Painting in the Garden | Autumn

The Garden at Charleston, designed by artist and critic Roger Fry, was planted to be painted. Join artist Julian Le Bas for a day’s intensive painting tuition, and lose yourself in the atmosphere of the Walled Garden and surrounding grounds.

Suitable for improvers, this workshop will look at approaches to composition, with a particular emphasis on colour. Students may work in oil or acrylic. Easels and boards provided. Students will need to provide their own paints and brushes.

The cost of the day includes a tour of the House and Garden, a delicious lunch, tea and coffees.

 

The Garden in September:

September sees an entirely new group of plants – the garden moves into a purple/orange blend. The asters, both the perennial kind and the old fashioned annual varieties, Zinnias with their dense rosettes of the strongest possible orange and purple, tall cushions of pink and white phlox and a good show of Dahlias of all varieties from cactus-head to pom-pom. The fruit is ripe on the apple trees and the vegetable garden is overtaken with nasturtium flowers.

 

About the artist:

Born in 1958 – Sussex based painter Julian Le Bas studied at Hertfordshire College of Art and Design. Graduating at Brighton Polytechnic in 1981, with an affinity with the landscape developed; This was further explored in Cyprus at the College of Art on a Post Graduate Course in 1984.

Le Bas was selected for a Solo show at The Towner in 1990 and has exhibited widely including, The Bede Gallery, Jarrow, The Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, and The Jerwood Drawing Prize. He has just finished exhibiting his exhibition ‘Carpe Diem’ at St. Anne’s Galleries in Lewes.

Norbert Lynton wrote in the catalogue, ‘Artists in Sussex in the Twentieth Century’,’ For Julian Le Bas landscape is a live encounter and art, re-enacting of specific experiences, in paint or with charcoal on paper.’

CROWLINK | Shirley Collins

Photo c. Enda Bowe

 

Sunday 1 August 2021

“Never are voices so beautiful as when dusk almost hides the body” Virginia Woolf

Legendary folk singer Shirley Collins makes a pilgrimage to the heart of the Sussex landscape that fuels her work, in a unique collaboration with artist and writer Brian Catling and acclaimed sound artist Matthew Shaw.

CROWLINK is an immersive sound installation in the Walled Garden at Charleston, with traditional song and original poetry interwoven with field recordings. The evening culminates in the Hay Barn with performance from Catling and an intimate concert from Shirley Collins and the Lodestar Band.

Gallery, gardens & soundscape open from 6pm for 7.30pm start

In partnership with Melting Vinyl.

Please refer to the Facebook event for up to date information.

 

This event replaces the previous dates, which had been postponed due to Coronavirus/Covid 19. Any tickets bought for 3 May/19 July remain valid for the 1 August 2021, all other event details remain the same. 

 

We are hoping to run a shuttle bus service for this event.This will be confirmed nearer the time, please check Facebook pages for updates.

Note: Trains to Brighton leave regularly until 23.43 (Sat) 23.23 (Sun)

Leaving from the lower Charleston Car Park (allow 5-10 minutes to walk there from the Hay Barn)
 
 
 
 

Latest news:

On the 24th July 2020, Shirley Collins will release Heart’s Ease, her second album for Domino.  Heart’s Ease follows 2016’s Lodestar; which on its arrival, seemed like a musical miracle – an enthralling new LP from a woman who is widely acknowledged as England’s greatest female folk singer, but who had not recorded an album for 38 years.

The first song to be shared from Heart’s Ease is “Wondrous Love”; its tune comes from an 18th Century English ballad about the infamous sea captain William Kidd, who was hanged for piracy in 1701.

Watch the video for “Wondrous Love” here

Stream “Wondrous Love” here

‘An album of true stature and one that’s destined to remain in your affections.’ David Kidman, Folk Radio

 

 

About the artists:

 

Shirley Collins

‘Shirley Collins is without doubt one of England’s greatest cultural treasures’ Billy Bragg

‘Shirley is a time traveller, a conduit for essential human aches, one of the greatest artists who ever lived, and yet utterly humble’ Stewart Lee

‘Fifty years since she last performed live at The Roundhouse alongside her late sister Dolly, Folk’s grande dame Shirley Collins makes a triumphant return, evidentially having lost nothing in the art of stark storytelling over the preceding years.’ Folk Radio January 2019

A performance of unwavering and revelatory intimacy: Guardian *****

Brian Catling

“Brian Catling is simply a genius. His writing is so extraordinary it hurts, it makes me realize how little imagination I have.” —Terry Gilliam

“I am glad to have the book as a companion on my own dark quest.” —Tom Waits

“There are not many books that rearrange the molecules of your being, turning your eyes inside out. The Vorrh, this saturnine post-traumatic testament, is one of them. A work of genius.” —Iain Sinclair

Matthew Shaw

‘A beautifully understated, fragile affair. Bewitching and addictive.’ The Times

‘Shaw conjures the ghostly afterimage of ritual songforms and reassembles them as lucid, revenant forms animating particular landscapes’ David Keenan

‘His multi-levelled music is immersive and captures the ‘genius loci’ or spirit of place with awe-inspiring sensitivity.’ Gary Cook, The Ecologist

CROWLINK | Shirley Collins

photo c. Enda Bowe

Saturday 31 July 2021

“Never are voices so beautiful as when dusk almost hides the body” Virginia Woolf

Legendary folk singer Shirley Collins makes a pilgrimage to the heart of the Sussex landscape that fuels her work, in a unique collaboration with artist and writer Brian Catling and acclaimed sound artist Matthew Shaw.

CROWLINK is an immersive sound installation in the Walled Garden at Charleston, with traditional song and original poetry interwoven with field recordings. The evening culminates in the Hay Barn with performance from Catling and an intimate concert from Shirley Collins and the Lodestar Band.

Gallery, gardens & soundscape open from 6pm for 7.30pm start

In partnership with Melting Vinyl.

Please refer to the Facebook event for up to date information.

 

This event replaces the previous dates, which had been postponed due to Coronavirus/Covid 19. Any tickets bought for 2 May/18 July remain valid for the 31 July 2021, all other event details remain the same. 

 

We are hoping to run a shuttle bus service for this event.This will be confirmed nearer the time, please check Facebook pages for updates.

Note: Trains to Brighton leave regularly until 23.43 (Sat) 23.23 (Sun)

Leaving from the lower Charleston Car Park (allow 5-10 minutes to walk there from the Hay Barn)
 
 
 
 

Latest news:

On the 24th July 2020, Shirley Collins will release Heart’s Ease, her second album for Domino.  Heart’s Ease follows 2016’s Lodestar; which on its arrival, seemed like a musical miracle – an enthralling new LP from a woman who is widely acknowledged as England’s greatest female folk singer, but who had not recorded an album for 38 years.

The first song to be shared from Heart’s Ease is “Wondrous Love”; its tune comes from an 18th Century English ballad about the infamous sea captain William Kidd, who was hanged for piracy in 1701.

Watch the video for “Wondrous Love” here

Stream “Wondrous Love” here

‘An album of true stature and one that’s destined to remain in your affections.’ David Kidman, Folk Radio

 

 

About the artists:

 

Shirley Collins

‘Shirley Collins is without doubt one of England’s greatest cultural treasures’ Billy Bragg

‘Shirley is a time traveller, a conduit for essential human aches, one of the greatest artists who ever lived, and yet utterly humble’ Stewart Lee

‘Fifty years since she last performed live at The Roundhouse alongside her late sister Dolly, Folk’s grande dame Shirley Collins makes a triumphant return, evidentially having lost nothing in the art of stark storytelling over the preceding years.’ Folk Radio January 2019

A performance of unwavering and revelatory intimacy: Guardian *****

Brian Catling

“Brian Catling is simply a genius. His writing is so extraordinary it hurts, it makes me realize how little imagination I have.” —Terry Gilliam

“I am glad to have the book as a companion on my own dark quest.” —Tom Waits

“There are not many books that rearrange the molecules of your being, turning your eyes inside out. The Vorrh, this saturnine post-traumatic testament, is one of them. A work of genius.” —Iain Sinclair

Matthew Shaw

‘A beautifully understated, fragile affair. Bewitching and addictive.’ The Times

‘Shaw conjures the ghostly afterimage of ritual songforms and reassembles them as lucid, revenant forms animating particular landscapes’ David Keenan

‘His multi-levelled music is immersive and captures the ‘genius loci’ or spirit of place with awe-inspiring sensitivity.’ Gary Cook, The Ecologist

Painting in the Garden | Summer

The Garden at Charleston, designed by artist and critic Roger Fry, was planted to be painted. Join artist Julian Le Bas for a day’s intensive painting tuition, and lose yourself in the atmosphere of the Walled Garden and surrounding grounds.

Suitable for improvers, this workshop will look at approaches to composition, with a particular emphasis on colour. Students may work in oil or acrylic. Easels and boards provided. Students will need to provide their own paints and brushes.

The cost of the day includes a tour of the House and Garden, a delicious lunch, tea and coffees.

 

The Garden in July

July sees roses galore including the pale butterfly-like petals of ‘Francis E. Leicester’ clambering through the apple tree, and ‘Eglantine’ enveloping the busts on top of the walls with their bright pink buds. ‘ Félicité Perpétue‘ cascades creamy white clusters of roses from the patio walls and the richly perfumed petals of the ‘Roseraie de l’Haÿ’ crowd the shadier borders.  The herbaceous borders zing with Red hot pokers, overarched by the spires of hollyhocks and bold, purple artichokes. Iris, poppy and Canterbury bells jostle for position and the Lilly buds start to swell.

 

About the artist:

Born in 1958 – Sussex based painter Julian Le Bas studied at Hertfordshire College of Art and Design. Graduating at Brighton Polytechnic in 1981, with an affinity with the landscape developed; This was further explored in Cyprus at the College of Art on a Post Graduate Course in 1984.

Le Bas was selected for a Solo show at The Towner in 1990 and has exhibited widely including, The Bede Gallery, Jarrow, The Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, and The Jerwood Drawing Prize. He has just finished exhibiting his exhibition ‘Carpe Diem’ at St. Anne’s Galleries in Lewes.

Norbert Lynton wrote in the catalogue, ‘Artists in Sussex in the Twentieth Century’,’ For Julian Le Bas landscape is a live encounter and art, re-enacting of specific experiences, in paint or with charcoal on paper.’

ON DEMAND Bloomsbury at home: bodies

The Bloomsbury group has long divided opinion. To some they are a privileged elite, unoriginal and self-absorbed. To others they are at the vanguard of modernism, decades ahead of the social, moral and artistic codes of the day. Leonard Woolf wrote that the Bloomsbury group were “A largely imaginary group of persons… with largely imaginary characteristics”. This series of talks strips back the layers of mythology surrounding the Bloomsbury group and goes back to source – to their books, essays, articles, letters and diaries. This is the Bloomsbury group in their own words.

How it works

You will be sent a link in your ticket. Simply log in, settle down with your tea or coffee, and immerse yourself in literature, thoughts and ideas with our reader-in-residence Holly Dawson.

Sessions will also be available on-demand until 14 March.

Week 5

Bodies

‘I could feel ecstasies and raptures spontaneously and intensely and without any shame or the least sense of guilt, so long as they were disconnected with my own body.’ (Virginia Woolf)

 

What role did the body play in the thinking, painting and writing of the Bloomsbury Group? In this session, we explore the corporeal realm of the Bloomsbury Group – from body image and nudity to food, illness and death. We’ll consider the Cartesian split between body and mind, placing the spotlight in particular on the embodied writing of ballerina Lydia Lopokova, Roger Fry’s kinetic descriptions of working with clay, Vanessa’s nude portraits at Studlands, and the contrasting crossover with NeoPaganism and Vorticism. We will trace ideas back to the Victorian connotations of the body they inherited, in particular Julia Stephen’s work as a nurse and a model. To what extent is the female body in particular a site for politics, creativity and identity?

 

Angelica Garnett (far left) with Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf and Lydia Lopokova having a tea party in the Charleston garden in the 1930s. Photo © The Charleston Trust.

ON DEMAND Bloomsbury at home: politics

The Bloomsbury group has long divided opinion. To some they are a privileged elite, unoriginal and self-absorbed. To others they are at the vanguard of modernism, decades ahead of the social, moral and artistic codes of the day. Leonard Woolf wrote that the Bloomsbury group were “A largely imaginary group of persons… with largely imaginary characteristics”. This series of talks strips back the layers of mythology surrounding the Bloomsbury group and goes back to source – to their books, essays, articles, letters and diaries. This is the Bloomsbury group in their own words.

How it works

You will be sent a ticket with a link and login details. Simply log in, settle down with your tea or coffee, and immerse yourself in literature, thoughts and ideas with our reader-in-residence Holly Dawson.

Sessions will be available on-demand until 14 March.

 

Week 4

Politics

‘As for politics, I feel we are all sitting downstairs while someone slowly dies’ (Virginia Woolf)

‘I believe in aristocracy… Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them.’ (EM Forster)

“I can’t, can’t, get clear about politics” (Julian Bell)

 

From pacifism to suffrage, right wing leanings to Marxist dabbling, we explore the role of politics in the lives, relationships and work of the Bloomsbury Group. To what extent were their bonds and choices influenced by the changing politics of their environment? What role did individuals play in instigating change? What conflicts arose as members adopted different responses to war and cultural transformation in Britain? We will look at the impact of two world wars, atheism and intellectual beliefs in the shaping of Bloomsbury thought and consider the particular impact of members such as Maynard Keynes at Bretton Woods, the Strachey women in the realm of gender politics, Julian Bell’s death in the Spanish Civil War and the infiltration of right wing thinking into Bohemian London.

 

Angelica Garnett (far left) with Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf and Lydia Lopokova having a tea party in the Charleston garden in the 1930s. Photo © The Charleston Trust.

ON DEMAND Bloomsbury at home: love & sex

The Bloomsbury group has long divided opinion. To some they are a privileged elite, unoriginal and self-absorbed. To others they are at the vanguard of modernism, decades ahead of the social, moral and artistic codes of the day. Leonard Woolf wrote that the Bloomsbury group were “A largely imaginary group of persons… with largely imaginary characteristics”. This series of talks strips back the layers of mythology surrounding the Bloomsbury group and goes back to source – to their books, essays, articles, letters and diaries. This is the Bloomsbury group in their own words.

How it works

You will be sent a ticket with your link and login details. Simply log in, and immerse yourself in literature, thoughts and ideas with our reader-in-residence Holly Dawson.

Sessions will also be available on-demand until 14th March. 

 

Week 3

Love & sex

“Suddenly the door opened and the long and sinister figure of Mr Lytton Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress.

‘Semen?’ he said.
Can one really say it? I thought and we burst out laughing. With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips.” (Virginia Woolf)

 

The Bloomsbury group famously ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’ – but the myths, gossip and headlines of their personal lives can distract us from the far richer and more nuanced ideas around love, sex and relationships that informed how they worked and lived. This session explores how the transgression of traditional relationship models went hand in hand with their pursuit of a new and radical aesthetic. Decades ahead of the social and moral codes of the day, the fluid nature of their relationships has resonance even today. We look at the overlapping and complicated relationships within Bloomsbury and explore what part romantic and carnal love played within them.

 

Angelica Garnett (far left) with Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf and Lydia Lopokova having a tea party in the Charleston garden in the 1930s. Photo © The Charleston Trust.

ON DEMAND Bloomsbury at Home: home

The Bloomsbury group has long divided opinion. To some they are a privileged elite, unoriginal and self-absorbed. To others they are at the vanguard of modernism, decades ahead of the social, moral and artistic codes of the day. Leonard Woolf wrote that the Bloomsbury group were “A largely imaginary group of persons… with largely imaginary characteristics”. This series of talks strips back the layers of mythology surrounding the Bloomsbury group and goes back to source – to their books, essays, articles, letters and diaries. This is the Bloomsbury group in their own words.

How it works

You will be sent a link and login details on your ticket.  Simply log in, settle down with your tea or coffee, and immerse yourself in literature, thoughts and ideas with our reader-in-residence Holly Dawson.

Sessions will also be available until 14th March so you can watch whenever is most convenient for you. 

Week 2

Home

”What cuts the deepest channels in our lives are the different houses in which we live.” Leonard Woolf

The Bloomsbury group challenged conventional notions of what a home should be, who lived in it and how. Rejecting the high Victorian domesticity that shaped them so profoundly, they reimagined home as a space where the boundaries between art and life dissolved and traditional roles became fluid.  Join us as we peer through the keyholes of various Bloomsbury Group homes – from the Stephens’ family home at Hyde Park Gate, to various homes in London squares and Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington retreat. We will explore Charleston through the eyes of Angelica Garnett, returning home in later life in her powerful memoir, and watch some rare footage of life at Tidmarsh, Carrington and Lytton’s home.  What kind of places did the Bloomsbury group call home? What did ‘home’ mean and how did their ambitions for a new way of living influence that? What did everyday domestic life look like?

 

Angelica Garnett (far left) with Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf and Lydia Lopokova having a tea party in the Charleston garden in the 1930s. Photo © The Charleston Trust.

The Bloomsbury Look

What is the ‘Bloomsbury Look’? Charleston’s former curator Wendy Hitchmough reveals how the Bloomsbury group generated its avant-garde, self-fashioned aesthetic through art, photography and dress in her captivating new book.  (more…)

The Great Potato Printing Society with Molly Mahon

This potato print by artist Rose Electra Harris is one of the 19 prints available in The Great Potato Printing Society auction which begins on 14 September.

Block printing extraordinaire Molly Mahon has launched #thegreatpotatoprintingsociety! Molly, and an incredible lineup of artists have each created a potato print for an online auction to raise funds for Charleston during these challenging times. 

(more…)

Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddal and the Famous Women Dinner Service

Today Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862), or Lizzie as she was styled and commonly known, would be celebrating her 191st birthday.

Siddal was an English artist, poet, and artists’ model whose beauty, talents and life were recognised by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in their playful, yet groundbreaking project: the Famous Women Dinner Service.

(more…)

Duncan Grant’s nude portraits

It’s National Nude Day! A great opportunity to draw your attention to one of my all-time favourite paintings in Charleston’s collection — Standing Male Nude (c.1935) by Duncan Grant — and have a brief look at the trajectory that nude painting took in Grant’s oeuvre.

(more…)

Looking towards the future

Last week the government announced that museums can open again on 4 July; but there is a long way to go before Charleston can reopen, and significant funds still to raise.

The intimate experience of exploring the house’s interiors is something visitors normally cherish; but small, heavily furnished rooms make it impossible to create a socially distanced experience that would be safe and enjoyable for our staff, volunteers, and visitors. We have explored all other options, including just opening our galleries, café and shop, but with significantly reduced visitor numbers we simply cannot afford to reopen this year.

Charleston has survived this crisis thanks to thousands of donations from around the world to our Emergency Appeal, grants from Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, everyone who donated their Charleston Festival Tickets, and the extraordinary endeavours of artist Emily Maude who has raised over £55,000 through an artists’ auction on Instagram. The decision to remain closed has not been an easy one, but will enable us to build a stronger, more beautiful, more resilient, and more sustainable Charleston for the future. 

While our doors are closed, we will continue to share Charleston’s house, garden and collections with our audiences digitally, and our online shop will remain open. Following the success of Charleston Festival at Home, we will deliver more digital programmes including a weekend of talks and events to mark Small Wonder Festival, 25-27 September 2020. We are also working to open our beautiful garden in July as a place of creativity and wellbeing. We will share the full details shortly so please keep an eye on our social feeds, website, and e-newsletter.   

Thank you for your continued support and patience as we continue to navigate these challenging times.

 

Nathaniel Hepburn

Director and Chief Executive, The Charleston Trust

A Garden of One’s Own

By Charleston’s Gardener, Harry Hoblyn

The walled garden in flower this summer. Photo © Harry Hoblyn.

The first weeks of June have finally brought us some rain; the sky undulating between an ominous spectral grey, and that bright-eyed, azure clarity so generous throughout the previous months. All this time I have been gardening in privileged, paradisiacal isolation, left for the most part to my own devices, nurturing a sanctuary that has seen few visitors.

(more…)

CHARLESTON RANKED ONE OF THE UK’S TOP EXPERIENCES BY LONELY PLANET

At Charleston we’re thrilled to be named among the UK’s top places to visit by Lonely Planet in their #UltimateUKTravelist of the most memorable, beautiful, surprising and compelling experiences to be had across Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands. 

Duncan Grant’s studio at Charleston © Electric Egg

The only complete preserved Bloomsbury interior in the world, Charleston’s individually designed and hand-painted rooms were inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists. Visitors can take a tour around the unique spaces and explore the stories and lives of the artists, writers and thinkers who made it their home. Alongside the house, Charleston runs a programme of exhibitions, workshops, talks and events throughout the year, as well as a portfolio of literary festivals.

Charleston is one of just 34 attractions from the South East of England to make the Lonely Planet’s ‘Ultimate United Kingdom Travelist’.

The UK’s four constituent countries and countless small islands comprise a powerhouse of history, culture and intrigue. Now for the first time, Lonely Planet’s community of travel experts have chosen the best sights and experiences and ranked them in order of their brilliance in Lonely Planet’s ‘Ultimate United Kingdom Travelist’.

Lonely Planet’s VP of Experience, Tom Hall, said:

“Lonely Planet’s ‘Ultimate United Kingdom Travelist’ brings together the UK’s most compelling sights and experiences, ranging from world-class museums and giant cathedrals to rollicking festivals, inky lochs and tiny pubs.”

To create Lonely Planet’s ‘Ultimate United Kingdom Travelist’, the Lonely Planet team compiled every highlight from the Lonely Planet guidebooks for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Every sight, attraction and experience that had caught their writers’ attention over the years were included. Everyone in Lonely Planet’s London office, plus 20 leading figures in the country’s travel sector, were then asked to reveal their favourite spots and experiences before the voting began. Everybody in Lonely Planet’s UK community was asked to vote for their top 20 experiences. With hundreds of votes cast, Lonely Planet ended up with a score for each of the 500 experiences in the book.  

ORLANDO, DAVID BOWIE AND THE PRONOUN REVOLUTION

Chanya Button explains why Orlando is important to her and an inspiration behind the bold retelling of her new film, Vita & Virginia. To coincide with the film’s release, Charleston and the Depot in Lewes are holding a Q&A session with Chanya and Charleston’s Reader in Residence, Holly Dawson, following the film’s 17:30 screening on Friday 5 July. Tickets available here.

Before I loved Virginia Woolf, I was transported by Greek mythology. Aged 7, I precociously interrupted a tour guide during a school trip to the National Gallery, to share with my bewildered classmates, my (strong) views on the narrative behind Titian’s portrait of Bacchus and Ariadne. Unsurprisingly, the incident did not do much to improve my chances of survival on the unforgiving social battlefield of the under 10s. However, the embryonic feminist fury I felt, aged 7, at Ariadne’s powerlessness – deserted by her lover on a remote island, with her only hope of rescue offered by the grace of a nubile male god – did crystallise something for me about the explosive potential of history, and myth. In turn, this shored up my conviction that Virginia Woolf is the nimblest of assassins. Orlando both honours history, and disrupts it; as it too honours and disrupts its subject, Vita Sackville-West. Re-appropriating the terms of ancient social contracts as tools of satire, Woolf empowers artists who march behind her to use the bonds that confine them as weapons to fight back. It is Woolf herself, in that sense, who offered me the tools with which we made Vita & Virginia. Tools with which we both honoured her history, and challenged perceptions of her. In the pages of Orlando the details of history become arrows, shot from Woolf’s bow at the contemporary reader, to provoke, and to challenge injustice. Woolf simultaneously surgically re-orders a conventional approach to biography, and crystallises Vita Sackville-West’s deepest truths, without ever writing a word about her. We too, attempted to re-order an approach to the bio-pic, empowered by Woolf’s own expressionistic approach. On one of my first trips to Knole, Vita Sackville-West’s family home, I noted a photo of Vita as a child with a warm conspiratorial glow. Pictured in the gardens of a house she will never inherit, this mournful but vivid child somehow summons a glower that embodies centuries of exhausted disapproval. This is the look I remember wearing as I stared, with impotent solidarity, towards a naked, stranded Ariadne. Perhaps Virginia Woolf saw this photo too, and perhaps it planted a seed of empathy for the young Vita, whose sex alone constituted the reason she could not inherit her ancestral home. A novel in which Woolf captures the essence of a woman who beguiled and intoxicated her, whilst taking an exacting blade to the boundaries between gender and power, using humour to denounce them as arbitrary. By way of Ariadne, Vita Sackville-West and my 7 year old self – standing in the National Gallery bewildered by centuries of female disempowerment – we arrive at Orlando. In Orlando Woolf offers us a potent fuel; a fuel we burned brightly in the making of Vita & Virginia.

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf at Monk’s House, August 1933.

Orlando makes a case for Woolf as one of literature’s inaugural punks. With its time-travelling gender-fluid protagonist, Woolf’s novel boldly projects into a future where science fiction would take shape. Woolf’s Orlando and David Bowie’s androgynous alter-ego Ziggy Stardust share more  with each other than Virginia’s hero, who turns into a heroine, does with other protagonists thrust into the literary landscape of 1928. Despite its telescopic focus on the future, I believe it is no mistake that the 16th Century is where Woolf’s novel explodes into life. It is an era rabid with fascination around the rebellious poetry of myth; a language with which Woolf’s readers would have been familiar. Orlando begins with a languid, androgynous Elizabethan courtier whose simultaneous exhaustion with, and thirst for, a life outside the bounds of his own experience catapult him through time — setting him on a collision course with the contemporary reader – one in which our protagonist lands as a bold, Edwardian woman. One wonders what grammatical gymnastics Woolf could have performed if she had been here for the pro-noun revolution; would Orlando have been he, she or they? Perhaps Orlando would have revelled in performing and exploring all three? One wonders the same about Vita Sackville-West, whose relationship with Woolf signals the deep roots of her androgyny. Were Vita able to shake off the shackles of the aristocracy, would she have been empowered to take up arms against the confines of male and female, in moving between pronouns herself?

Orlando is rooted in the past, hurtling with adrenalised forward motion into the future. A future which holds the potential to free the woman who inspired it, from the confines her gender and class constructed around her. Like Orpheus who, as he led his lover Eurydice out of the underworld, kept his eyes locked forward lest he look back and lose his love forever, Woolf moves unflinchingly forward, leading Vita out of the darkness towards an imaginative plane where she can live and love in whichever way she pleases. What a contemporary audience has most to gain from Orlando is in plugging in to this powerful forward motion, and celebration of boundary defying androgyny. That’s why I am utterly convinced of its value as a work that remains vividly resonant, and relevant today. It is progressive in form, in theme, and in process. It honours the conventions it simultaneously disrupts. Virginia could have written a biography of Vita, but she didn’t. She was surrounded by biographers; her Father Leslie Stephen was the first Editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and Woolf admired her close friend Lytton Strachey’s developed theory of biography across his works, including Eminent Victorians. Rather than engage with the genre on pre-established terms, she chose to eschew its focus on the facts and fragments that make up the things that happen to a person, and instead chose to try and distill Vita’s deepest truths. It is therefore Virginia the literary rebel, who shares traits with all great rebels – an eye trained on the future; the future of form as well as content. What Virginia saw in Vita was “the strength of a man, and a woman’s grace”. She saw a woman with the softness and empathy we associate with femininity, with the sexual appetites we more traditionally associate with masculinity. To use contemporary terms, Woolf’s understanding of gender fluidity and creative eye staring unblinkingly ahead, mean that as an artist I would argue she has more in common with David Bowie, than she does with Charles Dickens. Dickens wore history like a cape around his shoulders, using its detail to embroider and enrich his narratives – embedding them even further into the moment in which he lived and wrote. Woolf uses history and convention as rocket fuel to blast her up and out of the time into which she was born. She is always looking forward; in theme, in form, in process. Bowie and Woolf also seem to share an understanding of their intuitive approach to writing. Perhaps Bowie shared Woolf’s view that “once the mind gets hot it can’t stop”; saying in an interview in 2002 – of his songwriting – “it’s an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you ”. Woolf answers; “how extraordinarily unwilled by me but potent in its own right, by the way, Orlando was! As if it shoved everything aside to come into existence”. Indeed, Woolf also commended that To The Lighthouse was written in “a great, apparently involuntary, rush. One things burst into another”.

In writing Orlando, Woolf purged herself of an experience that threatened to overwhelm her. Vita’s relentless pursuit of Virginia, one which resolved in Virginia giving herself to Vita emotionally and sexually, came to its conclusion when Vita’s attentions fell on another – Mary Campbell. Whilst everyone around Virginia was braced for Woolf to disintegrate in response to Vita’s betrayal, Woolf performed a rescue on herself. Her profound genius arrived to rescue her, as she used her pen to exorcise the intoxicating intensities of her relationship with Vita. In the end, this allowed Virginia to understand with the greatest empathy Vita’s deepest truths, and allowed their relationship to last for the rest of Woolf’s life. Vita wrote in 1927;

“I have come to the conclusion that solitude is the last refuge of civilized people. It is much more civilized than social intercourse, really, although at first sight the reverse might appear to be the case. Social relations are just the descendants of the primitive tribal need to get together for purposes of defence; a gathering of bushmen or pygmies is the real ancestor of a Teheran Dinner Party; when the wheel comes full cycle, and your truly civilized person wants to get away back to loneliness. If all my life went smash, and I lost everybody, I should come an live in Persia, miles away from everywhere, and see nobody except the natives”.

Gemma Arteton and Elizabeth Debicki in Vita & Virginia.

Understanding Vita as the child who grew up alone at Knole, betrayed by the confines of her sex, allowed Virginia to empathise with Vita’s need to forever isolate herself. Perhaps it also offered an explanation for why Vita pulled away from Virginia. This was not the first time Woolf used her craft as a form of psychological digestif. In A Sketch of the Past, Woolf speaks about the process of writing To The Lighthouse, as an intuitive means of grieving for and purging herself of the spirit of her Mother; “I suppose I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest”. I would argue that the way in which Woolf engaged her craft is also representative of a revolutionary attitude towards managing mental health, one that she and her husband Leonard shared. Together they constructed a routine within which Woolf could live and work, in defiance of her emotional and psychological challenges. I think it is no co-incidence that the Hogarth Press were the first to publish Freud’s work in the English language; their understanding of mental health was detailed, and incredibly progressive in some ways. The very existence of Orlando is proof that Virginia is a survivor of profound emotional and psychological challenges. She used her genius to survive, for as long as she possibly could. She is not someone who succumbed without a fight. She was not someone who was conventionally fragile.

Woolf did all of this whilst retaining an essential unknowability herself. Two of the portraits Vanessa Bell painted of her sister were faceless, speaking to Woolf’s a deep ineffability. Stephen Finer’s 1994 portrait of David Bowie shares that quality too: a faceless figure, alive in technicolour oils, more texture than likeness. Both Woolf and Bowie seem to be pointing their successor towards capturing a deeper kind of truth, one she searches for in Orlando:

“The trumpeters, ranging themselves side by side in order, blow one terrific blast: — ‘THE TRUTH! at which Orlando woke. He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete
nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess — he was a woman”.

The facts of Virginia Woolf’s life have been forensically documented. In making Vita & Virginia, an expressionistic exploration of the story behind Orlando, I have come to feel that a shred of a diary entry, a flying fragment of a letter alone – cannot allow us access to Virginia Woolf’s essential truth. That is a deeper pursuit, and in Orlando, Virginia perhaps gives us a code for how to perceive that truth. It is in looking under the surface, and keeping our eyes trained on the future.