As a “museum gardener” myself, working at the Garden Museum in central London, I am naturally drawn towards gardens associated with buildings of cultural and artistic significance. Gardening has long skipped the confines of aesthetic presentation, and it is the common view now that they are multidimensional — an extension of the building, its contents and collections, rather than something pretty around the edges. How gardeners interpret, represent and continue the creative spirit, themes and histories associated with certain venues is a strand of horticulture I find really interesting. How do you garden somewhere like Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, after Jarman has departed? How do you garden the Horniman Museum in south London, The Hepworth, Wakefield, continuing in the unique mindset of their former figureheads, while keeping plantings from becoming stale?
Harry Hoblyn faces this challenge at Charleston in Sussex, the former home, studio and garden of Bloomsbury Group painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Arriving as conscientious objectors to the First World War in 1916, they made Charleston a place of free thinking and artistic expression, continuing in the spirit that had united them in London. Now in the hands of the Charleston Trust, Harry has been head gardener since spring 2020, following a year’s traineeship under former head gardener Fiona Dennis.
As it happened, I had undertaken a similar horticultural endeavour during this time, moving with my family early in the pandemic to spend a year caring for the garden at Benton End in Suffolk, once the home of painter-plantsman Sir Cedric Morris, and recently adopted by the Garden Museum. The two properties shared commonalities in their mid-century heyday: they were both centres for artistic expression, revolved around a core group of multidisciplinary artists, and challenged conventions of the era. While Charleston entertained Bloomsbury Group figures Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and E. M. Forster, Benton End regulars included Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling, illustrator Katherine Hale and the writer Ronald Blythe. Vita Sackville-West, gardening at Sissinghurst, was a visitor of both.
Recognising the crossover, I’ve been interested to talk with Harry about his work at Charleston, and on a sunny morning earlier this month we sat down together over tea picked from the garden; from the mint and fennel that grows in freedom through Charleston’s unbridled borders.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Matt: How did you come to horticulture?
Harry: I grew up spending a lot of time outdoors; my mum was a keen gardener and my dad lived for a time on a farm in France so I used to spend a lot of time walking, swimming in rivers and just being outdoors on my own quite a lot. After my history degree at the University of Leeds, I didn’t really fancy going down a conventional path, so I decided to do a TEFL qualification and went to Colombia for a year and a half, lived in Bogota and volunteered on a coffee farm out there. Moving back to the UK, I got a job not far from here in Lewes on an organic vegetable farm growing Japanese vegetables, called NamaYasai. I worked there for two seasons, very much living on the land and immersed in nature — I lived under an oak tree, in my tent, and woke up at ridiculous hours to harvest vegetables. At that point I knew that I had an interest in farming, growing food, being outdoors, but I still didn’t quite have the clarity that I wanted to be in horticulture. I had ideas that I perhaps wanted to go into development, so did a development placement in Seville on a community garden for three months, and in Ghana with the International Citizen Service, mentoring some younger volunteers; it was all part of this experiential process. Coming back from that I started working for a garden designer (English Heritage Gardens) also based in Sussex, and spent a lot more time on my mum’s allotment. I was really enjoying growing, so I started doing my RHS horticulture qualifications, and went to Plumpton College for the practical horticulture stuff.
Matt: What brought you to Charleston?
Harry: Fiona Dennis, who was then head gardener at Charleston had found funding for a traineeship, which I started in 2019. I felt very lucky: I was interested in the Bloomsbury history and the literature link and at that point I was getting into horticulture, spending time in gardens like Sissinghurst and Great Dixter and seeing gardening more as an art form. I arrived here as a trainee for one year, finished my RHS exams, and then the pandemic hit. Fiona had already left at this point so the management here and I mutually reached out to each other, and they suggested I stay on for another year. During the pandemic, I had this fairly unique experience of living five miles down the road and coming here every morning along empty roads; there was a real tranquillity here.
Matt: That’s interesting to hear as, similarly, we arrived at Benton End in August, so we had four months locked down in a flat in south east London, cramped with a baby, but once we got to Suffolk, we were in this amazing garden and set loose. It felt like a total privilege too, surreal during the pandemic.
Harry: Yeah that’s what I had here; the chance to learn under my initiative and with my own autonomy. And that obviously means making a lot of mistakes along the way. I had this spring and summer of trying annuals, planting things in different places, and since then I’ve had another year of that. This is the third season of managing the garden myself, though this year I've had part-time help from a trainee, Josh, and am regularly assisted by an able team of volunteers.
Matt: What kind of gardeners were Vanessa and Duncan?
Harry: There’s this very experimental feel to the way they gardened here. The exuberant decoration of the house was brought out into the garden in elements like the mosaics and sculpture. There are lots of paintings where they’re looking outwards from inside the house. For them it wasn’t just a garden but a garden to paint; it’s like with Vita [Sackville West, at Sissinghurst] it was about being able to write — she writes beautifully about plants and flowers. I think Vanessa and Duncan wanted to paint flowers. They started to redesign the garden in collaboration with Roger Fry, who was the head of the Omega Workshops, which was this amazing collective of artists of which Vanessa and Duncan were part of; he was the first person to bring Matisse and Picasso to the UK for exhibitions. And he was interested in gardens. So, they designed the garden with these geometric beds, retaining a traditional cottage garden feel, with fruit trees and cloud box hedging adding an element of fluidity to the space. Silver-grey foliage is important as they spent a lot of time in the Mediterranean. Cotton lavender traditionally edges the lawn and plants such as Senecio and cardoons feature prominently. There’s a lovely painting called 'Cotton Lavender and Quinces' painted by Vanessa in Autumn 1934. which would be from around this time of year, where there’s just a big bunch of cotton lavender foliage arranged in a vase and some quinces either side of it.
Matt: I think that’s similar to how Cedric Morris planted the walled garden at Benton End, where the types of plants and the way in which they were laid out — in island beds, in part for access, say with an easel — were very much influenced by their role as subjects for paintings.
Harry: Yes, there are more cut flower paintings than there are paintings of the garden. I think it would often be about picking a particular flower just for its architectural form, its colour. Red hot pokers, for example, were the one they’d paint a lot; cardoons whether it was the flowers or the foliage; sea hollies, globe thistles; and then you’ve got lots more traditional Asteraceae-like plants that would feature in that period.
Matt: Are these plants you’ve researched and then planted?
Harry: I’d say I’ve inherited them to an extent. Vanessa passed away in 1961, Duncan died in 1976, in his nineties, so there was a ten-year lapse before the garden was restored in 1986 with a design by Sir Peter Shepheard. He based that on lots of the ideas, cut flower paintings, and letters from Vanessa describing the garden. When I started, almost 40 years on from that, the garden was not the same as the planting plan, and so the question arises, would you want it to be? The important thing is the spirit of the garden and its key features: in one of her letters, Vanessa describes “sweet disorder” in the garden, which I think is a nice way of looking at it. Hollyhocks are essential and tower everywhere throughout the garden in high summer. If you look down the middle of that aisle you’ll see there’s dianthus, and that’s based on 'The Garden Path in Spring' painted by Duncan in 1944, where you can quite clearly see the grey of its foliage. I’ve been trying to keep them going, but then the question is, should they be kept going? Sometimes I read bits of Vanessa’s writing and she’s talking about plants spilling over onto the paths out of the borders, and at other points, John Maynard Keynes, who visited, was here weeding the paths with a penknife! So there are contradicting ideas. But I think gardens are always in flux, I think they’re meant to change. Having an understanding of this garden, knowing that the dianthus were there at a point in time, I’m considering how I can create a bit more fluidity, plant over them a bit more. When I do plant something — a tree or shrub — I just try and think about what its legacy is going to be: is it going to take this garden away from being Charleston. I’ve started to introduce Cedric Morris’s Benton Irises in different places.
Matt: To me, that sense of romantic informality is the nicest environment to garden in, when you can be trying stuff and not sticking to something overly controlled; allowing self-seeders, surprises.
Harry: That’s the fun part, doing experimental things. Sometimes I find Fritillaria meleagris in the strangest of places, at the edge of the pond, or pyramid orchids round the base of the ‘Levitating Lady’ sculpture — did someone plant them there? Or did they decide to put the statue there because of the orchids? Vanessa’s daughter Angelica once said that the garden here was “not a gentleman's garden or a gardener's garden, it was always an artist's garden”. I don’t know if that’s similar to Benton End?
Matt: Yeah I do think it was a garden of curious and beautiful plants more than a garden of exceptional design. Through the winter months, Cedric Morris would go off on painting trips abroad, typically across the Mediterranean, and return with plants many gardeners hadn’t seen before, particularly species bulbs like tulips, colchicums, narcissi.
Harry: Yeah, I think of Cedric Morris as much more of a plantsman than Vanessa and Duncan — they very much rifled through seed catalogues. Duncan just wanted to try out different ideas, he wanted to have pink flamingos on the pond. They were living a very bohemian lifestyle, there are images of Quentin and Julian as young boys on the pond in their loincloths, in boats or literally just skulking around in the mud. Quentin later became a ceramicist — I guess he was kind of fascinated by the mud and the clay and the silt. Vanessa describes them hanging about in a “dithering blaze”, sometimes they were dressed up in these amazing togas you see in photographs, so there was very much a quirkiness. And they painted it all — the barns, the pond, the landscape; Vanessa didn’t like to travel after a certain point, she said, “why do I need to go anywhere; I can be here, I can paint everything in my vicinity”.
Matt: It was similar for Cedric, in that he would travel, but when he was home at Benton End he would rarely venture from the garden or the studio. Ronald Blythe wrote that there was no record of him ever walking into the village down the road, even.
Harry: The garden was definitely a source of refuge and sanctuary for Vanessa. I sense that for me, too: I certainly did during the pandemic — I felt like one of the luckiest men in Sussex to be able to come here and garden in such a beautiful enclosed space.
Interview by Matt Collins.
Photographs by Marco Kesseler.