How others have lived, the contexts they have created to hold and express their existence, the practical and decorative arrangements they have put in place in their private domestic worlds, can be a source of fascination. When we visit house museums of historical, literary or artistic figures, we want, over and above the visiting of rooms, the appreciation of furnishings and art work, to breathe in the perfume of the past. We seek to enter into some deeper communion with the inhabitants of these interiors, the creators of these gardens, the individuals who have sculpted this unique configuration of living space. We can come away, obscurely affected, with impressions that are hard to articulate. What can be for us intangible, indefinable, is given radiant voice in Nuala Hancock's book, "Charleston and Monk's House, the Intimate House Museums of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell."
I want to celebrate her gift for entering the "Holy Ground" of Charleston and Monk's House, the well documented and deservedly famous homes of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, and sensitising us to the more elusive charge that the houses impart, initiating us in interpreting the potency of their atmospheres, and giving a new dimension to the spaces in, and between them, with which we may have familiarised ourselves, but imperfectly divined. Nuala Hancock combines scholarship in the fields of Art History, Biography, Psychology, Architecture, Literature and Garden History to bring us a work of prismatic resonance and richness. From the visceral to the cerebral, Nuala Hancock's attention has an unusually wide compass, and the reader can savour the sensory pleasures and tactility of the decorated surfaces described, as well as revel in the abstractions that the house museums, and the book, evoke.
Whether we are being invited to consider the eloquent delicacy of Virginia Woolf's spectacles, or to gaze through Nuala Hancock's own sensitive lens, objects become freshly perceived, and their language is somehow de-coded to release a voltage, to suggest a narrative, to distill significance. It is as though the homes, gardens and even the illustrious sisters themselves commune directly with the author, such is the sensitivity of her attunement, the sympathy of her presence, the tenderness of her listening to catch their ephemeral confidences.
We are offered frissons of immediacy "I sit where Vanessa Bell sat at her easel, and I read her letters"; we are invited to explore the patterns of sisterly mirroring and artistic reciprocity, and we are introduced to speculative material that resonates intuitively as "Right". The ways in which Virginia and Vanessa sustain each other through the materiality of their respective creations is wonderfully investigated, and offers original and compelling insights into their relationship as sisters and creative artists.
There is a large scoping of landscapes, inner and outer, helpfully illustrated by photographs, many of them the author's own, and by extracts from previously unpublished letters and archives. All of this serves to "get under the skin" of the celebrated buildings and their inhabitants, through immersion in the atmosphere and artefacts they possess, resulting in the desire to revisit the homes, the paintings, the writing with the new perspectives that have been enabled.
An intrinsic joy of this book is Nuala Hancock's written style: language so finely wrought, so poetically apt, so singular yet accessible, it does justice to the subtlety and richness of the subject matter.
"Charleston and Monk's House" combines nourishment and stimulus for those who are sensitive to the "Angels in the Architecture", those who are fascinated by the relationship between sisters and their habitations, and whoever relishes the perennial dialogue between art and literature. It provides a superb addition to Bloomsbury studies, while commanding the interest of "The Common Reader". Nuala Hancock's book, written with erudition and love, is an inspiring read.