Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Vita Sackville-West all lived, for part of the time, and gardened in East Sussex, at Monk’s House, Charleston and Sissinghurst. All three of these gardens are open to the public today.
They and their friends in the Bloomsbury set relished life outdoors, whether it was weeding and planting, walking the South Downs, putting on garden theatricals, or sitting on lawns and gravel in deckchairs discussing the world of ideas. They must have exchanged plants and ideas on gardening, but little has been written about the interplay between these three gardens and their gardeners.
In his book, ‘Bloomsbury’, Quentin Bell, son of Vanessa and nephew of Virginia, writes: “To suppose that Bloomsbury had a hard-and-fast musical doctrine would be about as sensible as it would be to assert that there was a Bloomsbury view of ornithology, ballistics or gardening.”
This blog will not set out to show that there was a ‘hard and fast’ Bloomsbury view of gardening, but rather to muse on the shared influences when it comes to these three gardens, as well as others that Woolf, Bell, Sackville-West and their friends and relations lived in, visited, painted and wrote about.
These influences might be the plants themselves: it is difficult to imagine that Leonard Woolf, who was the real gardener in that marriage did not sometimes take a cutting or two over to Charleston for his sister-in-law to plant there and vice-versa. Or it might be the concept of ‘garden rooms’, which can be seen at Monk’s House and Sissinghurst, both gardens containing the remnants of older buildings.
Quentin Bell writes that by the 1920s: “Bloomsbury… was, in the material sense, successful… There was the aesthetic comfort of Sussex gardens full of flowers in which plaster casts from the antique slowly disintegrated from year to year.” It is on such aesthetic and horticultural comforts that this blog will dwell.
As for the author of this blog, I studied the novels of Virginia Woolf as part of my English Literature degree at the University of Edinburgh. I moved to East Sussex nine years ago and still live here with my husband and three children. Six years ago, I started studying horticulture at Plumpton College, beginning with the RHS Level 1 and progressing to the Level 2 Certificate in the Principles of Horticulture. For two years I volunteered in the garden at Charleston farmhouse, where in quiet moments I imagined I could sense the spirits of Bloomsbury wandering amongst the flowerbeds.