Charleston, Magical Gardens and the Search for Community

Last week Laurie and I hit the mainland to squeeze in a day trip before the onslaught of the new academic year. We took ourselves off to Charleston, the one time home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, both of whom are wonderful artists. 

Charleston is a farm house nestled beneath the Sussex downs and was their home for many years. It is full of murals, textiles, ceramics and decorated furniture created by Grant, Bell and others linked to the Bloomsbury group. I found the tour round this amazing house very moving, the immediacy of the art, the strong sense of a home once creatively occupied and loved – the atmosphere of which is still strongly felt – made me feel very emotional and forced to the surface, once again, my long-term desire to live as part of an alternative and creative community. The tears really started welling when I walked into the last room on the tour: the studio. I got that same jolt of emotion that I felt walking into Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden in St Ives for the first time. Both places touch something deep in me, both calling to that knowing within that recognises how vital the expression of ones creativity is; a knowing that can confidently challenge the negative voices – both inside and out – that declaim otherwise.

My yearning to be part of a creative spiritual community has always been with me – as has my cowardice to actualise this for myself. In my adult life, I have been blessed to be around creative people – musicians, writers, artists and dancers – and for all of us the problem of balancing artistic ambitions with the financial demands of living, remains a constant issue. There is something very attractive about experimenting with new ways of living in community, particularly (for me) ones that might explore the links between creativity, spirituality and the land. Of course, the Bloomsbury lot were atheists but there is nevertheless something spiritually uplifting about Charleston and what it produced. I have no doubt that life in such a community would bring its own challenges and blessings, just as any life we might choose to live inevitably does. And yet, I can’t help yearning…

I think this desire of mine might also be connected to a very basic urge in me with regard to family and belonging; my own family felt either puzzled, uninterested or impatient with my creative impulses. The pursuit of such was not considered practical – not a ‘proper job’ – and therefore not worthy of pursuit. I have always struggled to confidently call myself a ‘singer’ or ‘writer’ or ‘musician’ and I think this stems from there being such a massive gap between my own creative worldview and the reality of my family relationships. Perhaps in yearning for that creative community, I am seeking to recreate a family life in which this vital part of me is loved, appreciated and supported. Without such, there is a danger that what we might give of ourselves creatively to the world, will find itself snuffed out prematurely. Sometimes it is difficult to let go of the gnawing doubts, driven on as they are by voices from the past that firmly state that what we are and what we feel compelled to express is unacceptable. Charleston was a tonic.

We also visited Lewes for lunch. I have been to Lewes many times but strangely had not noticed the church of St Micheal on the main road. It has an extraordinary tower but also an extraordinary churchyard. The main thoroughfare is very busy, the traffic fairly constant, and yet, walking through the church and finding oneself in the graveyard out back, feels like you have suddenly been transported to the country. The atmosphere of this little churchyard is incredibly peaceful and removed from the noisy bustle that is, amazingly, only feet away. In this tiny space are five (I think) Yew trees and an enormous old Horse Chestnut. Above and beyond its walls Lewes castle  and moat can be seen. There is something very special about this place – I recommend a visit if ever you are in Lewes.

There is a fantastic painting by Duncan Grant of Vanessa Bell in the Studio at Charleston. It was painted a year before she died. In it she is painting, totally absorbed in her canvas, the shoe on one foot of her crossed legs, hanging from her toes, a gesture of both being totally immersed in her own creative process and utterly confortable with it. She would have been in her early eighties, still expressing herself through her art and Grant too in his late seventies, capturing her so beautifully and tenderly. Next to me as I write, I have a postcard of Vanessa Bell’s self portrait in her late seventies; something in the look of her eyes inspires me, tells me that the spark is always with us, right until the end, if we strive to feed and nourish it. Whether I ever get to live out my community dream is yet to be known. Until then, it is good to be reminded of why any of us might put brush to canvas, pen to page, fingers to keys…and why it’s important that we never stop.

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