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Charleston Festival: on gardens, outsider artists and culture wars

Charleston House is one of my new favourite places, since I first visited a few months ago. The house was lived in by artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell (the sister of Virginia Woolf who was a regular visitor to the house). Despite it being a rental property the painters who lived between these walls boldly painted every surface they could, adorning doors, fireplaces, even the bath with flowers and patterns and cherubic bodies. The house is hung with paintings by its resident artists and their friends, artists who spent time in this house and its beautiful gardens set in the fields just outside of Lewes. 



It is in testament to the art and the ideas that the house was, and still is, full of, that Charleston Festival runs. The festival has been running for 35 years and brings together writers and artists, politicians and change makers, all in conversation with each other.


Saturday


I arrive on the first Saturday of the festival, colourful flags dancing in the wind around the festival site. 


My first talk of the day brings together three writers and gardeners: Olivia Laing whose “plant-besotted” book The Garden Against Time : In Search of a Common Paradise has just come out and charts the journey she has been on restoring a walled garden in Sussex, acclaimed landscape designer Dan Pearson and Jonny Bruce, the primary gardener of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage since Keith’s death. 


Olivia Laing; photography by Sandra Mickiewicz


They begin by discussing the similarities of writing and gardening. “Both require a design that welcomes the reader, welcomes the visitor,” says Olivia. She compares the “dailiness of them both as craft,” drawing parallels between the cultivation of the garden and the editing of a manuscript.


Like novels, gardens take time. “A garden should feel rooted in its place,” says Jonny, when Olivia describes the process of watching her garden for a year, trying to find out what it was, waiting until that whole year had passed to begin restoring it to how it was, and only bringing in her own touch in the third year. 


The three of them discuss the private vs the communal. Gardens offer a particular kind of sanctuary, one that does not require any knowledge to appreciate, but often these places are private spaces, inaccessible to many. Olivia’s book investigates enclosures as well as aristocratic pleasure gardens funded by slavery.


But, they all agree, this exclusive and exclusionary approach is not the only way to garden. Dan talks about the community garden that he created in Bonnington Square in Vauxhall, advocating for “guerilla gardening” where possible. Jarman’s fenceless garden is open to all, and Jonny points out that Jarman actually challenged the idea of gardens as a retreat and spoke of their potentiality to be “places of political agency”. The garden is an “anticapitalist clock” says Dan. Capitalism demands constant abundance, but richness in a garden requires rot, to die back in winter. Sanctuary, it turns out, can be communal, engaged, radical.


They share why they garden. For Olivia it is something to do with the fact that gardens are “orderly, beautiful, never finished”, something that she can’t control. Dan speaks of a “love affair” with certain pieces of land and the “non-judgemental space” that he finds in gardens. 


All three of them advocate for the importance of cultivating a new generation of gardeners who garden in a multi-species and bio-diverse way, and they are excited to see more young gardeners than ever before.


Bringing three people together is a format that serves to be especially fruitful through the programme, as speakers challenge each other, their intersections taking the conversation in unexpected directions.



*


How can we claim patriotism back from the right? is the question posed by our next two panellists: activist and musician Billy Bragg and Green Party leader and MP Caroline Lucas, in a discussion facilitated by Zakia Sewell. For Billy it’s about “progressive patriotism” that centres on values rather than symbols. “Being part of it, belonging to it, becomes more about where you are than who your grandparents are,” he says. Caroline advocates for an English parliament, a distinction between Britain and England. Where does Britishness end and Englishness begin? she asks. That’s a question we need to answer.


Having such a dominant culture can make defining it difficult, but the only way through that is to come to terms with why our culture and language are dominant, which is our legacy of colonialism, agree the panellists. We need to “let go of an idea of greatness,” adds Zakia. Caroline talks about the importance of storytelling to rethink our approach to Englishness. “How can we challenge the current ‘cheerleaders’ of England” and change the story of what England is, she says. And, continues Zakia, we then need to find a way to convince people that these new stories will serve them better than their current ones.


It’s a really interesting conversation that, for the first time, makes me believe in the possibility of a new story, a new sort of relationship to this country that has nothing to do with racism or isolationism or the current Conservative Government who I feel ashamed to have representing me. Instead, an Englishness defined by community, by multiculturalism, by empathy. A fine thing that would be.


*


Mark Steen is the director of Outside In, a charity which works with artists who face barriers to the art world. Mark started Outside In to redress the lack of value he saw being accredited to work made by certain people. Working in a day centre at a time when he had stepped away from an art world that was turning out to be very damaging for his mental health, he was amazed by the art being created by the people who came to the centre. With their consent he spoke to the local library who agreed to exhibit the work. But when he returned to the day centre he found the artwork had been pulped. It would be used for another activity, their own pulped artwork fed back to them. For the organisers, asking the people at the centre to make art hadn’t been about seeing them as artists. It had been a containment activity. Mark was fundamentally changed by the experience and has since dedicated his life to platforming the work of outsider artists. Outsider art is an art movement defined by artists who don’t fit rather than a way of making or a particular aesthetic.


Mark gracefully facilitates a conversation between artists Grayson Perry and Danielle Hodson, who discuss their own approaches to art and the art world, as well as the outsider art movement. “For me, art was always about making it,” says Grayson, rather than what cultural significance it might have, who it might be seen by. Now a world famous artist Grayson says, “We need to give people confidence to express themselves.” He talks about the importance, and the difficulty, of trusting your intuition as an artist. “It’s the hardest thing for an artist.”



Swallow by Dannielle Hodson

Grayson Perry; photographed at Charleston by Steven Hatton


Success looks different for everyone, adds Danielle. Even through her own career, success has looked different at different stages. “I made Swallow in prison,” says Danielle, to address the disconnect she was feeling between how much her life had changed and yet how she still looked the same. For Danielle, initially, success was meeting and being amongst other artists. Mark cites an example of an artist he works with whose work, though very collectable, is not something he wants to give away. He creates for himself, and Mark outlines the importance of finding as much value in that as we do in artworks attached to a gallery wall. 


It is a refreshing conversation, that shifts and redefines art as it advocates for a fairer and a wider art world, one that sounds like it would be incredibly exciting to be a part of.


*


Despite being a key figure at Charleston, writer and biographer Mark Hussey identified that Vanessa Bell’s husband, Clive Bell, is rarely given the spotlight. Yet he was an influential art critic in his own right, and, for a time, one of Virginia Woolf’s first readers. This was Mark’s starting point, to investigate the person who Woolf, who was wary with her work, trusted. 


What Mark found was a three way affair between Vanessa, Virginia and Clive, one that Vanessa did not know she was part of, an unkindness that Woolf later acknowledged. As Vanessa cared for her new-born, Clive and Virginia went on long walks, talking, sharing and suppressing the desire to kiss one another.


The letters between Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell are captivatingly read by Lindsay Duncan and Toby Jones. They bring out the undercurrent of desire between the two of them, both fascinating thinkers and gorgeous writers, and it is always a pleasure to hear Woolf talk about her writing. 


The intimacy of their relationship ends when Woolf realises she is looking for a “view of one’s own.” She realises she does not want to know, or be influenced by, how the book might be written by other people: “my boldness terrifies me.” 


I leave with an urge to start writing letters to friends, to choose paper over screen.


Sunday


The sun comes out on Sunday and we traipse through the garden, foxgloves as high as our heads, picnic rugs spread. 


The walled garden, photographed by Lee Robins


Today we are hearing from the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Nicholson (All the Rage) who is being interviewed by Susie Oerbach (Fat is a Feminist Issue). “The commodification of making money out of women’s appearances goes back longer than you’d expect,” says Virginia. 


They discuss some of the worst sides of this: the exploitation of domestic servants in maintaining the aesthetics of the bourgeoisie, links between fascism and the fitness industry, and body hatred. “One of the greatest exports of the West is body hatred,” says Susie. She continues, “We are producing beauty as a form of membership.”


However Virginia also shares some of her favourite discoveries from the research and writing process, such as the radical introduction of “flimsy underwear”, suffragettes slashing paintings of nude women, and the first “professional moving models” all of whom were at least 11 stone. Beauty has a rich and rebellious history, she says, and it’s a joy to explore it.


*

Novelist Juno Dawson is one of three (lucky!) people in the world who have got married at Charleston. She is back today to interview Nicola Sturgeon, and they start at the beginning. A young Nicola was surprisingly introverted but she was so angered by the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on Scotland that she decided she wanted to make a difference. 


She discusses being a leader during Covid, the fear she felt even as she was broadcasted daily into peoples living rooms, something which Juno says was a saving grace for her.

Surprisingly Nicola says she enjoyed worked with Theresa May the most because, whilst their politics were very different, she took the job seriously, something which Nicola could not say for Boris Johnson who she describes as completely “unserious”. Of her own decision to step down she says she was worried about people seeing the SNP through the lens of how they felt about her. But she is proud of the work she did as leader of the party, especially around shifting the dial on child poverty in Scotland.


Nicola has been a staunch supporter of trans rights despite it being the issue she has received the most abuse for throughout her career, she admits. Juno and Nicola agree that most people are kind, most people want others to be able to live “in safety and dignity.” But the conversation being had by a vocal minority is, as Juno says, “toxic and convenient” for the Tories. “Culture wars are fantastic for politicians who want to distract people from what they’re failing on,” says Nicola. Nicola thinks all politicians should read more, a recipe for empathy. 


The event is brilliantly chaired by Juno who expertly navigates the conversation between key political issues, a snog-marry-avoid, and the thing they keep coming back to: potholes. 



Between talks I spend time in the house and gardens and visit the exhibition space where English painter Matthew Smith is exhibited alongside fellow colourist Patrick Heron, and the dreamlike collages and paintings of Anne Rothenstein are on display in her first solo showcase in a UK institution. 


As always, Charleston House is a magical place to spend time in and the festival fills it to the brim with conversation and creativity.



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