‘Come out and climb the garden path,
The China Rose is all abloom
And buzzing with the yellow bee
We’ll swing you on the cedar-bough,
From Charles Isaac Elton’s ‘A Garden Song’
I remember the dizzying chimes of this poem from when I first read Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’, where the stanza sways through the consciousness of a group of intellectuals dining in the flowing light of the lighthouse. I was 14 years old and quite unaware that this poem would stream through my mind many years later, as I ambled the blooming garden paths of Charleston Farmhouse.
Charleston is the house museum of the Bloomsbury group’s country retreat in East Sussex, and to this day it looks as if its radical tenants are about to clatter through the door with easels and ink pots. In the dawn of the 1900s, the gifted sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf (neé Stephen) became part of an eclectic circle of modern painters, writers and free thinkers, who oscillated around their avant-garde home in Bloomsbury. This new group, named the ‘Bloomsbury set’ was a radical backlash to the oppressive wake of the Victorian era. Bell, trained to classical ideals at the Royal Academy, broke free of restrained British art which largely clung to limpid realism and narrative symbols. In her paintings she defied symbolism and the Victorian taste for sombre colours, creating a new visual language of Post-Impressionism in England. With her sister, modernist genius Virginia Woolf, a new freedom was unleashed on Edwardian society.
There were many fascinating ‘Bloomsberries’, such as Duncan Grant, exquisite painter and ‘pacifist anarchist’, Maynard Keynes, crucial economist and first chairman of the Arts Council, Roger Fry, who brought Picasso and Matisse to an astounded British public and Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband and art critic. All of these visionaries, together with Bell and her children, stayed at Charleston over the years, making it a hothouse of art, ideas and bohemian living in the 1900s.
The first glimpse you have of Charleston is its ochre gable, rising with a stately yet rural simplicity from the South Downs, its violet grey windows of the attics gleaming like a painter’s eyes to the landscape.
As you enter through the door trailing with heavy fuchsia, you pass not just through a threshold but into another world. You are submerged in the greatest appreciation of the senses, with an aging gilt mirror throwing your reflection into a painted room, with Vanessa Bell’s whimsical flowers blossoming in chalk paints on the window reveal, Persian rugs trodden by bohemian feet, flowers dancing jealously outside the sash window with walls lined by portraits of the Stachey’s and a fireplace painted in gaudy circles which, if thought about, would seem to jar yet bring the whole room into a state of avant-garde suspension. As you leave the room your eye is caught by a Duncan Grant mural of an acrobat falling languidly through the heights of the circus, his wan limbs raised with a sense of hedonism against the night…
You are led through, as if by hand, like an exquisite game of blind man’s buff, imagining Vanessa composing a still life on the lavishly painted dining room table, a beautiful ceramic form by Quentin Bell throwing dots of light across the ceiling and falling towards paintings of a cat curled up in pleasure by Duncan Grant and quirky porcelain plates collected by the ‘Bloomsberries’ on their travels. Then up, up, as if pulled by spirit along the womb-like corridors to the bedrooms, with the most magnificent light streaming in from the misty Downs…
But first, Clive Bell’s library, with worn copies of ‘Intimacy’ and great hardbound collections of Byron which match the elegant sensuality of the nude drawings that hang above his painted bed in the next room…. The Bloomsbury group are renowned for their adventurous affairs and new romantic boundaries, a motif which playfully dances through the décor. Each everyday object is turned into an objet de plaisir, being either playfully obliterated with paint or produced by the artists at Omega Workshops. The house is a complete piece of art, sculpture, and in fact living. I think the most beautiful thing about Charleston House is not just how its quirky inhabitants mastered their paintbrushes, but actually how they mastered the art of life; loving, freely and with great abandon in all things.
I would like to return to the dreamy blooms of Charleston’s garden paths with the end of Charles Isaac Elton’s poem, borrowed via of Virginia, who swings back to us on the cedar-bough…
‘Swing, swing on a cedar-bough!
Till you sleep in a bramble heap
Or under the gloomy churchyard tree,
And then, fly back and swing on a bough,
by Catherine Beaumont
‘A Garden Song’, Charles Isaac Elton
‘Among the Bohemians’, Virginia Nicholson
‘The Angel of Charleston’, Stewart MacKay
‘To the Lighthouse’,Virginia Woolf
‘Vanessa Bell’, Frances Spalding