Our lives of late have been circumscribed. Unlike Woolf and her social milieu, the infamous Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and intellectuals who Dorothy Parker memorably quipped “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”, these bubbles are not of our own choosing; they represent not freedom, but its opposite.
When lockdown struck in the spring, I elected to stay in London rather than fleeing to the coastal sanctuary of my parents in east Sussex. While I don’t regret a summer spent rediscovering the small bounds of my existence, my imagination was habitually haunted by the humpbacked outline of the South Downs, the shadows of clouds gliding like spectres over their flanks, chalky outcrops gleaming in the slices of intervening sunlight.
Just an hour and a half by train from London, it’s a corner of the countryside that has lured countless writers and artists in search of retreat, repair and revitalisation. For Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, living part-time at Monk’s House in Rodmell from 1919 onwards, it provided balm and recharge from the “violent jolt of the capital”. For her sister Vanessa Bell, Bell’s lover Duncan Grant and a rotating cast of “Bloomsberries”, nearby Charleston Farmhouse offered the opportunity to forge experimental ideas and relationships, unseen and ungoverned by convention.
Thirty years later, Farleys House became the family home of the photojournalist Lee Miller and her husband, the surrealist painter Roland Penrose, in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War; and more recently the author Olivia Laing wrote about walking in Woolf’s footsteps along the banks of the River Ouse, following the breakdown of her own relationship.
Today, a new generation of artists, winemakers, chefs, writers, gallerists and entrepreneurs have similarly abandoned the thrall of the cities to embark upon an alternative lifestyle in its bucolic villages and once-faded seaside towns. As we cross the threshold between an old and a new world order, it feels appropriate to seek solace and recovery from the same landscape that inspired these artists of the past, as well as delving into the modern scene of the creatives who now call it home.