The Charleston Attic

Tag: Sussex

Local Landscapes of Firle

Amongst a box filled with stretched canvas and paintings on wood, we re-discovered these fantastic landscapes of the local area.

Both painted by Vanessa Bell, the first is of the old Coach Road looking towards Firle Tower on the right. The leaves on the trees appear to be blowing in the wind, the farmland and coach road painted lightly in pinks and purples to represent the human touch on the landscape.

VB, Landscape view of the coach road and Firle Tower

CHA/P/5118, Vanessa Bell, painting, view of the Coach Road and Firle Tower, oil on board, © Charleston Trust

The second painting is darker, with a heavier stroke to set the trees and skyline apart. As seen from Vanessa Bell’s studio at the top of Charleston, the Sussex Weald is captured as a mass expanse of agricultural land with nature neatly lining up.

Vanessa Bell, painting, view of Sussex Weald from VB's studio, oil on wood, © Charleston Trust

CHA/P/5124, Vanessa Bell, painting, Sussex Weald painted from Vanessa Bell’s studio, oil on wood, © Charleston Trust

View from Vanessa Bell's studio

Current view from Vanessa Bell’s studio showing how the landscape has dramatically changed, with the house in the far background.

If you are familiar with the Sussex Downs, you will notice that the landscape depicted here has changed little; the rolling hill tops, with pathways to match, and the farmers’ fields the most obvious sign of human intervention. But perhaps the way we see and experience the countryside has changed. Looking at these landscape paintings with Vanessa Bell in mind reminds us of just how isolating and all-consuming it might have been to permanently live at Charleston; far away from the hustle and bustle of a town. But, these beautiful paintings remind us of just how inspiring these surroundings were to Bell and how they continue to remain an inspiration for a new generation of artists.

The Garden at Charleston

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The garden at Charleston today. Photographs © Penelope Fewster

While photographing the box of loose works on paper from Duncan Grant’s studio discussed in a previous post, we came across two items of particular interest. One is a small painting on lined notepaper posthumously attributed to Vanessa Bell, of a man tending to a flowerbed with a wheelbarrow at his feet. The other is a profile portrait sketch, likely to have been made by Grant. Although this sheet had been reserved and boxed up with other items in the Gift due to the drawing, it is the reverse of the work that is especially interesting in this instance; it is an envelope addressed to Duncan Grant, postmarked 1962, from Carters Tested Seed Ltd. These two items provide a wonderful insight into one of Bell and Grant’s shared passions and sources of artistic inspiration at Charleston: the garden.



Top: Vanessa Bell, , paint on lined paper, date unknown. CHA/P/1075/Recto.              Bottom: Duncan Grant, CHA/P/1156/Verso. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

‘I wish you’d leave Wissett and take Charleston…It has a charming garden, with a pond, and fruit trees, and vegetables, all now rather run wild, but you could make it lovely.’

Letter from Virginia Woolf to Vanessa Bell, May 1916.

Grant and Bell were enthusiastic gardeners who worked tirelessly to transform the muddy, overgrown gardens first encountered by Woolf in 1916 to the dense riot of colours, scents and textures it was later to become. First used to supply the household with fruit and vegetables during the First World War, towards the end of the conflict Bell turned her attention towards improving the garden as a space for pleasure. Roger Fry assumed the role of garden designer, drawing up his first plans for the walled garden as early as 1917. Employing the rational aesthetic principles he championed in his writing, Fry created a grid of intersecting paths and box hedges which framed a lawn inlaid with a small rectangular pool. Within this framework richly scented, brightly coloured and dramatically shaped flowers were planted, interspersed with subtle silver foliage; red-hot pokers, hollyhocks, foxgloves, globe artichokes, roses, poppies, lavender, alliums, nasturtiums, dahlias and zinnias.

Grant in particular was an obsessive plant collector, and regularly purchased seeds to be cultivated at Charleston – the envelope from Carters Tested Seeds Ltd. is likely to have once contained a catalogue or invoice for new acquisitions. In addition to employed gardeners, Bell and Grant were helped in the garden by Maynard Keynes, who could often be found on his hands and knees weeding the gravel borders.


Duncan Grant, Walled Garden at Charleston, circa 1965, oil on canvas, 49.5 cm x 60 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

It is unsurprising that the air of creativity fostered inside the house, with its painted surfaces and modern artworks, was to spill out into the garden. The spaces surrounding the house assumed numerous roles: an outdoor studio with an unlimited supply of props for painting; an al fresco gallery ideal for displaying sculptures and art-school models collected by Grant; secluded spots offering quiet and privacy for contemplation, reading and writing; a perfect auditorium for performing theatricals complete with hand-made props and elaborate costumes.

tate picPhotograph of Julian, Quentin and Angelica Bell with Janie Bussy, performing a play about Damon and Phyllis in the walled garden, 1935. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes… lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.

Vanessa Bell, 1936.

Bell fondly discussed the garden at Charleston in letters to friends and family, and would regularly paint outside, even in the depths of winter. When the weather was bad, she brought the garden inside by collecting flowers, fruit and seed heads to feature in still life compositions. Bell’s granddaughter, Virginia Nicholson, refers to her passion for the garden in a discussion of the murals in nearby Berwick Church, painted by Bell and Grant in the 1940s:

‘Vanessa’s Virgin Mary is Angelica, and true to Renaissance iconography she kneels before the Angel Gabriel in a garden – but this one is walled with flint, pathed with gravel and edged with grey-green lavender. Her Madonna lilies were probably culled from Vanessa’s own borders. The garden is Charleston and Vanessa’s painting is a celebration of her private heaven.’[1]

Annunciation Berwick Church

Vanessa Bell, The Annunciation, mural, c. 1942. Berwick Church, Sussex.

When the Charleston Trust was formed and the house restored in the 1980s, celebrated landscape architect Sir Peter Shepeard reconstructed the garden to Fry’s own plans, searching for references in paintings, early photographs and archived letters in order to create a faithful reproduction. While the walled garden was largely neglected in Grant’s old age, many of the original shrubs did survive and were retained. The new plan drawn up by Shepeard’s is still used by Charleston’s Head Gardener, Mark Divall, who works hard throughout the year to maintain the beautiful and unusual gardens which enchant so many visitors today. Annotated, dog-eared and stained from over twenty years of use, this document has acquired its own relic-like status and sits comfortably alongside the two Gift items. Together they hint at a visual biography of a space that was of vital importance to the creative and progressive way of life at Charleston.

Mark's Plan

The walled garden restoration plans, 1985. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


Read more about Mark Divall and his work at Charleston in his interview with The Garden Edit

[1] Quentin Bell & Virginia Nicholson, Charleston: a Bloomsbury House and Garden (Frances Lincoln, London, 1997). p. 147

The Angelica Garnett Gift

Arrival of teh Angelica Garnett Gift at Charleston Attic

“It is the house… who has taken over. It is she who is now the personality, the centre of attention….She is mysteriously alive, with the life given her by Vanessa and Duncan, and proves to be still full of secrets, like some latter-day Sybil”

Angelica Garnett, ‘The Restoration of Charleston’, A Cézanne in the Hedge, p.166-7

Though Angelica Garnett’s relationship to her past and her artistic parents, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, was a complicated and not always happy one (Frances Spalding described her Bloomsbury upbringing as ‘both a blessing and a burden’, their home at Charleston held a special place in her heart. She was a vocal supporter of its restoration and re-opening, and gifted the paintings, sketchbooks, and works on paper pertaining to her parents to Charleston – now a flourishing house museum.

Angelica Vanessa Garnett, née Bell  (1918-2012) was born at the house soon after the Great War Armistice – a beacon of hope for peace and a bright future. She became a writer and artist in her own right, and her books include an autobiography, Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood, and a autobiographically-based collection of short stories, The Unspoken Truth, as well as several books about Charleston.

The Angelica Garnett Gift is an incredibly rich resource consisting of 8,000 works, many previously unseen. Bursting with sketches of local life, the Gift has the potential to become an extremely important archive of Bell and Grant’s work, giving us significant insights into their processes and revealing the patience, hard work, and flashes of sheer talent that poured into their work. As part of Charleston’s Centenary Project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Elizabeth Cayzer Charitable Trust, The Michael Marks Charitable Trust, and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, twelve early-career art historians and curators will work in six-month stints over the next three years to catalogue the collection. In doing so they will make it available for public viewing, discover the ways in which this important archive can contribute to existing Charleston scholarship, and generate further discourse on twentieth century Art History.

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