Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Pond & Garden at Charleston Farmhouse

"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.

The grounds surrounding the house include a pond out front where Quentin and his brother used to sail in a little boat and cause all sorts of chaos.  When Quentin grew up, he used mud from the bottom of the pond to craft clay sculptures, lamps, and pots.  He also crafted several statues for the grounds from various materials, including this woman who seems to float above the pond.

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 . . . 


  1. What a treat to visit this place here! A garden to stop you in your tracks too, I love nicotania or however you spell it.
    The house looks wonderful! The history too. xo

  2. I spent most of this post positively swooning...then I got ahold of myself but soon came across the wonderful dahlias and swooned all over again! What an utterly special place, you are so lucky to have made the pilgrimage.

  3. What a charming spot, and what a perfect English garden. I'm now dying for a peek inside the house and will visit the website...

  4. I found this post so inspiring, thank you so much for sharing your love of Charleston and for posting these beautiful photo's.

    I'm looking forward to hearing more of your furture plans.

  5. What a delightful post...beautifully written and your photographs are so pretty too! I haven't been to Charleston but have always been fascinated by and interested in the Bloomsbury "set"...I am going to have to make time for a visit when I go to London in October! Looking forward to hearing more about these creative turns that you are hoping to take...

  6. What a lovely post. It reminds me of Carol Ann Duffy's poem which asks how you can earn a life behind closed windows - sometimes other people's lives seem so complete that buying into their sense of place seems like a way of gaining admittance.

  7. I so enjoyed this lovely post - your beautiful words and photos transported me to this magical place. I'm sure I could smell the sweet peas! Leigh

  8. Tears in my eyes, Gigi...for you have presented so beautifully here through word and image the anticipation and tenderness for a place I too have dreamed of seeing... One day! How glad I am that your pilgrimage met every expectation and more. :o) Your photo reveal the magic of the place and the life lived there by truly great people, great minds. Your and Todd's model for living in finding "a way of living consciously, ethically, and creatively" is how my husband and I approach life too. And the Bloomsbury group offered much that we can learn by for living out these principles. Thank you for this special post! :o) Happy weekend ((HUGS))

  9. Gigi, GORGEOUS photos! How nice that you were there on a sunny day. When we visited, it was a bit overcast, but still wonderfully moody. And the pieces are coming together: you're the one who has the husband who's the Bloomsbury scholar! Did he love Charleston? He looks quite content on that bench. :)

    All of your photos of London are immensely beguiling and have me itching to book another flight pronto. Thank you for such a wonderful virtual trip this morning! xxx

  10. The Bloomsbury group are so interesting...and so are you Gigi! These are wonderful photos and your words bring me right there with you...I've always wanted a cottage garden just like that...

  11. I want to see what's behind that lovely garden gate... Such an amazing pilgrimage. A place my heart wants to wander. I too have been dreaming of living a more creative life, born out of my own imagination, rather than marching to the militant trends of the day . (I work at Anthropolgie, need I say more?) This post inspires me more than you'll know! fondly, GG

  12. I love this post! So real, and let's us get to know you. Isn't it wonderful to visit a place that holds such a dear place in your heart, either for a first time or to return? I'm that way about Switzerland. I went 3 years ago and fell in love with the country, I HAD to return this year. Your husbands career sounds idyllic!

    BTW, I have awarded you on my blog. :)

    Have a great weekend!

  13. What a wonderful, wonderful place to visit.

    I am so relieved that your pilgrimage was all you hoped for. They are so fraught, aren't they?

    I have to tell you, your last picture made me gasp. It is nothing but beautiful.

  14. I missed catching up with you after your trip. I loved this place and would love to visit again, so enjoyed looking at your photos!

  15. Beautiful post. On my next trip to England, I'd love to visit. xx


Thank you so much for visiting and for taking the time to leave a comment! I love hearing from you.