The Charleston Attic

Month: March, 2015

Excavating Bloomsbury – The Angelica Garnett Gift and the Archaeological Imagination

Last week on the first day of Charleston’s 2015 opening, curatorial trainee Dorian Knight presented his research on the Angelica Garnett Gift. He focused on how this archive in its entirety can be analysed using the approaches of an archaeologist, with the intention of yielding a new and original interpretation.

This was done by thinking about ruins, a theme of obvious concern to archaeologists. If we consider an ancient temple that has fallen into ruin, our attention is first drawn to the picturesque processes of material decay, ivy and moss growing into crumbling stone. This ruination is parallel to the state of the Angelica Garnett Gift; prior to its cataloguing the Gift was raw, unprocessed and unconserved, with stranded and fragmented pages of all sizes, ages and materials, grouped together en masse as seen below, items occasionally wrapped around one another, materials smudging. Thinking of the Gift in this way draws attention to the materiality of the objects as they undergo ruination, which can lead to a number of speculations about their character and aesthetics.

Items in the gift prior to photographing and cataloguing. ©The Charleston Trust.

Items in the gift prior to photographing and cataloguing. ©The Charleston Trust.

One of these speculations is the importance of the medium itself; although it is the artistic content of the Angelica Garnett Gift that may garner the most interest, I believe thinking as an archaeologist highlights the importance of these pieces not just as art works, but as artefacts, to be felt, touched and sensed; because to engage with the sensory, tactile and corporeal nature of the Gift is to appreciate it on a profound level that forces us to pay attention to the physical textures of the Bloomsbury world.

#poseMW – Self-Portraits in the Angelica Garnett Gift


CHA-P-593-53. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Despite the contents of the Angelica Garnett Gift offering an incredible visual biography of the painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, there are very few images of the artists themselves. Both made self-portraits – a number of which can be seen at Charleston – however we have found little evidence of these within the sketchbooks and loose pages of the Gift. There is only one drawing uncovered so far which resembles Grant and could be a self-portrait. However, as it is not signed and no reference to the sitter is given, we can only speculate.

This post marks the end of #MuseumWeek 2015. We hope that you have enjoyed our contributions!

#faveMW – Our Favourites in the Angelica Garnett Gift

DG's Christmas List 1961_cCHA-P-599-29_xc

Left: Loose page in the Angelica Garnett Gift, Duncan Grant, 1961. Right: CHA-P-599-29. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

Alice Purkiss: There is one item that I find particularly interesting in the Gift: Duncan Grant’s list of Christmas presents to buy for his family, friends and household staff in 1961. Both amusing – cigarettes, £1 notes and port are firm favourites – and moving – this was Grant’s first Christmas at Charleston after Vanessa Bell’s death – this small scrap of paper offers an intimate insight into life at Charleston in Grant’s later years.

Dorian Knight: My favourite pieces throughout the Angelica Garnett Gift are the reoccurring pictures of cats, an example of which can be seen above. We know there were always cats at Charleston, a favourite of which was called Marco Polo!

#familyMW – Childhood at Charleston

CHA-P-621-6_xc  CHA-P-656-R_xcCHA-P-598-39_xc

Left to right: CHA-P-621-6, CHA-P-598-39, CHA-P-656-R. Photographs © The Charleston Trust.

Family was at the heart of life at Charleston. Home to Vanessa Bell’s young children as well as a host of visiting artists and writers, the house offered a playground in which all – adults and children alike – were encouraged to create and explore. Amongst the pages of Bell and Grant’s sketchbooks in the Gift can be found doodles and sketches made by tiny hands: from the carefully traced alphabet of a young child learning to write, to wonderfully naïve sketches of monsters and ghouls.

You can read more about the children of Charleston in our blog post, The Children of the Angelica Garnett Gift

#inspirationMW – Bloomsbury and the Old Masters

CHA-P-728-R_xc CHA-P-727-R_xc CHA-P-726-R_xc

Clockwise from top left: CHA-P-728-R, CHA-P-727-R, CHA-P-726-R. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant regularly studied Old Master paintings in museums and exhibitions across Europe, a practice that both enriched their knowledge of art history and provided inspiration for their own works. Grant’s teacher, the painter Simon Bussy, stressed the importance of copying from the Old Masters, and numerous renditions can be found within the Angelica Garnett Gift. Alongside their own works, photographic reproductions can be found too, having been snipped out of the newspaper or pilfered from a book. These three sketches were made by Grant after Titian’s Venus of Urbino, seen by the artist on a visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

#architectureMW – The Lost Spaces of Bloomsbury

CHA-P-616-41_xc CHA-P-598-4_xc CHA-P-612-48_xc

From left to right: CHA-P-616-41, CHA-P-598-4, CHA-P-612-48. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

While Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell created decorative interiors in houses across Britain, Charleston is the only example of their work remaining in its entirety today. Destroyed by fire, enemy bombs or purely the differing taste of a new occupant, so many extraordinary designs have been lost. For many, the only lasting reminder of their existence are the numerous floor plans, notes on colour schemes, lists of addresses and decorative designs found within the pages of sketchbooks in the Angelica Garnett Gift. These small drawings and brief notes therefore offer an invaluable insight into an important part of Bell and Grant’s oeuvre that is now lost.

You can read more about Bell and Grant’s interior schemes in our previous post, ‘Vogue November 1924: Modern English Decoration’

#souvenirsMW – Tokens of Memory in the Angelica Garnett Gift

CHA-P-620-38_xc CHA-P-1126-V_xcCHA-P-601-8 crop

Left to right: CHA-P-620-38, CHA-P-1126-V, CHA-P-601-8. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

Although living and working for the most part in England, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell often travelled to the Continent. Found throughout the Angelica Garnett Gift are small tokens and souvenirs of these trips, including a map, postcard and menu, all from Europe. Each of these objects are treasured forms of Bloomsbury memorabilia, imbued with  memories of the past. Read more about souvenirs in the Gift in our previous blog post here: A Box Full of Bloomsbury – Cataloguing Loose Works on Paper from Duncan Grant’s Studio

#secretsMW – Behind the Scenes at Charleston

CHA-P-617-173_xc CHA-P-712-R_xc

Left: CHA-P-617-173, lists and notes made by Vanessa Bell. Right: CHA-P-712-R. Letter from Vanessa Bell to an unknown recipient discussing her household staff. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

While Charleston is best known for its role as a creative retreat for artists and writers, it is important to remember that it was also a domestic environment. From the start, Vanessa Bell assumed her role as head of the household. She worked tirelessly alongside hired staff to ensure life was as comfortable as possible in the face of World War I food rationing and problems associated with living in an old, rural house. The Angelica Garnett Gift is littered with reminders of her matriarchal role: from shopping lists and accounts jotted on the backs of sketches, to extracts of letters discussing the household staff slipped into sketchbooks.

You can read more about domestic life at Charleston here.

#MuseumWeek 2015 – A Week of Blog Posts from the Attic

For the whole of next week, institutions across the world will be celebrating #MuseumWeek 2015 on Twitter. The Charleston Attic will be joining in by blogging a short daily post, each highlighting different items in the Angelica Garnett Gift at Charleston that reflect the themes being discussed. Next week also sees the house opening its doors to the first visitors of the 2015 season, therefore it’s an ideal time to be celebrating the collection and our incredible finds in the attic. We hope that you’ll enjoy our contributions, and would love to hear your thoughts! Watch this space…


CHA/P/694/R Duncan Grant, Ducklings, pencil and ink pen on paper, 19.2 cm x 28.4 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


The Children of the Angelica Garnett Gift

Pre-Bloomsbury, childhood was no fun. Victorian orthodoxy dictated both austerity and hardship that children were meant to endure. This educational philosophy was reversed by the increasing popularity of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book ‘Emile, or on Education’, which espoused a view of childhood as necessarily uncorrupted and free from the distorting values of society. Although it is unclear whether Vanessa Bell had ever explicitly read Rousseau, his influences can be felt in her attitude that children should grow up free from the stranglehold of Victorian teachings. As Virginia Nicholson notes in her book (2002, p. 72), Vanessa Bell would frequently follow her children around with a camera, ‘capturing their cherubic nakedness, or their intent absorption in the mud of the cattle pond, or a burgeoning soap-bubble, or a flower. Julian, Quentin and Angelica grew up barefoot and naked; children of nature.’ [1]

Vanessa, Quentin and Julian. ©The Charleston Trust.

Vanessa, Quentin and Julian. ©The Charleston Trust.


CHA/P/630. Mother and Child.©The Charleston Trust.

The evidence from the Angelica Garnett Gift highlights this playful and carefree attitude the Bloomsbury group had with children, seen both above and below.

CHA/P/656. Julian Bell as a Child. ©The Charleston Trust.

CHA/P/656. Julian Bell as a Child. ©The Charleston Trust.

[1] For further information on the Bloomsbury group and their views on education, see: Nicholson, Virginia., 2002. Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900 – 1939 (London: Viking).

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