Amazing trip to East Sussex – I think everyone else enjoyed it as much as I did! A wonderful exploration of the world of the Bloomsbury Group and their beautiful homes that culminated in a memorable trip to Glyndebourne. We met up at the Deans Place Hotel in Alfriston on Wednesday afternoon – an excellent location for exploring the haunts of the Bloomsbury’s in Sussex.
We started with an introduction to the Bloomsbury Group by the renowned Wayne Bennett, an expert on the subject, who endeavoured to make sense of the incredibly convoluted love lives of this fascinating set of people whom Dorothy Parker famously described as ‘living in squares, painting in circles and loving in triangles’. For those of us (well, me) who were most familiar with them through Sue Limb’s ‘Gloomsbury’ series on Radio 4 which followed the amorous adventures of Vera Sackcloth-Vest, it was a salutary reminder that they were in fact a highly talented and important group of writers and artists who should be taken seriously. Wayne’s introduction was so persuasive that many of us were left with a burning desire to re-read (or read) the entire works of Virginia Woolf.
After a pause for a stroll through the hotel’s beautiful gardens, Chris gave us an introduction to The Cunning Little Vixen, explaining how Janáček, like Kodaly and Bartok in Hungary and Cecil Sharp in England, would travel through Czechoslovakia collecting scraps of folk music and stories.
The Cunning Little Vixen shows how integral this was to his work; not only is the story rich with elements of folk tale and fable but strands of folk tunes are skilfully woven into the score itself. Chris explained that the young Czech conductor, Jakub Hruša, had drawn a raw, edgy sound from the London Philharmonic which was very unlike their usual silken tones. As Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph puts it, ‘He asks for (and gets) an urgent, raw and abrasive quality, expressive of nothing less than life itself.” We learned that the story is not ultimately tragic, even though it involves the death of Sharp Ears, the vixen, because it reaffirms the natural cycle of life, that death is followed by new birth. Thursday was a very full day.
We started with a visit to Charleston, the house Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell moved to in 1916 and where Clive Bell and Maynard Keynes lived for considerably periods of time. Among frequent visitors were her sister, Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, Roger Fry, E.M.Forster, Lytton Strachey and many others. We were given a private tour by one of Charleston’s excellent guides, who dovetailed her tour to fit into what we had already been told by Wayne.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, bringing this beautiful house to life with her descriptions of the people who lived there. Vanessa, in particular, came over as a fascinating character and an artist whose true talent has maybe been overlooked. (There is a forthcoming exhibition at the Dulwich gallery next February which will address this oversight).
I liked the idea that the house was full of laughter, as most of the photographs seem terribly solemn. She also told us wonderful stories, such as how when Vanessa and Duncan were painting the murals for Berwick Church, they inadvertently left their friend, Edward le Bas, who was their model for the crucifixion scene, tied to the ‘cross’ while they went for coffee He was discovered some time later when his cries for help alerted a passing farmer. She also told us about Maynard Keynes’ wife, a Russian ballet dancer, who the others hated so much they used to hide when they saw her coming; apparently she liked to drift up to top of the Downs to dance naked, shedding her clothes along the way. One can only wonder what the locals thought … Pictures of Charleston do not really do credit to the amazing colours and textures Vanessa and Duncan and their friends brought to this surprisingly spacious house – you really have to see it in person, as it were.
We went on to visit Berwick Church to see the famous murals, which were painted on panels at the barn at Charleston and then taken to the church to be reassembled. Wayne pointed out that the stained glass windows along the side of the church had been blown out by a bomb blast in the war and replaced with clear glass which means that the nave is flooded with light, showing the paintings in all their glorious colour. Something about the light and the colour and the intimacy of the space combine to give this peaceful place a very special atmosphere.
We then travelled the short distance to the village of Rodmell where, after lunch, we strolled down to Monk’s House, which Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought in 1919, moving there full-time when their house in Bloomsbury was bombed in 1940. It was in the nearby River Ouse that Virginia drowned herself in March, 1941. The small house is very atmospheric and again the guides (National Trust this time) are very knowledgeable.
In Virginia’s bedroom we were told that she would sometimes spend all night writing and in the morning the room would be full of screwed up paper with one single line written and rewritten over and over again.
Then we went back to the hotel in time to get ready for our evening trip to Glyndebourne. I had never been before and knew it would be an amazing experience but it exceeded my expectations by miles. To be absolutely honest, I love opera but did think that this might be a challenging evening of ‘difficult’ eastern European music – nothing could have been further than the truth. I don’t know how much was due to Chris’s incredibly helpful introduction and how much to the skill, expertise and sheer magic of Glyndebourne but I was lost from the moment the first group of hedgehog’s ambled onto the stage before the music even started. It was a glorious performance in which the quality of the orchestra, some fine performances from the soloists, outstanding chorus work and simply magical staging combined to stunning effect. There were moments when I was just lost in childlike wonder – such as when the dragonflies (literally) folded their wings and simply sank into the stage. It truly felt like a privilege to be there. It didn’t hurt that the supper we ate at the interval was delicious – how relaxing to eat at the venue so there are no anxieties about finishing in time for the curtain. What a wonderful evening.
On Friday morning we had a discussion about everything we had seen and heard – I think we all felt we had learned so much in such a short time. Thank you, Chris and Wayne, for the steep learning curve!