The Charleston Attic

Month: February, 2015

The Miniature World of the Angelica Garnett Gift

Where do you keep your past? The pasts of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell are stored in blue and grey boxes, kept in the attic at Charleston Farmhouse. To work with this archive on a daily basis is to step back in time into a lost universe of Bloomsbury painters, to walk away from 2015 and into the early 20th century. In effect it is easy to conceptualise the Angelica Garnett Gift archive in its entirety as a miniature world in which the lives of the Bloomsbury group are played out, a paper universe captured within the four walls of stacked cardboard boxes.

What is it about this miniature world that is so enchanting? Small worlds beguile us because of the strange charm of microcosms, evoking associations of secrets, hidden treasures, love letters, riddles and childhood – all things magical. It is in such details that the collections that make up this particular archive are so enduringly fascinating. Below are some of the works we have been cataloguing this week in the attic.

CHA/P/640. Male figure study. ©the Charleston Trust.

CHA/P/640. Male figure study. ©The Charleston Trust.

CHA/P/653. Child's sketch and letter. ©The Charleston Trust.

CHA/P/653. Child’s sketch and letter. ©The Charleston Trust.

Detectives in The Attic: A ‘Ballet and the Bloomsbury Group’ Update

An enormous ‘Thank You’ is due to a Charleston Attic reader (and ballet aficionado) for suggesting that the sketch of a dancer discussed in the previous post is likely to depict a character from the Ballets Russes’ production of Petrushka. Written by Alexandre Benois and Igor Stravinsky, and choreographed by Michel Fokine, the ballet tells the story of three puppets, and was first performed in Paris in June 1911 with Nijinsky in the leading role. Petrushka would become one of the Ballets Russes’ most celebrated and widely performed productions. In 1949, dance historian Grace Robert wrote of it: ‘Although more than thirty years have elapsed since Petrushka was first performed, its position as one of the greatest ballets remains unassailed. Its perfect fusion of music, choreography, and décor and its theme—the timeless tragedy of the human spirit—unite to make its appeal universal.’


Alexandre Benois’ design for the First Street Dancer. Image sourced here


Left: Grant’s sketch. Photograph © The Charleston Trust. Right: A page from the 1911 souvenir programme. Image sourced here

Grant’s sketch and annotations closely match one of Benois’ designs for a costume (note the winy purple & dark purple stripes of the First Street Dancer’s leggings), and a photograph of a character printed in the 1911 programme (note the striped bodice, bell-shaped skirt and white cap of the dancer in the top-left vignette). Although Grant was not involved in the production himself, it is highly likely that he would have attended a performance at some time and recorded the unusual outfit of the dancer on stage in a sketch. Kept amongst other designs in Grant’s studio at Charleston, perhaps this small drawing was later used as a source to inspire his own costume designs for Jacques Copeau’s productions – we can only speculate. What is certain, however, is the importance of cataloguing and researching the items in the Angelica Garnett Gift to enable such discussions which both enrich and enliven existing Bloomsbury scholarship.

Ballet and the Bloomsbury Group

When photographing small works on paper in the Gift, we came across this biro sketch on cardboard made by Duncan Grant. Depicting a dancer en pointe in an elaborate costume, the drawing is surrounded by annotations detailing the colours and fabrics to be used. ‘White fur cap & gold stripes,’ ‘winy purple & dark purple stripes,’ ‘red velvet’; this would have been a flamboyant and unusual ensemble. The significance of this small sketch is two-fold: firstly, it provides a glimpse into the progressive world of modernist dance and theatre in Britain in the early twentieth century. Secondly, it offers a primary resource to consider Grant’s own costume designs for both professional productions and later theatricals held in the garden at Charleston. While the sketch is undated and therefore unable to be linked to a particular production without further research, it offers an intriguing insight into the artist’s practice and influences.


CHA/P/1231/R. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

In 1909, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes took London by storm. The company’s ground-breaking performances showcased collaborations between the world’s leading dancers, choreographers, composers and designers, and delivered a spectacular blow to a British audience familiar with the delicate and refined classics. Along with other members of his circle, Grant became a frequent visitor to Diaghilev’s productions, which he had first seen in 1909 with his friend Lady Ottoline Morrell.

While it has been argued that some critics have exaggerated and misunderstood the productions’ impact on Grant, the artist was clearly inspired by these magnificent performances with their modernist stage sets and avant-garde costumes. According to Bloomsbury scholar Simon Watney, ‘There was little that Grant could have learnt technically as a painter from the productions.’ Instead, ‘It was the revelation of the potential of the theatre for modern design that inspired him, like so many others.[1]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACHA/PH/2. Photograph. Nijinsky in the Siamese Dance from ‘Les Orientales,’ 1911, by Druet. 26.5 x 43.6 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

At Lady Ottoline’s wartime parties during the winter of 1914-15, an atmosphere of ‘pure hedonism’ reigned, influenced by the success of the Ballets Russes. Guests would dress up in unusual costumes and dance wildly until the early hours. The hostess recalled one party when, ‘Duncan Grant was almost fierce, but full of humour and grace, as he bounded about like a Russian ballet dancer, or wound in and out in some intricate dance with Vanessa Bell or Bunny Garnett, who looked really fierce and barbaric in bright oranges and reds, a gay-coloured handkerchief on his head.[2] This spirit of freedom was upheld at Charleston, where a variety of productions were staged in the garden throughout the years, with sets and costumes designed and made by Grant and others.


Left: Duncan Grant dressed as a Spanish dancer in the garden at Charleston c. 1935. Right: CHA/P/453. Costume, Duncan Grant, three part, life size, jointed, painted, card costume, circa 1935, gouache on card, 116 x 65 cm. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

The artist worked on a number of professional stage productions, for which he designed both sets and costumes in his expressive and experimental style. Jacques Copeau commissioned Grant to create costumes for his 1914 production of La Nuit des Rois, an adaptation from Twelfth Night by Theodore Lascaris. The production had a very simple stage dressing; devised both to reduce costs and to offer a modernist aesthetic. ‘I imagine surroundings in every respect unobtrusive,’ Copeau explained, ‘all the amusement of form and colour being produced by the costumes and the gestures of the actors.’[3] The production was well received, and became Copeau’s most frequently produced classic play.[4] While Grant went on to design costumes for another of Copeau’s productions following his earlier success, their collaboration was prematurely stopped by war. However, he did continue to design stage sets in the 1920s, and collaborated with Vanessa Bell on a production of High Yellow, a ballet set to modern jazz music.

The influence of dance and theatricality was not limited to Grant’s stage commissions, but permeated his other works with their freedom of line and playful use of colour. As discussed in a previous post about the influence of the circus on Grant’s work, the physicality of dancers similarly captured his imagination, and influenced his painting style and subject matter equally in unrelated paintings and drawings.


CHA/P/166. Drawing, Duncan Grant, “Two Nymphs”, circa 1925, pastel and pencil on paper, framed, glazed, 35.5 x 26 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

[1] Simon Watney, The Art of Duncan Grant (London, 1990) p. 35

[2] Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant (London, 1998) p.162

[3] Spalding, p.146

[4] Ibid., p. 145

The Magic of Dwelling: The Angelica Garnett Gift and the Poetics of Space

Buildings – contrary to popular thought – are not inanimate objects. They live and breathe, and like humans, have an outside and an inside, a body and a soul.

Daniel Libeskind, Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture. [1]

 Saw my old room – so strange with the ink splashes and shelves as of old. I could write the history of every mark and scratch in that room, where I lived so long.

Virginia Woolf, Journal, 30 January 1905. [2]

Spaces and buildings inhabit our world and imaginations. Old mills, ruined castles, enchanted forests, damp cellars, derelict cottages, cobwebbed attics, domestic wardrobes and chests of drawers, each have their own unique poetic sensibility. These spaces are theatres that shape our thoughts, memories and desires. In short, the enclosures and fabrics of the houses and buildings we grow up in, live within, visit and dream about at night are building blocks for the imagination.[3]

The idea of a reflexive correspondence between house and inhabitant is one that members of the Bloomsbury Group relate to in their memorial writings about the houses of their pasts. In 1922 Lytton Strachey wrote:

‘Those curious contraptions of stones and bricks . . . in which our lives are entangled as completely as our souls in our bodies – what powers do they not wield over us, what subtle and pervasive effects upon the whole substance of our existence may not be theirs.[4]

This statement has clear relevance to Charleston today. The corridors, rooms, hallways and stairwells their are imbued with the spirits of the past inhabitants. No visitor can fail to notice the emotionally textured interiors, the suggestive qualities of light and darkness and the evocative power of atmosphere the house inspires. The visitor to the house experiences it viscerally; to physically walk through the spaces that Grant and Bell did is not to merely think about those artists but to be in the ‘physical presence of their actualised past’, to be immersed in the fabric of their surviving home.’ [5]

Painting, Duncan Grant, 'Charleston barns', circa 1959, oil on canvas, framed, signed, 54.7 cm x 63.4.

Painting, Duncan Grant, ‘Charleston barns’, circa 1959, oil on canvas, framed, signed, 54.7 cm x 63.4.

Sketches of buildings and interiors haunt what has been revealed in the Angelica Garnett Gift thus far. Below are some examples of these pieces that have come to light in the attic.

Piece from the Angelica Garnett Gift. Not catalogued at present.

Piece from the Angelica Garnett Gift. Not catalogued at present.

Piece from the Angelica Garnett Gift. Not yet catalogued.

Piece from the Angelica Garnett Gift. Not yet catalogued.

The Bloomsbury Group lived in a period of changing thought in regards to buildings, architecture and space. Having inherited a fossilised Victorian culture and stiff Victorian houses with their clear cut boundaries between private and public spaces, the group represented something radically new; rooms and houses lost their material feel and functions and became metaphors of a less solid reality. These were now spaces imbued with the spirit of their inhabitants and visitors, interiors that now expressed intellectual and spiritual energy, an exquisite refinement and an innovative zest. [6] Pictures from the Gift underline this enduring fascination Grant and Bell had with interiors, rooms and buildings.

[1] Daniel Libeskind, Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture, (London: John Murray, 2005), p.5.

[2] Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1909, ed. Mitchell . Leaska, preface Hermione Lee (London: Pimlico, 2004), p. 230.

[3] For more on the conceptual link between poetics and physical space, see: Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look of How We Experience Intimate Places (Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1994).

[4] Lytton Strachey, Lytton Strachey by Himself: A Self Portrait, ed. and intro. Michael Holroyd, (London: Abacus, 2005), p.21.

[5] Nuala Hancock, Charleston and Monk’s House: The Intimate House Museums of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p. 39.

[6] For more information on the Bloomsberry Group and changing perceptions of architecture, see: Victoria Rosner, Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

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