa's son, Quentin Bell, and her granddaughter, Virginia Nicholson. It provides you with a detailed look at every room in the house as well as wonderful stories about the family and friends who gathered there over the years.
The day we were there, preparations were underway for a private party in the barn. I was tempted to crash it, but I behaved. Still, I stole a glance or two through the gate at the cheerful decorations.
Above is another of his sculptures. Beyond her are pastures where cows graze, and beyond the pastures are the downs.
Various busts line the top of the garden wall.
The enclosed garden beside the house was designed and cared for over the years by Vanessa and Duncan both. It is everything that a cottage garden should be--lush, rambling, bursting with color and texture, with long vistas as well as secret, hidden spots. The whole place smelled of sweet pea and lavender. I never wanted to leave.
How lucky that we were there to see the dahlias at their peak. That large series of windows on the top left side of the house was added by Vanessa when she took over a portion of the attic for her painting studio. It afforded her a view of the garden as well as prized northern light. The french doors on the first floor lead to her bedroom, the very room where she died. If you visit Charleston, and I hope you will, I think you will love this room. It is filled with light and hung with portraits of her family.
Pink anemones grow beside the back door of the garden.
There are moments when the garden is a tangle of poppies, sweet pea, lilies, nicotiana, daisies, phlox, and cosmos--these are my favorite spots of chaos kept (barely) in check.
A glimpse of the house through the cosmos.
Virginia Woolf encouraged her sister Vanessa to move to Charleston in the first place. The home she shared with Leonard Woolf was just a few miles across the downs, and she longed to have her sister nearby. "It has a charming garden," she wrote to Vanessa, "with a pond, and fruit trees, and vegetables all now rather run wild, but you could make it lovely." Indeed, she did. Nothing at Charleston was dictated by trends of the day. Nothing was conventional, but all was carefully considered and deeply personal, from the painted walls, doors, and furniture, to the exuberant garden and pond. I left Charleston with a renewed and deepened sense of how to craft the life I choose. I'll write more about this sense in the days to come, as my life this fall will be taking a few creative turns. More about this soon . . .