On Sunday we decided to go further afield. I had been wanting to visit Sarah Raven’s garden at Perch Hill for many years. It was an hour and a half away by car, so we set off only to find on arrival that it is now permanently closed except for the odd open day and some courses. Jason burst out laughing. I burst into tears.
I have no idea why I burst into tears. Adventures are adventures and sometimes they just don’t work out. I’m fine with that. Except there I was, parked up at the side of the road, crying like something terrible had just happened. I suspect that my mad brain had seen a reason for me to weep like a child and seized it with both hands. Half an hour later I was at the hiccuping and wiping my nose on my sleeve stage of things. In between all the howling and juddering, we whipped out plan B, which was to go to Charleston instead.
Charleston was the home of Vanessa Bell and her lover Duncan Grant. They bought it in 1916 and Bell lived there until her death in 1961. It was a place where the ideas of The Bloomsbury Group were made real in an open, supportive community of friends, family and lovers who believed in the freedom to express themselves in both art and life.
I am inclined to believe that the universe did us a favour in sending us to Charleston instead of Perch Hill. It is a beautiful place that even though it is now a museum, still feels like a home. It has been sympathetically curated to feel like the family have just stepped out for a moment and will be back at any time. The staff are passionate and interested in the work they do. They are happy to share their knowledge in a generous way that doesn’t feel overbearing or pushy. It was an absolute pleasure to visit.
Bell had an eclectic eye for interior design. Rough, earthenware bowls and jugs from her travels in France and Italy rub shoulders with blue and white mismatched china. Found shells sit by her friends’ sculptures and an extensive collection of flat back Staffordshire figurines. All the books in the library have actually been read, some of them countless times by the look of them. This is not the library of someone out to impress with yards of pristine books. According to one of the curators, many of the books have been annotated and underlined as they were passed between friends. This is a place where ideas are taken seriously.
The walls are hung with sketches, paintings and photographs in no particular order. Hand painted wallpaper, hand made rag rugs and curtain fabrics designed by Bell and her friends are everywhere, mixing with more traditional fabrics and Indian block print cottons. Things are painted wherever you look. Eighteenth Century French beds get made over, just like bath panels and bits of bare wall. Anything could be made here, from clothes to bedclothes.
Creativity was prized. Making was constantly happening. One of the guides told us how Bell would repaint things whenever she was inspired. Nothing was too precious to change and nothing was too lowly to be made into art. Art at Charleston was a lived experience that affected every part of your life no matter how humble.
what I was surprised at how modern the interiors looked. Modern design owes so much to Bloomsbury and now, more than ever, a design aesthetic that reinvents itself and uses whatever is to hand to create a lived beauty is so important.
I feel like I should talk about Bell’s paintings, but they seem insignificant in the face of the artwork that is the house itself. That’s not to say I don’t love her paintings, because I do, and her studio is my favourite room in the house, but there is so much more to her than paint on canvas. And of course, there are not just her paintings there. So many of the group were artists, and their work is everywhere you look. If you have ever wondered what the Bloomsbury Group is about, you just need to go to Charleston.
By the time we had finished in the house it was pouring with rain, so we skipped the beauties of the garden and went over to the barn where there is a magnificent cafe and two exhibition spaces. The exhibitions are being changed over, so we couldn’t see them but we had great coffee and cake before setting off to the new Charleston space in nearby Lewes.
Jason was all acted out, so he went off to do some domestic errands and I went to see the Charlie Porter exhibition, Bring No Clothes. Porter is interested in what Bloomsbury brought and continues to bring to fashion, which is what this exhibition focuses on. He looks at their very modern attitudes to clothes, or the lack thereof, and charts their experiments with textiles and clothing and looks at how it still influences fashion designers today from Dior to Fendi. I had already read his book, What Artist’s Wear and loved it. There is a book to accompany this exhibition, also called Bring No Clothes, which I will be reading in due course.
I loved the exhibition. It was well curated, showing exactly what it set out to explore in a way that was clear and yet unpatronising. It asked fascinating questions about clothing and gender and how subverting the expectations of the fashions of the time can create space for otherwise stifled queer identities to bloom, both then and now. It was fascinating to see, much like the modernity of the house, the modernity of their attitudes to clothes and how directly influential it has been on contemporary designers and continues to be.
On the top floor of the gallery was another, free exhibition showing the work of an artist called Jonathan Baldock. He creates sculptural pieces that explore sensuality and the body, mixing a huge variety of materials in interesting ways using a lot of folk art references. I adored this show. Huge wall hangings created using felt were my favourites. Humanoid faces protrude from the heads of giant flowers. Organic forms with nods to figures like the Green Man bloom across hessian hangings. Bright colours and strong shapes make bold, eerie and beautiful statements about man and myth, human and plant life. It was like being in a drug induced fever dream of a nursery.
It was a day of understanding what it is to live a life that is real to you, regardless of what others think. It reminded me that a real life is one in which creativity and art as expression of the self are central. It was so much better than a garden centre.