Typically, posts on the Charleston to Charleston News page will read more like articles, but I'm taking the liberty of writing to you today as me, Leah Rhyne. Some of you know me already. I'm the Festival Coordinator for the C2C Literary Festival, and I met many of you back in November. I spend most of my time working for the Charleston Library Society, one of the two sister organizations that have worked together to create Charleston to Charleston, Inc.
As such, I'm quite familiar with the value and aesthetic of the Library Society here in South Carolina. I love it. It's my home away from home. I love wandering the stacks of books, trailing a finger across the spines. I love browsing our vaults, where I always wind up leafing through antebellum newspapers, reading accounts of parties or battles, both of which raged centuries ago. I've thus far brought to the C2C Literary Festival table a sense of place here in South Carolina.
With the Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, England, I was far less familiar. I'd heard stories and seen photos of the home in the British countryside that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant "decorated" with their paintings and sculptures. And as half of the C2C partnership, I of course appreciated the contributions of the farmhouse to arts and culture.
But I didn't get it. I truly didn't.
Which is why I was thrilled for the opportunity to go over to Sussex to experience the much-loved Charleston Festival, which provides both model and mentorship for C2C. I'd love to share that experience with you. I want you to get it, too.
The Charleston Farmhouse
My first glimpse of the Charleston farmhouse came after 20 hours of travel. I was bleary, to say the least, but even at my sleepiest, I was overwhelmed by my gorgeous new surroundings.
The Charleston house sits in the middle of a working dairy farm, surrounded by cows and sheep. I stepped out of the hired car onto a gravel driveway and found myself in a garden oasis, the flowers and greenery of a true English garden everywhere. It was breathtaking, The Secret Garden brought to life.
The beauty of the surrounding fields and gardens have nothing on the actual interior of the Charleston house, though. Again, I just didn't get it. I spent a day wandering the gardens and the festival marquee tent before I finally got my act together and went inside the house.
When I did, joining a tour of other first-time visitors stepping back through time into the world of the famed Bloomsbury Group, I realized: you have to experience it to get it.
The Charleston house isn't simply a house that people painted. It's a living, breathing work of art. Each nook and cranny was touched by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, or any of the other myriad artists and writers who walked its halls during its heyday in the early 20th Century. Every piece of furniture is a masterpiece. Each door is a picture of fun and whimsy. From a kitchen table painted with Vanessa Bell's signature circles, or a wall stamped with chevrons, art comes to life in the Charleston house. Love and joy are palpable in the halls. So too is sadness. Drawings scrawled by children long dead hang beside their portraits, painted by their mother or other friends.
It's unreal, but also....so very real.
Photos aren't allowed in the Charleston farmhouse, which was devastating in a way. How would I remember it? How would I share it? Luckily, I don't think I could ever forget the sheer joy I felt walking into Vanessa Bell's studio, and to share it with you I created this Pinterest board full of Charleston imagery. I hope you love it. I know I do.
Of course, the Charleston farmhouse might be less impactful if not for its surroundings. Idyllic seaside farmland, the rolling hills of the South Downs, and white cliffs dropping off to the English Channel must have provided plenty of inspiration to all the members of the Bloomsbury group as they lived, worked, and experimented artistically. Hiking the cliffs on a cool, breezy, peaceful was an experience I'll never forget, and one for which I am so very grateful.
The Charleston Festival
I didn't cross the Atlantic just to sightsee. I was there to see the famed Charleston Festival and to learn what I could, over the course of three days, from its staff and administrators. And what an experience it was!
In the first place, the staff at Charleston is phenomenal, and they have festival-running down to a science. With radios that keep them all connected, and procedures ensuring each speaker is well-fed, rested, and shows up on stage on time, the staff runs the Festival like a well-oiled machine. They also happen to be lovely, welcoming and warm, and made me feel like a part of their team.
I was lucky. While in Sussex, I managed to see some incredible speakers. From biographer Claire Tomalin speaking about her own storied biography, to actress Gemma Arterton, director Chanya Button and our own C2C speaker Juliet Nicolson discussing Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, I saw some strong, brave women cross the Charleston Festival stage. My experience was topped off by the John Maynard Keynes Prize presentation to Sir David Attenborough, the voice of all of our connections to nature.
The Charleston Festival is different from C2C in that it takes place in a single location: a marquee tent outside the gardens surrounding the Charleston farmhouse. The tent holds 400 spectators comfortably, and has a secondary "entrance" tent in which an on-site bookstore, run by City Books in Brighton, is set up throughout the entire festival. With no shifting venues, the Charleston Festival can run several semi-permanent locations for snacks, with food trucks providing more hearty sustenance.
C2C will always span multiple venues in a richly historic city packed with restaurants, cafes, and bars, and we will always focus on our own special Southern hospitality. But we'll be incorporating plenty of what I learned in Sussex, from daily briefing sheets to standard, pre-program announcements. Though the possibility of organizational hiccups always remains, I think things will run more smoothly and professionally at C2C in 2018, all thanks to my experiences in Sussex.
The first C2C Literary Festival in November of 2017 was amazing. I'm not lying. I had one of the best (and most intensely exhausting) weekends of my life. There were many new friendships forged, and so many lovely and enlightening discussions to be heard.
Now, after experiencing the Charleston Farmhouse and Festival for the first time, I know we can be even better in 2018. We can bring some of Charleston's whimsy into our aesthetic; we can incorporate their organizational best practices as well.
C2C began as a partnership between two much-loved organizations on two separate continents. Now as we work to perfect our own, separate identity, we will continue to learn from the best.
Thank you so much to all my new and old friends for making my time in Sussex so wonderful. Walter, Anne, Will, Gerry, Doerte, Paul, Katherine, Nathaniel, Hannah, Sarah, Emily, Alice, Maria, Jemma, Carolyn, Melissa, Diana, Juliet, Virginia, Bill, Charlie, Debo, John and Annasue - it was lovely to see you all at Charleston! I had a joyful time, and I hope you did, too.