He also wrote, “Many plants in this garden are self-sown and they often provide me with excellent ideas.”
The walled garden at the Bell-Grant residence in Charleston is lovely but modest compared with others in the region. The house, which the garden enhances, is the great attraction here. Beginning in 1916, it was the home of Vanessa and Clive Bell, their two sons, and a colorful, revolving cast of artists, writers and political thinkers. Among them were the economist John Maynard Keynes, the art critic Roger Fry, the biographer Lytton Strachey and, most importantly, Grant, the painter with whom Vanessa Bell fell in love, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica, and with whom she lived at Charleston until her death in 1961. After Grant died in 1978, the house was neglected; the Charleston Trust was formed to support the house’s restoration, and the historic site began hosting visitors in 1986.
Energetic and creative, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted murals, decorated the walls and window frames, the fireplaces, doors and tabletops. They filled the house with their paintings and with the art of friends, and designed the ceramics, the fabrics, and the rugs that brightened their home.
The knowledgeable Darren Clarke, head of curatorial services, took us around the house, explaining the provenance of the canvases and portraits hung everywhere — and patiently answering our questions. The house seems oddly quiet, even tranquil despite the riot of color and the vibrant patterns on nearly every surface, and that sense of calm persisted despite the fact that on the weekend we were there, hundreds of visitors arrived to attend the lively readings staged by the Charleston Festival.
I could never have visited the area without making a literary pilgrimage to Monk’s House, Woolf’s last home, where she spent summers beginning in 1919, where she lived full time after her house in London was bombed in 1940, and where she drowned herself in the nearby River Ouse in March 1941. Located in the tiny village of Rodmell, it’s a short drive from Charleston. Michael Cunningham, who came here in connection with his novel “The Hours,” in which Virginia Woolf is a principal character, said that Woolf’s house looks like a graduate student’s apartment compared with her sister’s home. Monk’s House is lovely, but smaller, more restrained, almost spartan in comparison to the exuberance of Charleston. At the bottom of the garden at Monk’s House is the writing studio where Woolf worked, and which is set up to recreate the objects she liked to have around her and the atmosphere in which she wrote.
There was one more trip that I wanted to make, to Farley Farm House, also a short drive from Charleston. This was the home where the great American photographer Lee Miller lived with her husband, Sir Roland Penrose, the British Surrealist painter, and their son. It was a vacation place and party house for Max Ernst, Miró, Picasso, Man Ray, Saul Steinberg, Dorothea Tanning and Dylan Thomas. Born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the strikingly beautiful Miller was a fashion model before departing for Paris where she lived with, and learned from, Man Ray. She became an intrepid war correspondent and was among the first photojournalists to document the Allies’ entry into Nazi concentration camps. Her photographs were initially published in Vogue magazine.
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