The Charleston Attic

Month: November, 2014

‘Putting the House to Bed’ – Conserving Charleston’s Collection

After a long, hot summer hosting thousands of visitors who came to experience the delights that the house and garden offer, Charleston closed its doors for the winter at the beginning of November. As soon as it was empty, a team of expert volunteers and conservators took up their tools to start cleaning, wrapping, covering and repairing the house and its contents. A time-consuming and delicate operation, the group will be working until the new year to complete their mammoth task. Once ‘put to bed’, Charleston will be left to rest over the winter months before opening again in the spring for the next season.

Charleston conservation winter quentin bell figures covered 11- 2012. p.fewster

Quentin Bell’s figures covered for the winter. Photograph © Penelope Fewster

From sculptures and paintings, to the artists’ everyday possessions such as hairbrushes, teacups and bathroom plungers, each item in Charleston’s collection must be carefully cleaned with pony hair brushes and covered with tissue paper for the winter months. Not only shielding from dust and dirt, this also protects objects, furnishings and painted surfaces from light damage and any pests that manage to sneak into the house.

Charleston conservation winter studio reflected 11- 2012. p.fewster

Charleston’s Studio wrapped up for winter. Photograph © Penelope Fewster

It is particularly important to use acid-free tissue paper when protecting objects as lower-grade materials can cause more damage than good. Lignin in the wood pulp used to make most commercial tissue papers is acidic. If an object is wrapped in an acidic paper, the acidity can migrate to the object and cause significant damage. Papers, textiles and wooden items – the main body of Charleston’s collection – are particularly susceptible to attack from acids. Museums and conservators therefore use acid-free papers when storing, wrapping and mounting works to ensure their condition is not compromised.[1]

Charleston conservation. intern Alice. 11- 2014. photo p.fewster

Cleaning curtains from Duncan Grant’s bedroom. Photograph © Penelope Fewster

We have been privileged to join the team putting the house to bed, and to gain invaluable experience of object handling, care and conservation. Working alongside volunteers and expert staff members has been both highly enjoyable and informative, especially as many have worked at Charleston for years and have so many stories to share about the house and its contents.


Sketchbooks in the Angelica Garnett Gift. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

We have put the practical skills gained to great use when wrapping and storing the sketchbooks in the Angelica Garnett Gift. Once photography has been completed, each book is carefully wrapped in acid-free tissue, marked with its newly-assigned accession number and stored in a special (you’ve guessed it) acid-free box. While individual sketchbook boxes will be made in the coming months, such as the example below, until then they will be safe and stable within their tissue wrappers. Having arrived at Charleston in 2008 piled in large crates without protection from each other or the environment, the books are now stored in line with museum standards which will ensure that they can be enjoyed and studied for many generations to come.


A new sketchbook box. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Many thanks to Charleston’s wonderful volunteer photographer, Penelope Fewster, who provided photographs to accompany this post. See more of her photographs of Charleston here.


[1] Read more about conservation materials here.

‘Greek Love’: Duncan Grant’s male nudes

In an age where relationships between the sexes were severely constrained, the prominent Bloomsberries flouted contemporary conventional styles of living. Consequently they left behind them a legacy of lifestyles far more radical and experimental than that of the recently departed Victorian Age with all its associated puritanism. This newfound attitude to sexuality and the human body is evident in the pencil sketch below by Duncan Grant, from the Angelica Garnett Gift.


CHA/P/607/38. Sketchbook, Duncan Grant, date unknown, figures, interiors, lists and other writings, pencil on paper, bound in brown card with cloth spine. 19.6 cm x 12.6 cm. © The Charleston Trust.

Certain strands that lie behind the inspiration of such a sketch can be unpicked; Grant was the carrier of a tradition evident in English art and literature and originating in the works of Byron regarding the sanctity of ancient Greece, where ‘homoeroticism was not merely tolerated but celebrated as the highest manifestation of sensual and intellectual bonding between men.’[1] Known to have travelled to such exotic destinations including Greece and Italy during the early 20th century, in a letter written whilst abroad to Lytton Strachey, Grant writes:

‘I often in my journey by the sea longed to get out and live the rest of my life unbeknownst and lost among the beautiful youths I saw playing about in and out of the mirror-like sea with roses trailing on the sands.’[2]

It is this ideal of sensual Mediterranean indulgences that informed much of Grant’s artistic interest and vision in drawing the naked male form,  including works within the Charleston’s collection, such as a male nude swimmer, produced in the Omega Workshops.

Nude swimmer

CHA/F/115. Chest, linen chest, date unknown, painted wood and upholstery, decorated by Duncan Grant in 1917, maker unknown, Charleston, England, 49 cm x 93.5 cm x 42.5 cm.  © The Charleston Trust.

Indeed Clive Bell, writing in 1920 claimed ‘there is something Greek about Grant, the romantic, sensuous Hellenism of the English literary tradition’, [3] whilst Roger Fry commented that Grant’s art had a certain ‘Doric delicacy.’[4]

Inevitably of course, Grant was also influenced by subject matter more close at hand to him back home in England; following the inauguration of George V there was an underlined association between the new monarch’s patronage of sport and the public spectacle of ‘manly’ games. As a result Grant was known to have gained insight into the male form through watching swimming competitions as well as attending football, wrestling and rugby matches.

With varying inspirations, Grant’s nudes, particularly those from the 1950s are frequently considered his best works. Following scholar Simon Watney (1990, p. 69), it is in  such pieces that ‘Grant responded in the most direct and spontaneous way to the sensual pleasures of seeing.’ [5]

[1] Reed, C. (2004).  Bloomsbury Rooms-Modernism, Subculture and Domesticity.  Yale University Press: New Haven and London.

[2] D. Grant to L. Strachey. 16th of June 1907 (personal communication).  British Library.

[3] Bell, C. (1922).  Since Cézanne. London: Chatto and Windus.

[4] Fry, R. (1920).  Mr. Duncan Grant’s Pictures at Patterson’s Gallery. New Statesman.

[5] Watney, S. (1990). The Art of Duncan Grant.  London: John Murray Ltd.

Duncan Grant & St. Paul’s

CHA-P-590-5 St Pauls
CHA/P/590/5. Sketchbook, Duncan Grant, c. 1956, assorted sketches, pencil and pen on paper, bound in card with spiral wire binding. 13.8 cm x 23.8 cm. © The Charleston Trust

‘It is commonplace, but we cannot help repeating it, that St. Paul’s dominates London. It swells like a great grey bubble from a distance; it looms over us, huge and menacing, as we approach.’[1]

Virginia Woolf, Abbeys and Cathedrals.

Virginia Woolf’s interest in St. Paul’s Cathedral was shared by Duncan Grant who made numerous studies of the monument throughout his life. Appearing as early as 1893 in a colourful study made when the artist was only eight years old,[2] the building continued to feature in Grant’s oeuvre both as the visual focus for a composition, such as in his painting St Paul’s, 1934, and as a distant – yet no less potent – element in works such as St Paul’s, c. 1933-4.

In the drawing above, from a sketchbook in the Angelica Garnett Gift created around 1936, Wren’s iconic dome takes centre stage, the attention given to detailing the building over its surroundings demonstrative of Grant’s particular fascination with the subject. In another sketchbook, a ‘to-do’ list has been hastily scribbled by the artist, the first item being ‘Finish St. Paul’s’. As the date of this sketchbook is unknown, the note could refer to any one of his works on the subject.

CHA-P-607-17_c St Pauls list
CHA/P/607/17. Sketchbook, Duncan Grant, date unknown, figures, interiors, lists and other writings, pencil on paper, bound in brown card with cloth spine. 19.6 cm x 12.6 cm. Photo © The Charleston Trust

As it was not spiritual sentiment which drew Grant to St. Paul’s as a subject – he and other members of the Bloomsbury group were not religiously inclined – it was the building’s impressive design and dominant position in London’s skyline which instead impressed him. Bloomsbury scholar Richard Shone has noted how Grant was a great admirer of Christopher Wren’s architecture and in particular that of St. Paul’s, thereby explaining why it so regularly appeared in his paintings of the city, either as focus for the work or as a prominent background feature.[3]

‘Something of the splendour of St. Paul’s lies simply in its vast size, in its colourless serenity. Mind and body seem both to widen in this enclosure, to expand under this huge canopy where the light is neither daylight nor lamplight, but an ambiguous element something between the two.’[4]

Virginia Woolf, Abbeys and Cathedrals.

St Paul’s cathedral in London during the Blitz. © IWM (HU 36220A)

The building’s solidity and permanence was particularly celebrated following the Second World War when photographs of its dome puncturing the smoke filled sky became iconic symbols of the country’s resilience and determination in the face of conflict. During the Blitz, the City of London was targeted by German bombers who caused such widespread destruction that one contemporary reporter dubbed it, ‘the second Great Fire of London’.[5] While the cathedral itself was hit by 28 bombs, it miraculously survived, and as a result, dramatic views of the building were opened up from amongst its decimated surroundings.

In a letter to Duncan Grant, Sir Kenneth Clark offered to commission a painting of the cathedral within its revised landscape as a War Artists Advisory Committee work:

‘I know you have painted St Paul’s a great many times but I hope you will not mind painting it once more because I don’t think it has ever looked more beautiful than it does rising out of this sort of Pompeii in the foreground and the Pompeii has all the elements of colour which I think you enjoy painting.’[6]


The resulting painting, St. Paul’s 1941, now in the Imperial War Museum’s collection, visually translates Clark’s description of the building to be rising up out of the ruined city. Painted from the basement of a bombed building nearby, Grant has employed an exaggerated perspective to ensure the cathedral’s dome towers above its ruined surroundings; as Woolf wrote, it looms over us, huge and menacing. This impression of strength and dominance is further heightened by the dome’s cross piercing the top of the picture plane; simultaneously pushing beyond the frame’s boundaries and visually supporting the composition upon its pointed tip. As Grant’s biographer Frances Spalding writes, the painting, ‘celebrates in dense, rich colour Wren’s magnificent classical rhetoric.’[7]

St Paul's 1941
St Paul’s 1941, Duncan Grant, 1941, oil on canvas. Imperial War Museum, London. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1844)

‘Here it is again, looming over us, mountainous, immense, greyer, colder, quieter than before. And directly we enter we undergo that pause and expansion and release from hurry and effort which it is in the bower of St. Paul’s, more than any other building in the world, to bestow.’[8]

Virginia Woolf, Abbeys and Cathedrals.

Having been a significant subject in the artist’s works, it was fitting that following his death in May 1978, a memorial service for Duncan Grant was held at St. Paul’s; a place that had inspired him throughout his life.

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