“Singularly Happy Autumn”

by charlestonattic

Vulnerable to England’s varying climes, life at Charleston is undoubtedly one of contrasts: endless, balmy summer afternoons have recently yielded to brief and blustery days. Seasonal shifts are felt all the more keenly in the countryside. Unlit by streetlamps, landscapes plunge into thick darkness by teatime. Thin sheets of rain illuminate windblown trees; downpours decorate the pond with circular patterns reminiscent of those favoured by Bell. Smells linger in the air as drizzle slowly churns the ground to mud. Our coats must be heavier, our shoes sturdier. Optimistically picturesque interpretations of the changing landscape can be glimpsed in Angelica Garnett’s sketch books. Akin to the practice of flower-pressing, Garnett’s vibrant watercolours capture with an enduring beauty the ephemeral quality of Autumnal hues.

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 CHA/P/2436/21  Angelica Garnett, Sketchbook. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Unlike a painting – where the vista is apprehended all at once – a sketchbook implicitly places its images as part of a process; each page thus offers a snapshot of greenery in the midst of mellowing. Driven by spontaneity, sketching itself seems perfectly suited to the mercurial quality of the English climate: a sky quickly outlined in pencil can capture its particularly contingent geometry. Garnett’s vivid depiction of Autumn’s maturing landscape sets ripened foliage swiftly upon the page, capturing the essence of the season’s evanescent splendour before its inevitable loss. Garnett’s scene swims with a radiance and energy – salmon pink, periwinkle blue and a seemingly sunlit green intermix – commensurate with the transformations of Autumnal flora and fauna.

Garnett’s technique may appear informal, but is undoubtedly influenced by the revolutionary compositions of late 19th Century French landscape painters. The Impressionists stood before astonishing variations of colour and light and responded with fluid, imperfect brushstrokes not dissimilar to the visual vocabulary of the sketch. Pared down detail gestures to Garnett’s desired Impressionist perspective, but also to the shedding of leaves looming within the rusty orange trees. Yet colour is applied not only as a nod to naturalism, but as a means of infusing feeling into the scene. Spots of purple and smudges of pink suffuse the landscape with a happiness idiosyncratic to Garnett’s experience. Garnett was not alone in her delighted response to the season: in October 1927, Virginia Woolf likewise rejoiced in the ‘bright October days’ and her ‘singularly happy autumn’.

While Garnett sketches plants at their fiery height, Vanessa Bell’s 1950 painting of Charleston occurs after their fall, depicting a tree completely denuded of leaves.

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Charleston, East Sussex by Vanessa Bell, circa 1950-1955, The Charleston Trust. Photograph © BBC Your Paintings.

Bell may have taken inspiration from both Charleston’s summer abundance and its more desolate variations, but sketches in The Angelica Garnett Gift are somewhat less vocal on wintry matters. Bell and Grant’s sketchbooks are bursting with portraits, pattern designs, figure studies and playful sketches, but landscapes – especially those expressive of more bracing weather –are conspicuously absent. Of course, dates here are crucial, a detail frequently elided in sketchbook composition. Bell and Grant only resided permanently at Charleston during the First World War and after 1939; decades passed where they saw Charleston bathed solely by the brilliance of midsummer.

However, when Bell and Grant weathered their first winters at Charleston, as Frances Spalding observes, life was indelibly marked by intemperate climes:

Exuberant decorations belie the harsh conditions in which they were produced. They had neither piped water nor electricity (…) The house was difficult to heat and often freezing; in winter it was sometimes necessary to break the ice on the basin before washing.

Just as the fanciful paintwork of their interiors evoked an eternal summer – concealing, crucially, the hardships of later months – their sketches construct a fantasy space where weather holds no dominion. Thinking less whimsically, sketching may simply have been an impossible project, or at least less of a priority. Practicalities, as Spalding details, pressed upon the inhabitants constantly, inevitably interfering with artistic imperatives: ‘water had to be pumped, earth closets emptied, wood chopped before fires could be lit’.

Thankfully, by the time of Garnett’s sketches and Bell’s commanding image of Charleston, central heating had long been warming the studio. With the complications and chores of simply surviving set aside, winter could be afforded equal artistic attention as more comfortable climes.

And yet, there are moments in the Gift where subtle atmospheric imagery intermingles with the environment, creating work strikingly articulate of its meteorological mood.

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 CHA-P-2270 Recto. Duncan Grant, landscape study, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The harsh, colourless countryside on display could not be further from Garnett’s jubilant watercolour. Once again, an Impressionist attention to emotion conditions the palette. As Woolf writes of a similarly monochromatic meadow in her diary – modulated, perhaps, by a general feeling of gloom – in December 1931:

‘it is a bitter windy morning, & Caburn, when I came in was white with snow. Now it is black.’

Here, unwanted (if inevitable) wear and tear serves to reinforce a moody and murky atmosphere. Hastily set down, but long interned in the attic, the resulting patches of damp mottling this sketched pasture perfectly capture the clotting of clouds over a deserted landscape. Material traces of moisture unwittingly gesture too to the threat of rain. The furrowed corner energises the loose scribbles billowing across the top of the page, suggesting a tempestuousness that appears to leap from the figurative to the real. The sketch thus becomes an intertexture of imagination and lived environment, both a depiction and material deposit of wet weather.