“a charming garden, run rather wild”

by charlestonattic

Monty Don will this week be exploring the garden at Charleston, situating its unkempt allure – as Woolf would have it – within broader 20th Century shifts in garden design. The rich history of the Charleston Garden was explored on the blog earlier this year, and we urge those eager to tune into Monty Don’s ‘The Secret History of the British Garden’ to take a look.

From the attic we have become accustomed to a bird’s eye view: hedgerows, roses and gravel paths unfurl behind glass, framed by large North-facing windows. Even the thickest condensation (and inevitable wintery transformations) cannot conceal the colourful imagination and flair for flora and fauna. Our panoramic perspective has provoked an even keener excitement for Monty Don’s programme: he promises rather a digging deep, an up-close look at the culture and conditions producing the garden so central to the artistic lifestyle at Charleston.

Charlestonians not only relished the garden as a space of languor and pleasure, but also as a space of industry, education and creative inspiration. Indeed, away from regulated interior spaces – where eating, sleeping, reading and painting generally occurred in separate, dedicated spheres – the walled garden offered unique freedom of activity, an intermingling of generations, passions and goings-on. Props for still-life studies were sourced as readily as cooking produce for Grace Higgins; lawns set up for lessons – as in Grant’s 1917 ‘Lessons in the Orchard’ – shook off their stuffiness to stage amateur theatrical productions. Although delightfully amorphous in purpose, the garden had a distinct style, in accordance with the home’s ad-hoc Post-Impressionist style. As Virginia Nicholson recalls:

“like the house was not intended to be tasteful or restrained. It is as though the exuberant décor of the interior has spilled through the doors”

In 1986, with this vigorous and improvised spirit in mind, Sir Peter Shepheard set about restoring the garden, by then so densely overgrown that even Woolf would have struggled to see its idiosyncratic beauty. Shepheard, hoping to reinstate Charleston’s greenery as ‘an apotheosis of the traditional English cottage garden’, was broadly guided by Roger Fry’s 1917 designs, supplemented by a heady mix of paintings, photographs, correspondence, and memory.

Amidst sketches of centaurs, sleeping children and Sussex landscapes – an interweaving of fantasy and reality commensurate with the role of the garden itself – we recently discovered this litany of floral possibility.
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CHA/P/2438/10. Recto. List of seed varieties. Pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Purchased, planted or simply desired, this faintly pencilled list of flowers gestures to the central role occupied by the garden in daily artistic inspiration. Practical notes on seed variety and quantity rest comfortably against figure studies and frivolous doodles. Certainly more verbal than visual, the list nevertheless possesses a peculiarly aesthetic quality: an indecipherable code of circles, stars and full stops attend ‘Candytuft’, ‘Sweet William’, ‘Tobacco Plant’ and ‘Forget-Me-Nots’. Whether or not sown in soil, these imagined flowers blossom throughout Bell and Grant’s sketchbooks.

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CHA/P/2404. Recto. Study of poppies. Paint on paper. CHA/P/2403. Recto. Study of roses. Paint on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

 One hopes that Monty Don will find the Charleston Garden as bewitching as its inhabitants, as Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry in 1926:

 “It’s so divine here now one can’t bear leaving… The garden is full of dahlias and red admirals and one can sit out all day if one likes”

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CHA/P/2406. Recto. Study of flowers. Paint on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.