Gardening Bohemia: Bloomsbury Women Outdoors

15 May-29 Sep 2024

Garden Museum
London SE1 7LB


This summer the Garden Museum will present the first exhibition to explore the gardens of the Bloomsbury group.

Gardening Bohemia: Bloomsbury Women Outdoors will centre on four extraordinary women and the green spaces they surrounded themselves with: writer Virginia Woolf and her garden at Monk’s House; her sister artist Vanessa Bell, whose garden and studio was at nearby Charleston; arts patron and photographer Lady Ottoline Morrell, who presided over Garsington Manor; and garden designer and writer Vita Sackville-West and the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle.

For each of the women explored in this exhibition, their gardens became places of sanctuary and experiment through times of personal and national crises, where ideas about creativity and domesticity, nature, sexuality and relationships could be uprooted and redefined.

Photographs, paintings, textiles, garden tools, manuscripts, and correspondence – many of which have never been on public view – will tell the interweaving stories of these women, their creative lives, their friends and their gardens.

Guest curated by Dr Claudia Tobin.

Garsington Manor, Monk’s House, Sissinghurst Castle and Charleston

Ottoline Morrell described Garsington Manor as a kind of ‘theatre’ for social gatherings, and during the First World War she offered her home as a farm that would provide employment for conscientious objectors and pacifists. Many of the artists and writers who visited created poems, paintings and stories inspired by the house and formal Italianate gardens, including Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, and John Nash whose work will be featured in the exhibition.

In contrast to this sociable sanctuary, from 1919, Virginia Woolf found solace in her garden at Monk’s House, a 16th century cottage in Rodmell, Sussex with three quarters of an acre. Although her husband, writer Leonard Woolf, was the more green-fingered of the pair, Woolf’s garden became a creative inspiration as well as a therapeutic site during intense periods of convalescence. Woolf wrote most of her best known novels in a hut next to the apple orchard; the manuscript of her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own will be among the literary materials displayed in the exhibition.

Woolf was a regular visitor to the colour-themed garden ‘rooms’ at Sissinghurst Castle cultivated by Vita Sackville-West, who had become her lover in the 1920s. Influenced by travels across Persia and making her first large scale garden at Long Barn in Kent, Sissinghurst’s gardens became Sackville-West’s sanctuary and the focus for collaboration with her husband, the diplomat and writer Harold Nicholson. In his words, the gardens were ‘an escape from the world’, and they provided the stimulus for much of Sackville-West’s poetry and her garden writing.

Woolf also often visited Charleston, the nearby farmhouse and studio shared by her sister Vanessa Bell and her partner, fellow Bloomsbury group artist Duncan Grant. The garden at Charleston, designed in 1918 by the artist Roger Fry, was filled with flowers which Bell and Grant loved to paint. The house was a gathering place for friends of the Bloomsbury group, a hub of experimental thinking, art, gardening and writing.