For several nights, I have the same recurring dream. I am walking alone into a walled garden along a narrowing path. The path doesn’t fork, or meander, it simply leads me to a point so slim that I can go no further. When I turn, it closes behind me, enveloped by dense planting. I am trapped in a writhing sea of flowers in every colour, every shade imaginable. I am aware that I ought to be afraid - I can't move, only stand looking back over a garden from which there is no way out - but I'm not at all. I can see only a vista of arching stems and gleaming leaves, tumbling roses, Rochester peach and above the sky is clear, cloudless, endless. I can feel the prickling of sunburn on my shoulders, hear the babel din of a thousand bees. Between apricot hollyhocks and a legion spires of delphinium, I can make out a circle of stone figures, grey-white, unmoving, women with plaited hair and graceful limbs, like a congregation of silent ballerinas. I don’t know how long I stand there, it could be minutes or hours, it doesn’t seem to matter, details are lost in the haze of warmth and the scent of herbs and roses. Fruit falls from a tree onto gravel somewhere that I cannot see, butterflies land and take flight, shadows gather, lengthen, disperse. It occurs to me that this might be heaven, Elysium, or else that I am dreaming. And then I wake up. Invariably it's between three and four am.
The last two weeks we've been busily proceeding with work on the studio, which is beginning to take shape - painting, buying furniture, unpacking boxes. I have been returning to this post every couple of days, not wanting to let too much time pass in case I forget the details of our time in Sussex, but the arrival of an eight-week-old puppy has slowed matters down somewhat. A couple of weeks ago we had tea around Kristin’s kitchen table at her studio - Ella Fitzgerald crooning gently in the background, London rain falling - and we reminisced about those enchanted few days of midsummer, hazy afternoons and silken rose petals, being bare-shouldered at midnight. But with the sun and the heat dissipated and the grey city all around us slick with water, the immediacy of those barefoot afternoons seemed like a vanishing dream, only accessible via the recurring subconscious in the dead of night. I do this a lot, it’s one of my flaws I suppose, waste time wishing I could slow time, nail it down and stretch it, so that I could go back and truly appreciate each moment. In the moment I am always worrying about the next thing - the next day, the next project. And sometimes especially good times pass me by. It helps to write about them. One of the many merits of writing; you can revive things, relive, you remember things that might otherwise have been forgotten.
I’ll rewind to two days before midsummer, when we left London at first light. It was already hot, a glittering, golden morning, flat mist swirling through the fields like low cloud. At the cutting garden we gathered armfuls of bounty; a silent Fantasia-like procession of buckets from polytunnel to field to van - foxgloves, calendula, phlox, sweet peas and roses; and foraged grasses, apple boughs and wild clematis from nearby fields, offloading them all into the deep cool of the studio back in London. Later, I pulled down the old suitcase of summer clothes mostly reserved for more exotic climes - embroidered kaftans and blouses, vintage dresses, Greek sandals - and prevaricated about what to pack. To all my dresses still clung the aroma of Aegean holidays - a curious mix of brackish water, olive oil and Ambre Solaire, but in the end a whole muddle of floaty garments went into the bag with just one sweater, a camera, notebooks and a battered copy of The Quiet American that I only half expected to have the time to read.
We rolled up at Tilton House the next morning, jittery with iced coffee. Only a couple of hours from London we were already a world away from emails, deadlines and the other mundane norms that clutter a mid-week day. From hot vehicles into the cool shadows of the house spilled jars and buckets, vases and fruit, hats and books; the cellar filled with flowers. Being so warm, every door and window was open to let the slightest welcome slip of breeze through the house and we drifted from bedroom to bedroom, making everything ready. Slowly cars crowded into the drive, and the kitchen filled with newcomers and introductions.
Mid-afternoon we walked up the rutted track to Charleston Farmhouse. The cool house enveloped us within its dim rooms and we toured them in two smaller groups, taking in the paintings, ceramics and furniture. For Jess and I this was our third visit, but we had never seen the interiors lit by good weather, the colours luminous by the side-slant of afternoon sun through the small windows. Beyond the doors of the study, the garden rushed up to greet us - roses scrambling up through apple trees and over the flint walls, leggy foxgloves and daisies and hollyhocks. The Icelandic poppy painting, perhaps my favourite work by Vanessa Bell, was even more delightful on that sultry day, a cool, grey pool of shadows and that fiery poppy (we had picked red poppies only the previous day though they had shattered their tissue paper petals all over the floor of the studio), there captured in paint, in perpetuity. In the pleasantly gloomy farmhouse kitchen, we sipped hot tea and nibbled at sponge and brownies and Mark, head gardener at Charleston until just earlier this year, regaled us with stories of his time there, showing us photographs from the 1980s when the house and gardens were restored to their former glory after years of deterioration and neglect. The tale of Charleston’s renovation is an extraordinary one but I won’t try to recount here in full - without the humble, humorous testimony of Mark in person, the Charleston website will have to suffice as a recommendation. (And I am already too eager to dash ahead to the garden and the roses and butterflies.)
I have often felt it is easier to write about gardens seen on a less than perfect day, when the weather was slightly mizzly, perhaps, or you were in a faintly bad mood. Gardens at their peak, on a pure, untainted day when you haven’t a care in the world, are almost impossible to sum up in words. I hope the photographs capture some of the bliss that that afternoon held for us; it seems to me that we spent those two hours walking through the brush strokes of a 1930s painting.
I will say, though, that it was mesmerizingly beautiful; a churning blaze of colour and insects and birdsong. Prolific clouds of roses, Iceberg, Albertine, Gallica, Felicite Perpetue, Mme Gregoire Staechelin, Old Blush China, Duchesse di Montebello. Artichokes as high as our shoulders, opium poppies and red hot pokers, hollyhocks (Vanessa Bell’s favourite apparently), delphinium and foxgloves. Branches heavy with greengages and damsons, cherries and pears and russet apples. Between the box hedges and cotton lavender, hydrangea and dahlias, borage and geranium. A quintessential cottage garden, a garden for a summer’s day and a white cotton-lawn dress and fresh peaches. We left drugged by beauty.
Much later we ate pea and mint risotto and honeycomb cheesecake in the gardens of Tilton House - the first of several sublime seasonal meals there - and sat outside until after dusk, bats and swallows flitting and swooping over our heads, and up into the darkness.
On midsummer’s morning we walked to Berwick Church to see the murals decorated by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant during the Second World War. We took the Old Coach Road east through undulating fields of blue flowers, and from the church, after rose lemonade, ginger cake and fresh nectarines from Middle Farm, we circled back cross-country. It was again baking hot.
Early afternoon, after the second of many cold showers of the day, we congregated under the shade of the trees on the lawn for an afternoon of flowers.
In planning the retreat, we had wished to create an environment in which, relaxed by an idyllic setting, and buoyed by Bloomsbury inspiration, our guests would feel at ease and creatively inspired. We hadn’t known then of course that this would be the most enchanting day of the year and we’d all be in a sun-drenched state of intoxication before we had even begun. But it was, as a result, the loveliest class we have ever taught and certainly the most informal, surrounded by picnic rugs, cast-off sandals and scattered petals.
One of the things I enjoy about teaching is how, with the same colours, materials and vessels, each student never fails to produce a piece that is so distinctly different and individual, both in style and composition, to the others. The aim of the class that day was to build arrangements that loosely evoked not only the spirit of the painter’s garden at Charleston, but equally the wider setting - the Sussex downs, and the hedgerows and woods of England in summer. Some of the girls had collected foliage along the walk, silver-pink grasses, sorrel the colour of rust. I am always moved by arrangements that include unexpected elements, dried or turning, spindly – how the most humble roadside ingredient can evoke a time and a place even more than, or in combination with, the most exquisite of June roses. Often it is just a case of looking at the offerings of your surroundings until, among an unremarkable clump of briars, you find something that sparks the imagination - the way the stems arch or fork, the way the leaves, seen from below, have a silver-white underbelly etched with fine veins. We decorated Charleston with flowers for a job last winter (a couple of days I will always remember for being the first, and maybe the last, time I will ever arrange flowers in an original Duncan Grant vessel); being November and there being very few British ingredients to use, we searched for something we could incorporate from the setting, taking metallic reeds from the bottom of the meadow and leathery rosehips from the hedgerows along the drive. Without these, something to anchor the flowers to the place, the arrangements would have been simply pretty, but devoid of depth. The wild elements gave them context and at least some sense of seasonality.
One of the ways we have been most influenced by Bloomsbury in our work is the enjoyment and pleasure taken from consistent hard work and total absorption in your craft, the simplicity of the approach and the absolute, yet uncontrived (and unselfconscious) focus on celebrating ingredients in their natural state. Flowers are meant to be grown, gathered, enjoyed for their colour, perfume and texture. Flowers that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant would have had around the house, whether in a jug on the kitchen table or arranged in the studio for the subject of a painting, would have been, I imagine, gathered on a walk or picked fresh from the garden, thrown together and enjoyed for what they were. Their still-life paintings for me have a real joy and freedom to them because of that effortless approach, that casualness. When you design anything it is easy to get bogged down in the minutiae and detail and if there is one thing that we constantly have to tell ourselves it is to loosen up, stop taking it all so seriously. Flowers are beautiful, they are already beautiful just gathered up and dunked in a pot or loosely arranged in a bowl. Many of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s still-life paintings of flowers and fruit are arranged in this way - my favourite is Bell’s painting The Open Door (1926), summer flowers on a table beside a chair on which lies an abandoned book, as though someone had just woken from a nap and walked out into the garden. To me those still-life works celebrate luxuriating in solitude and quiet, and reflecting upon the seasons - flowers, fruit, literature, comfortable domestic scenes. I think there is a certain sense of life in itself as art in the way the Bloomsbury Group operated, not only the utter devotion and dedication to their respective crafts but the way work was inseparable from personal life and fulfilment, so much so that every surface of their surroundings seamlessly became a canvas for artistic expression - tables, chairs, lamps, fabrics, doors and beyond those doors, into the garden.
For Jess and I, although we are working with flowers almost every day, and we design in a very detailed and curated way for events, in our own homes flowers are humble tokens of nature, the kind that are hastily thrown into a vase late on a Friday night, and there is a special kind of charm in that, a rustic ceramic jug and just some leggy cosmos or sweetpea vines doing their thing, perhaps a half-finished or leftover arrangement brought home from the studio, a bud vase of slender grasses and golden corn husks. When we’re doing installations for events, we are often asked for a ‘wild’ or ‘organic’ look and I find that the best way to achieve this in (necessarily) contrived circumstances is to walk outside and look at a hedgerow or a border and see the way the plants grow together, how entangled they are, whether they appear together in clumps or whether they have grown up together, entwined with vines. How a line of trees look the morning after a storm. Perhaps the recent movement towards naturalistic floral design is a reaction against the rigid, formulaic, artificial style of traditional floristry, instead celebrating the quirks and imperfections of naturally occurring materials.
I think it is no coincidence that many talented floral designers around the globe have eschewed traditional training, which is so greatly lacking in freedom and creative expression, and chosen to be self-taught, or to learn by attending classes by other designers practising a more naturalistic style. The success of the slow-living movement (which to some degree, via social media, has become paradoxical in itself and anything but authentic) is nevertheless testament to a growing communal desire to slow down, take stock, take care of ourselves better, our communities, our environment. People are increasingly concerned with eating well, using locally grown ingredients, caring about provenance, where and how things are grown, the story and people behind them and there is a hugely exciting swathe of emerging growers, farmers, chefs and cooks countrywide and worldwide championing this as an alternative to the racy-paced, mass-manufactured, fast-food culture of the last three decades.
For our class that day we had gathered flowers from our cutting garden and local growers, incorporating as many cottage garden ingredients as we could. Garden roses, foxgloves, larkspur, dahlias, tobacco flower, Calendula, Daucus carota, Geranium, Malope trifida, Gillenia, Gilia, Ammi majus, Phlox, Agrostemma githago and many more. I find it uniquely gratifying working with all-British materials; each individual variety is altogether more moving and artistically inspiring somehow for knowing the soil it grew in, and the hands that nurtured it. The arrangement we made was composed in an asymmetric style, from a base of apple boughs through clusters of coffee Julia’s rose, sprinklings of Gillenia trifoliata with their lime leaves and rose-pink and white flowers, flecks of startling blue Gilia ‘bird’s eye’, and flame-orange Calendula, like burning embers at the edges. It was an interesting exercise in how, allowing place to inform design, can lead you in new directions, and it was freeing to be a little more carefree with colour and form than we usually are in our work. It made me remember to step out of my comfort zone, to keep taking inspiration from the natural world, to turn off my screen and look outside.
That night in the flint-walled courtyard garden we held a midsummer supper party on long trestles laid with Molly Mahon’s beautiful block-printed table linen, David Herbert ceramics and, of course, lots of flowers, vines and fruit - fresh peaches, cherries, pears and strawberries on the stem. It was an enchanted night, one that I will long remember - flowers everywhere, ethereal dresses, rosé and candlelight. It was a pleasure to share a table, food and wine with a group of such talented, intelligent and interesting women. When I climbed the stairs to bed in the small hours I could still hear soft laughter and another bottle of wine being uncorked, the sounds of the longest day of the year becoming a new morning.
The final day, and a new weather front had rolled in overnight, much cooler, and an atmospheric mist cloaked the hills. We shared a cosy breakfast in the kitchen before packing up and heading for nearby Lewes. An unusual, characterful and slightly eccentric market town, Lewes is a little treasure-trove of independent boutiques, cafes and antiques markets. Flint Owl Bakery sheltered us from the rain for coffee and then we strode up the hill to Flint, a beautifully curated store run by Heidi and her mother Julia - if you haven’t been and are in the area you must visit - it is a visual and sensory delight, flowers and candlelight and beautiful books, perfume and baskets and the most exquisite selection of clothes and accessories, chosen by Heidi from collections by Masscob, Suni, Set, East by East West and Swildens. It is an unusual treat to find so many small and emerging brands under one roof, and I can’t think of another shop that achieves such an artful balance of product, or a more welcoming and indulgent experience. Having sworn restraint I caved when I saw a slip-shadow of a silk jumpsuit with a smocked camisole top and drop crotch by local Sussex label Suni (too tempting to resist) and a couple of beautiful glass vessels etched with ferns and intricate botanical patterns for the studio collection. On the High Street we all parted and went our separate ways, with bags, suntans and inspiration.
As I write this, on a warm London morning, it has begun to rain lightly outside. Water runs in rivulets down the window-pane behind my desk, gathering up raindrops, little capillary veins forming allegiances with arteries of silver liquid. In contrast to the murky sky through the window, my computer screen is littered with images of paintings and murals and photographs of that ‘dithering blaze’ of a garden - daubs of burnt sienna, Indian yellow against violet, brush-strokes of Prussian blue, cerulean, a green-gold olive, rose madder, Venetian red.
*With special thanks to Polly and Shaun at Tilton House for being exceptionally warm and welcoming, utterly delicious food and allowing us to bring our floral mayhem to Sussex for an idyllic few days; The Charleston Trust, for allowing us a private afternoon of the house and garden and for exceptionally informative guides and a lovely tea; Mark Divall for his fascinating talk and wonderful company, Kristin Perers for taking such deliciously atmospheric photographs and portraits and generally being such a huge inspiration to us both; Molly Mahon for providing charming table linen, botanical soaps and making the most beautiful silk scarves; David Herbert for the eclectic Bloomsbury crockery and tiles; Amly Botanicals for the welcome refreshment of their wonderful silver-enriched facial sprays; Heidi and Julia at Flint for the thoughtful goody-bags and their lovely company; Alex & Camille for their cheerful assistance and for schlepping buckets in 32 degree heat; and last but not least, thank you to every one of our guests, who were every minute the greatest pleasure to host.
**If you missed out this year and would like to attend a similar Retreat next summer, please email us to be placed on a waiting list - there are very limited places available so once dates are confirmed we will email those on our mailing list to offer first refusal.
***Further images of the Retreat can be found under the following Instagram hashtag: #aesmebloomsburyretreat and here on our website.