A Style of One's Own - A trip to Charleston with Aesme
It's early on Sunday morning and I"m tucked up in bed as I write this, surrounded by catalogues of Bloomsbury Group paintings, with a peach coloured poodle on a Charleston pink linen duvet cover, smiling as I reflect on a few days spent in Sussex earlier this week with lovely Ally and Jesse from Aesme. I don't normally get around to writing about retreats - or indeed anything else - until many weeks after the event, but the most beautiful set of photographs arrived from Kristin Perers barely 24 hrs after we got home, and so here we are.
I first came across the work of the Bloomsbury Group in the early 1990s - I studied at UCL as an undergraduate, and the Dept of Greek and Latin was just around the corner from Gordon Square where the Group used to congregate. As a postgrad, I also studied British Art at the Courtauld, and my time there also coincided with a major retrospective of The Art of Bloomsbury at the Tate, which at the time was the first exhibition to take a comprehensive look at the work of the painters of the Bloomsbury Set. I had read large amounts of Roger Fry's writings about eminent Victorian artists and was at least as familiar with his unflattering opinions of them as I was with his actual artworks. As a school girl, I had read many of E.M. Forster's novels, and I've already confessed to having watched many of their incarnations as Merchant Ivory films in the 1980s. And yet, for all of this I'd never visited Charleston, the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, in Sussex. So when Ally and Jesse announced that they were holding a short retreat incorporating a visit to Charleston and Berwick Church, staying at Tilton House (recommended to me by other friends several times over), I decided not to honour the agreement I had with myself about the trip I had booked to Belgium being absolutely the last flower retreat I was going on, and signed myself up for the trip.
It was an easy decision to make. I'd previously done a 121 session with Aesme last Autumn, when Ally and Jess gave me a masterclass in flower arches and we happily attached the last of the season's blooms to a rose arch in the garden of Ally's West London home. I had so enjoyed meeting them, and am a big fan of their natural style and love of British flowers, and so for me, learning more from them seemed a good fit. Sometimes, I try to learn from people whose style is very different to mine, so that I can absorb something about their work that goes some way to improving my own - watching Madison of Hart Floral's demo arrangement was a really good example of this. Her tiny, delicate and minimalist style has had a v positive effect on my own - though I'll never replicate her incredibly unique style, as a result of learning from her, I think v carefully about each leaf on each piece of foliage and whether it actually needs to be there - my maximalist style has been pared down a little and I think my work is better for it. (Thank you, Madison). In the case of Aesme, however, I just so wanted to see them in action again, as I feel I share so many of their aesthetic ideals, and the chance to see some of the inspiration behind their work was an opportunity not to be missed.
After our arrival at Tilton House (where I discovered I had been v lucky and had actually been award a Room of One's Own!), we made our way down the path to Charleston House where we were to be taken on a tour of the house, have tea in the kitchen and then head out into the garden with Mark Divall, who had agreed to come back and talk with us about his experiences at and connections with Charleston that went back as far as the mid 1980s. Mark has very recently retired from the role, but I suspect that he too had fallen for the persuasive charm of those Aesme girls when he agreed to come back and show us around.
We were split into two groups and my half was shown around by Joan, whose extensive knowledge of the both the art of the Bloomsbury painters (and the Omega workshop) as well as the delicacies and weavings of their private lives, made for an excellent guide indeed. She talked us through the history of Charleston, from 1916 when Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant moved in, and showed us where E.M. Forster had slept, and where John Maynard Keyes had done his thinking. Each room was filed with painted furniture, doors, frescoes and of course artwork. As well as paintings by the Bloomsbury Group themselves, there were works by G.F. Watts, Sickert, Renoir, Picasso, Matthew Smith and others. To walk through each room with Joan, and to understand the history of the pieces and to imagine what each occupant must have experienced there was a rare privilege indeed. Photography is not allowed inside the house, so I can only urge you to book a tour and see these treasures first hand for yourself.
When our tour was complete, we sat down for tea and cake in the kitchen, where we were joined by Mark. He talked to us about his time at Charleston, for much of it living in the flat above the kitchen (and for some of that he was joined by Henrietta, grand daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant). Listening to him talk about his time as resident there gave us all a fascinating insight into what it was like to have first hand experience of being there amongst the Bloomsbury Groups first and second generation of descendants - no one else could have given us such insights. With a great deal of humour, and just the right amount of discretion, Mark talked us through life at Charleston before accompanying us out into the gardens themselves. Here we were able to admire everything that is wonderful about British Flowers and garden design in one place.
Passing the purple Loosestrife by the pond, we went through arch into the garden itself. It's hard to describe the sight that greeted us: roses, foxgloves delphiniums, dahlias, and hollyhocks to make your heart happy - and cherries dangling from a tree going up the side of the house. Magical is a word that is often employed, but honestly I can't think of a better one. After admiring so much beauty, we sat down on the lawn and introductions were made and new friendships began to form. One of the things I liked most about our stay was that not everyone worked in flowers as a profession. To qualify this, I do really love meeting floral designers and stylists, but somehow the fact that we came from so many different - albeit creative - backgrounds added a certain something to the group dynamic. Amongst we had, as well as Kristin our amazing photographer, a garden designer, a textile designer, a very modern housekeeper (if indeed that's the right word - a role that involved cookery and floral arranging for a private family), and the proprietors of a boutique in nearby Lewes. Rather like the comings and goings at Charleston in days gone by, it was perhaps fitting that some of us were resident throughout the course, whilst others dropped in for the day, or an evening, or whatever was appropriate to our collective plans. We continued making acquaintances over dinner that night - Shaun and Polly's asparagus risotto and honeycomb cheesecake came with generous quantities of French rosé and I went up to my room feeling full and satisfied.
The next morning we had an early start to walk to Berwick Church before the heat made it unfeasible. We set off after breakfast and ambled along through the fields in the direction of Berwick, another village on the Firle Estate. We passed fields of ripening corn, a barn with kestrel sitting quietly as it watched some sheets dry, and I stopped to gather wild sorrel and plenty of dead things to add to my arrangement later. Jess and Alex (assisting the retreat - a more cheerful person with a more endearing laugh you couldn't hope to meet) were waiting for us with lemonade and cake in the Church yard. I don't know what I expected to find in the church - maybe a decoration or two - but a whole church full of frescoes, and the most incredible pulpit painted by Duncan Grant in 1962 were beyond anything I had imagined. Instinct kicked in and I quickly photographed everything for that day's Instagram Stories (old habits...!) but then I stopped and sat down in a pew just to take everything in. And soak it all up. If you haven't been, I cannot urge you strongly enough to get there.
We made our way back to Tilton House and after lunch, the main activity began - making flower arrangements with Ally and Jess. By now it was 32 degrees in the garden. Before Ally and Jess began their talk, a really thoughtful touch - they had labelled the plants, even the varieties of roses were neatly written on each vase. Not only did we have the joy of working with 100% British flowers - we knew exactly which varieties. So often I ask, then forget, or else am too busy concentrating on the work in hand to remember to ask, but here they were, all neatly written out for me to make photographic notes with on my phone. When I am planning out my much hoped for cutting garden in the coming months, I have a much clearer idea of what it is that I am hoping to include. As well as lots of varieties from Ally and Jess's patch in Hampshire, special mention goes to Babylon Flowers's Gillinea (and some lovely roses of theirs made the cut too). I'm looking forward to popping up the road to Watlington to see if I can acquire some from Juliette very soon.
Ally and Jesse talked us through their inspirations and how their love of the Bloomsbury Group had shaped some of their tastes. Their display was quite beautiful (and incorporated my favourite foxglove, but I soon recovered from this). And then we were underway. After an excessively long deliberation over which of the foxgloves to use in my own piece, some squeaks of delight as I got my hands on the Liliana, Maxima Romantica, Evelyn and Aphrodite roses, I set about getting to work. In spite of the heat, there was also a substantial breeze blowing, one which sent my apple branch sideways, taking with it the original shape and structure that I had in mind. There are days when I might not have taken this well. Sometimes the pressure of having taken time out to learn and to produce a piece that will hopefully be portfolio worthy once photographed by a professional can be very real. But somehow, on this day it really wasn't that big a deal. I popped into the house briefly and then chatted to my new friends before going back to it. I found my mind had already moved onto looking forward to dinner with the ladies there and possibly another glass of rosé. But eventually I regained my focus and found myself working on it some time after everyone else had stopped. The change of shape threw me a little - it was asymmetric, for sure, but not "my" kind of asymmetry. And I had made myself avoid the pink flowers - no mean feat - and focus on a more peachy, blush colour palette instead. I wondered if it would look like my work at all... and then I remembered two things. The first was the collection of wild sorrel and other textures collected on our morning walk. The other was that I had snuck out to the Middle Farm Shop earlier and purchased some Mystic Haze Dahlias to take home with me. As I threaded the foraged pieces through my piece, I was reminded me of our " Four Go Foraging" trip where Brigitte from Moss and Stone had encouraged me, Lucy the Flower Hunter and Sarah from Simply by Arrangement to look at foliage in a considered and careful way as we walked through the countryside. Would I have thought to stop and gather so much if I hadn't spent that time with them? Possibly not. And the dahlias? I had spotted them and instantly recognised them as the same variety as those I had used in my bouquet that I made on a trip to see The Blue Carrot in September last year. I had fallen for them (and Susanne) completely and when I saw them sitting in pots that day, I knew I had to have them.
And, then, about fifteen minutes later my piece was finished. I had used a colour palette that was Aesme's, in an unknown vessel, and produced a shape that was quite different from my normal ones. As well as being inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and Jesse and Ally's demonstration, it had elements in it that reminded me of other artists too. And yet, having drawn on all those various components and influences, it was also recognisably mine. A Style of One's Own, you might say. And that the realisation came about on a happy, sunny June day in the presence of wonderful women and beautiful flowers (plus tea, and cakes and strawberries) made it that much sweeter.
You see my point.
After Kristin's photography of our pieces, we changed for dinner in the Tilton House courtyard where Ally and Jesse had laid out the most amazing spread of flowers, and candles on fabric by Molly Mahon Block Printing. And the Bloomsbury feast was served on wonderful china by David Herbert of Bloomsbury Ceramics. Add to this more rosé, fabulous company from Philippa, Gabriella, Polly, Heidi, Julia, Nicolette, Molly, Kristin, Alex, Camille (and her fabulous yellow trousers), Kitty and Shaun and I honestly couldn't have wished for a more wonderful Midsummer Night - okay, perhaps with Hilda on my lap it would have been even better, but apart from that...
The following morning, we started to say our goodbyes after breakfast. A few of us headed into town for a spot of shopping, including a trip to Flint of Lewes, where again I may have decided not to honour a previous agreement I had with myself, this time relating to a pledge not to buy any further clothes this summer. After more lovely chats with Heidi, we headed off to the Antiques Centre (again, another pledge was dishonoured, this time in relation to no more vessels) and then finally said our final goodbyes of the trip. I headed back to Oxfordshire with lovely Nicolette, who it turns out lives just fifteen minutes from me. We did an admirable job of fitting large arrangements, plus cases, plus plants, plus shopping into my Fiat 500 and set off in the direction of the M25...
I realise as I read this that I may have made this trip sound a bit too good to be true. It's lacking in the occasional side remark and I've made it sound like a review written by Enid Blyton on her summer holidays. But actually, it was pretty much perfect. I can't say much more than that.