The Charleston Attic

Month: January, 2015

The Garden at Charleston

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The garden at Charleston today. Photographs © Penelope Fewster

While photographing the box of loose works on paper from Duncan Grant’s studio discussed in a previous post, we came across two items of particular interest. One is a small painting on lined notepaper posthumously attributed to Vanessa Bell, of a man tending to a flowerbed with a wheelbarrow at his feet. The other is a profile portrait sketch, likely to have been made by Grant. Although this sheet had been reserved and boxed up with other items in the Gift due to the drawing, it is the reverse of the work that is especially interesting in this instance; it is an envelope addressed to Duncan Grant, postmarked 1962, from Carters Tested Seed Ltd. These two items provide a wonderful insight into one of Bell and Grant’s shared passions and sources of artistic inspiration at Charleston: the garden.



Top: Vanessa Bell, , paint on lined paper, date unknown. CHA/P/1075/Recto.              Bottom: Duncan Grant, CHA/P/1156/Verso. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

‘I wish you’d leave Wissett and take Charleston…It has a charming garden, with a pond, and fruit trees, and vegetables, all now rather run wild, but you could make it lovely.’

Letter from Virginia Woolf to Vanessa Bell, May 1916.

Grant and Bell were enthusiastic gardeners who worked tirelessly to transform the muddy, overgrown gardens first encountered by Woolf in 1916 to the dense riot of colours, scents and textures it was later to become. First used to supply the household with fruit and vegetables during the First World War, towards the end of the conflict Bell turned her attention towards improving the garden as a space for pleasure. Roger Fry assumed the role of garden designer, drawing up his first plans for the walled garden as early as 1917. Employing the rational aesthetic principles he championed in his writing, Fry created a grid of intersecting paths and box hedges which framed a lawn inlaid with a small rectangular pool. Within this framework richly scented, brightly coloured and dramatically shaped flowers were planted, interspersed with subtle silver foliage; red-hot pokers, hollyhocks, foxgloves, globe artichokes, roses, poppies, lavender, alliums, nasturtiums, dahlias and zinnias.

Grant in particular was an obsessive plant collector, and regularly purchased seeds to be cultivated at Charleston – the envelope from Carters Tested Seeds Ltd. is likely to have once contained a catalogue or invoice for new acquisitions. In addition to employed gardeners, Bell and Grant were helped in the garden by Maynard Keynes, who could often be found on his hands and knees weeding the gravel borders.


Duncan Grant, Walled Garden at Charleston, circa 1965, oil on canvas, 49.5 cm x 60 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

It is unsurprising that the air of creativity fostered inside the house, with its painted surfaces and modern artworks, was to spill out into the garden. The spaces surrounding the house assumed numerous roles: an outdoor studio with an unlimited supply of props for painting; an al fresco gallery ideal for displaying sculptures and art-school models collected by Grant; secluded spots offering quiet and privacy for contemplation, reading and writing; a perfect auditorium for performing theatricals complete with hand-made props and elaborate costumes.

tate picPhotograph of Julian, Quentin and Angelica Bell with Janie Bussy, performing a play about Damon and Phyllis in the walled garden, 1935. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes… lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.

Vanessa Bell, 1936.

Bell fondly discussed the garden at Charleston in letters to friends and family, and would regularly paint outside, even in the depths of winter. When the weather was bad, she brought the garden inside by collecting flowers, fruit and seed heads to feature in still life compositions. Bell’s granddaughter, Virginia Nicholson, refers to her passion for the garden in a discussion of the murals in nearby Berwick Church, painted by Bell and Grant in the 1940s:

‘Vanessa’s Virgin Mary is Angelica, and true to Renaissance iconography she kneels before the Angel Gabriel in a garden – but this one is walled with flint, pathed with gravel and edged with grey-green lavender. Her Madonna lilies were probably culled from Vanessa’s own borders. The garden is Charleston and Vanessa’s painting is a celebration of her private heaven.’[1]

Annunciation Berwick Church

Vanessa Bell, The Annunciation, mural, c. 1942. Berwick Church, Sussex.

When the Charleston Trust was formed and the house restored in the 1980s, celebrated landscape architect Sir Peter Shepeard reconstructed the garden to Fry’s own plans, searching for references in paintings, early photographs and archived letters in order to create a faithful reproduction. While the walled garden was largely neglected in Grant’s old age, many of the original shrubs did survive and were retained. The new plan drawn up by Shepeard’s is still used by Charleston’s Head Gardener, Mark Divall, who works hard throughout the year to maintain the beautiful and unusual gardens which enchant so many visitors today. Annotated, dog-eared and stained from over twenty years of use, this document has acquired its own relic-like status and sits comfortably alongside the two Gift items. Together they hint at a visual biography of a space that was of vital importance to the creative and progressive way of life at Charleston.

Mark's Plan

The walled garden restoration plans, 1985. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


Read more about Mark Divall and his work at Charleston in his interview with The Garden Edit

[1] Quentin Bell & Virginia Nicholson, Charleston: a Bloomsbury House and Garden (Frances Lincoln, London, 1997). p. 147

Happy Birthday Virginia Woolf!

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Virginia Woolf c. 1884. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Virginia Woolf was born on the 25th January, 1882¸ at the Stephen family residence at 22 Hyde Park Gate in London. She was to become one of the most prolific modernist writers of her time, and her work continues to influence and inspire readers today. The younger sister of Vanessa Bell, Virginia was a central member of the Bloomsbury group of artists, writers and intellectuals, and was a regular visitor to Charleston. Today would have been Virginia’s 133rd Birthday.

Ethics and the Angelica Garnett Gift

Opening up the boxes that contain the Angelica Garnett Gift is to gain a very personal insight into the lives of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.  By revealing and singling out for conservation, photography, cataloguing, digitisation and research these various sketchbooks and supporting works they become available for contemplation, thought, future study and display. Yet presenting for public availability the written and drawn relics of the Bloomsbury group has important consequences that requires careful ethical consideration.

The Gift contains private material by both Grant and Bell. As can be seen below this includes personal notes and erotic art that we know were not intended by the artists for public viewing. This raises the question of how respect for the dead is mediated with the necessity of accessibility for the collection.

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CHA/P/851. Sketch of two males, Duncan Grant, date unknown. ©The Charleston Trust.

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CHA/P/619/13. Sketchbook, Duncan Grant, date unknown, various abstract designs and miscellaneous writings, pencil on paper, bound in blue card. 21.7 cm x 13. 8 cm. ©The Charleston Trust.

Museum ethics are an expression of social responsibility, a means of developing constructive relationships with those who have lived before us. Thus as we sift through the drawings, sketchbooks and paintings of the Angelica Garnett Gift, uncovering the intensely personal fragments of the lives therein, we are mindful of balancing the interests of these artists with the importance of our own historical research.

For our work in the attic at Charleston this manifests in two significant ways; firstly to abide by professional ethical museum standards, namely values such as honesty and accountability as well as adhesion to best museum practice. Secondly is the moral aspect; as curatorial trainee one is given a unique privilege in facilitating access to this incredible archive. With that responsibility comes the necessity of respect for these works and a developed sense of empathy for the needs and wishes of the people behind their creation.[1]

[1] For further reading on museum ethics, see: Marstine, J., (ed). 2011. The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum. London and New York: Routledge.

A Box Full of Bloomsbury – Cataloguing Loose Works on Paper from Duncan Grant’s Studio

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Items in the box before photographing and cataloguing. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

Since our return to the attic following the Christmas break we have focussed our attention on photographing and cataloguing a box of loose papers and notes in the Angelica Garnett Gift. This relatively small cardboard box contains almost one thousand items; from preparatory sketches and classical studies to newspaper clippings, notes and personal correspondence on pages of all sizes, ages and materials. Having been scooped up in a pile from Duncan Grant’s studio following his death in 1978 and stored together until they were given to the Trust in 2008, this eclectic assortment of works offers a fascinating insight into artistic practice at Charleston; the drive to create and record was not hindered by the materials available at hand. Instead, anything that would make or take a mark was employed and included in a house brimming with line, shape and colour, and kept up until the end of Grant’s life. As part of this microcosm of artistic expression that was lived in and around by the artists and their friends, it is not difficult to picture the pages from this box piled high on every surface in Grant’s studio, especially when some bear the traces of coffee rings and cigarette ash.


Duncan Grant’s Studio in the 1970s. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

From studies on cartridge and watercolour paper to sketches and notes made hastily on the backs on envelopes, household appliance instruction booklets, hotel letter paper, invoices, personal correspondence and graph paper, there is a diverse range of materials within the box. Not only do they demonstrate the drive for creative expression without privilege given to one type of paper over another, these unusual materials also offer glimpses into the artists’ private lives through personal correspondence and appointments.

Among the pieces are a 1925 letter to Duncan Grant from the editor of The Studio magazine requesting permission to include his works in an upcoming edition; the agenda for an Arts Council of Great Britain meeting held in 1946; a letter from the headmaster of a school in Reading regarding a case of German Measles from 1926; a 1950 Christmas greeting from a friend; a solicitor’s letter regarding a will from 1949; and an invoice for a new radio from 1936. All of these boast a sketch or annotation of some form; from abstract doodles and pattern designs to careful line drawings of classical nudes and landscape scenes. While dates are recorded on each item in a postmark or heading thereby giving a suggestion of provenance, we can only speculate as to whether the sketches themselves made on these papers were created at the same time or at a later date. As so little was disposed of at the house, it is likely that such scraps would have cropped up years after they were first received and used as new paper for sketching or note-taking.

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Illustrated items in the box. Clockwise from top left: CHA/P/897/R, CHA/P/665/R, CHA/P/895/V. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

The box’s contents also give evidence of the artists’ working practice, with numerous sketches, notes and newspaper clippings clearly created or saved with a particular commission or artwork in mind. For example, the box contains a number of newspaper cuttings of stories about agriculture with grainy photographs of sheep and farmers. Accompanying these are sketches of sheep and studies of agricultural workers. It is highly probable that these studies and cuttings were used by Grant for his commissioned murals in the St. Blaise Chapel in Lincoln Cathedral, painted in 1958. The finished design for Christ the Good Shepherd bears a strong resemblance to a sketch found in the box.

Blaise Good Shepherd



Top left and centre: Items from the box. Photographs © The Charleston Trust.  Top right: St. Blaise Chapel mural, Duncan Grant, c. 1958. Oil on panel, Lincoln Cathedral. Photograph © Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Cataloguing each piece offers a particular challenge with regards to authorship. Only some of the works have been signed by Grant, with none attributed with signature to Vanessa Bell. This is not surprising bearing in mind that both artists were notoriously unreliable when it came to signing their works, and also the contents of the box were originally taken from Grant’s studio. Where Grant has signed a work with his initials – and occasionally a date – these have often been made in a different media to that used for the work itself, such as in the example below, thereby suggesting that signatures were assigned some time after the drawings were created. Dr Darren Clarke, Charleston’s Curator, explored Grant’s retrospective signing of paintings in his PhD thesis, explaining that many works were signed by the artist in the 1960s at a time when his oeuvre was gaining popularity once again. By adding a signature, these artworks were instantly authenticated and commodifiable for the established art market to whom such status was – and still is – of vital importance. With regards to items in the box, the retrospective signing of sketches provokes thought about Grant’s later intentions for works that were originally conceived as studies rather than finished artworks in their own right; it is likely he intended for these too to be offered for sale.

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CHA/P/925/R. Duncan Grant, c. 1944, sketch of a chicken and duck, pencil on paper. Right: detail of the sketch showing the signature and date made in two different black pens. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

Having been haphazardly stored away without any method of cataloguing and with little care – the papers are stacked together in one large pile without any list of contents or dividers – many have not been seen or studied before now. Due to their current storage condition, their varying sizes, paper types and also the media used (some sketches have been made in charcoal which has transferred to opposing sheets), great care must be taken in removing each piece from the stack in order to photograph, measure, accession and store it within acid-free tissue wallets in a new storage box. Once the new Collections Store has been built as part of Charleston’s Centenary Project, these works will be moved from the attic to their new home where they will be kept with the other items in the Angelica Garnett Gift alongside works in Charleston’s permanent collection that are not currently on display to the public.

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Items from the box after photography and cataloguing has been completed. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

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