In Response : Charleston Farmhouse

Last week I made a visit to Charleston Farmhouse, East Sussex, to meander through the gardens in the rain, and we’ll get to that- but first earlier that morning I had been meandering around my own garden, cup of coffee in hand pondering the darkening rainclouds overhead wondering if they would finally break to end our bone-dry, rainless May.

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Rose ‘Fighting Temeraire’.

It’s June now and it’s been a wet one. It’s my birthday month, and there began a tradition over the last few years of receiving rose bushes from various family members in an annual celebration. It began with S’ceptured Isle, a pretty pink cupped beauty for a shady corner by the house, given to me by my grandmother, ‘green-fingered GJ’. Since then my sister Imogen has given me ‘Imogen’ to forget-her-not,  and my father ‘Fighting Temeraire’- which is a glorious, ridiculous, painterly rose, named after Turner’s sunset-strewn, ship at sea. This particular rose starts as a blood-red bud, opening slightly to a sugary coral, before opening to a magically large, single flower with soft ruffled petals in a soft mix of apricot, and pale primrose, with stamens in bright gold. Standing in my garden, I looked on as ‘Fighting Temeraire’ clashed and clanged with every single thing I’ve planted around her… especially the bright purple linaria.

Flowers in response to the visit to Charleston Farmhouse. Rose ‘Fighting Temeraire’, Foxglove ‘Sutton’s Peach, Honeysuckle, Philidelphus, Icelandic Poppies, Dock Flower, Hellebore, Iris. 

I spent the drive to Charleston thinking about colour, and colour theory… and how I could use colours to make ‘Fighting Temeraire’ sit better in the garden- these turned out to be fitting musings as the new Wolfson gallery in the old Sussex barns on the Charleston Farm had an exhibition on curated by London-based textile designer, Cressida Bell, granddaughter of artist Vanessa Bell, called “In Colour – Sickert To Riley”. We were greeted with boldly painted walls on which the work of former Charleston residents Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant sat next to a feast of the great British colourists.

The front door into Charleston Farmhouse.

My whole day was being tied up nicely, and it’s nice when days happen like that- as if there’s some special force making up thought-chains for you. It all culminated with a tour of the house and gardens; through the front door, hung heavy with pink roses, there were great, big smacks of clashing colour to greet you everywhere. Vanessa Bell who was “a poet whose medium was colour.”, or so said her sister Virginia Woolf, had laid her version of lyricism all over the house- painted doors and painted floors, hand made tables and lampshades, painted too, painted wardrobes and painted bed-heads, a great hodge-podge of playfulness mixed with a seriousness of literature and thought stacked heavily upon the shelves, painted too of course.

View of Charleston with the studio on the right.

Into the garden from the studio, where the luminescent light, so particular to the South Downs, had hummed about the place, paint pallets were strewn everywhere, and threadbare sofas hung comfortably around a large, painted, fireplace. An unassuming back door at the end, leading quietly through to the garden where the rain had finally been unleashed, and we walked into a great big drenching, a bucket full of water from the heavens.

The garden, like the house, like the occupants that lived here, was full of clash; great, big wonderful dashes of colour, moments of Impressionist, and Post-Impressionist, formal and renegade, moments of calm, moving into riots of colour- completely non-sensical and yet utterly, utterly beautiful. This is a garden as playful, romantic, melancholic, as silly, rule-breaking, traditional, formal, dramatic as the people that lived here.

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This is a garden to write in, to paint in, a garden to love in and to hide from the rest of the world in, where rules are made, and rules are broken- a world in which colourful lives have been lived, and whose legacies still burn brightly. Returning home, via the ever wonderful Middle Farm for a quick Cider sweep, home to “Fighting Temeraire”. I gathered a few other stems from the garden, in apricots, and oranges, in an attempt to make sense of her colours, but looking through post-Charleston eyes at the ‘Painterly Rose’ reclining in her bed next to the bright purple Linaria, I may just let them live side by side in beautiful clashing colours after all.

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