My favourite time of day in the garden at Charleston is first thing in the morning when I arrive to work as a volunteer after dropping the kids at school and nursery. The garden is not yet open to visitors and there is often not a soul to be found, leaving space to imagine that I have stepped back in time to the days when the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant lived, painted and gardened here. Perhaps if I turn a corner quickly, I might catch a glimpse of Vanessa in her oversized straw hat, bending over to pick flowers for the house: wallflowers, Sweet Williams or zinnias.
Volunteering in the garden here is like visiting heaven for a few hours each week. I started in the middle of May and every Wednesday since has been blessed with blue skies and sunshine. The walled garden to the north of the farmhouse that became the Sussex sanctuary of the Bloomsbury set is incredibly sheltered: by the brick and flint walls, by the house itself and by the downland ridge of Firle Beacon which lies between here and the sea.
In the middle of summer almost every corner of the garden is bathed in sunlight and there is very little shade. The soil is wonderful – soft, brown and friable – which is probably why plants grow here with abandon: towering hollyhocks, one of Bell’s signature plants, in shades ranging from pale apricot to dark maroon; giant silvery artichokes, grown as an ornamental at Charleston in the 1920s, long before it had become fashionable to do so; luscious self-sown nasturtiums trailing around the vegetable patch; foxgloves, Japanese anemones, delphiniums, forget-me-nots, pale pink Astrantia and roses everywhere; oh the roses.
Charleston has a new head gardener, the extremely knowledgeable plantswoman Fiona Dennis, who has been very generous with her time in giving me tasks and showing me the correct way to do things such as how to stake plants from behind using a reef knot. So far my jobs have included weeding grass out of the gravel paths, while being careful to leave self-sown seedlings such as aquilegias intact; staking the taller plants after high winds; weeding the veg patch; deadheading roses; watering the potted trees used for the Charleston Literary Festival; pulling out reams of treacherous bindweed; feeding the bright and blousy dahlias with organic liquid seaweed; trimming the low Santolina hedge in a bid to emulate a painting of the garden looking out from Bell’s studio and planting David Austin’s new ‘Vanessa Bell’ rose – a pale yellow beauty.
This week, I tagged along at the end of a tour to find out a bit more about the history of the garden. Fiona reminded us that although Bell and Grant were both keen gardeners, they were not trained horticulturists, and while being practical people, they also employed their artistic imagination in their garden. Fiona joked that Grant ‘only saw flamingoes’ while Bell saw the beauty in a daisy. He bought many of the plants for the garden, opting for exotic specimens, while she was usually the one doing the planting. The garden was originally laid out by their mentor Roger Fry, in a grid pattern, the idea being to combine a tight linear structure with overflowing, bountiful planting.
Grant continued to live at Charleston after Bell died, until his own death in 1978. Sadly there was no-one to look after the garden and it became overgrown, a shadow of its former self. But when the house and garden were rescued and restored by the Charleston Trust in the 1980s, the architect and garden designer Sir Peter Shepheard was given the task of researching the garden as it would have been to produce a faithful design and planting plan. He read through the copious correspondence of the garden’s Bloomsbury visitors who ranged from Virginia Woolf to John Maynard Keynes, spoke to those who had visited the garden in its heyday and remembered it as it was, and examined black and white photographs of Bell’s children playing in the garden to identify the plants in the background.
The resulting garden is ‘in the spirit’ of Bell and Grant’s original, aiming to invoke the garden as it would have looked in the 1940s and 50s. Dennis is keen not to have too many anachronistic modern cultivars but to stick to the planting palette that would have been available in that era. Sculptures and mosaics at every turn keep alive the garden’s bohemian past. After a few weeks they start to feel like old friends. Many are by Quentin Bell, Vanessa’s son, such as the levitating lady by the pond; Pomona, the lemon gatherer at the head of the shaded walkway leading along the outer eastern wall of the garden to the house and pond; and the female head above the small pond in the Piazza, the mosaic terrace created by Vanessa and Duncan in 1946 which has been recently restored. A line of busts on top of the eastern wall of the garden mostly came from Lewes Art School and have been replaced over the years when they became damaged.
It is slightly terrifying being let loose on a garden with such a history. I have already made a few mistakes: digging out some box cuttings and a campanula whilst weeding; forgetting to plant a periwinkle in the courtyard garden with its plunge pool where Grant used to entertain his lovers. It is also a new experience working in a garden that is open to the public. Everyone I have met has been very pleasant, commenting on how beautiful the garden is. They ask a myriad of questions to which I do not know the answer, and I rush off in turn to ask Fiona: what is that pretty white plant with the sweet scent? (Baptisia); why are there metal labels hanging from the top of the garden gate? (To stop people banging their heads.) When someone asks a question I know the answer to, I feel proud of myself and one step closer to being a proper gardener.
Volunteering for just a few hours a week before I have to dash off for school pick up has given me a newfound respect for full-time gardeners such as Fiona who are out in all weathers doing hard physical work from dawn to dusk. It has also given me confidence and inspiration for my own garden. If Bell could create this wonderful haven while pursuing a creative career and raising children, maybe so can I on a much smaller scale.
Charleston house and garden is now a successful visitor attraction, with major building works underway to convert two Grade ll listed barns into a new gallery, auditorium and cafe. But in those early morning moments in the garden, I imagine I can catch a glimpse of life as it was here when two groundbreaking artists were busy elevating their domestic life and garden into something quite beautiful and extraordinary.