A ‘Typical Kind of Bloomsbury Misfortune’ – Duncan Grant’s ‘Cozy Stove’

by charlestonattic

When working through boxes in the Angelica Garnett Gift, we often encounter items which document significant commissions in Bell and Grant’s careers beyond the walls of Charleston. Such items can also lead to a consideration of other practitioners with whom the pair collaborated, including leading figures in the worlds of art, design, dance, literature and theatre. Previous posts have highlighted such projects, including discussions of Grant’s ballet designs and Bell and Grant’s textiles. A recently unearthed example is the small sketch below which documents Grant’s collaboration with the British painter, illustrator and designer, Robert Medley. Very little has been written about Grant and Medley’s commission, therefore it seems fitting to investigate the project and report our finds on The Charleston Attic blog, inspired by this small ink drawing.

Robert Medley had made acquaintance with Grant around 1925 when helping with the production of Lytton Strachey’s play, ‘The Son of Heaven’. After then being hired by Grant to paint the entire interior staircase of 52 Gordon Square – ‘bloody high houses as you know… It really was a ghastly business, it’s very funny actually’ recalled Medley – he began assisting both Bell and Grant on a number of projects into the 1930s. One of these was the Cozy Stove; a commercial household range that was to be launched at an industrial arts fair, hosted at the Victoria and Albert Museum around 1929. It is a design for the Cozy Stove that we recently uncovered up in the Attic Studio at Charleston.

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CHA/P/1416. Duncan Grant, drawing, design for a Cozy Stove, ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Although written accounts of the project are limited, The British Library holds a recording of Medley discussing the commission in May, 1994, not long before his death in the October of that year. In the interview he describes the project:

There used to be a Danish firm called Cozy Stove, the director of which was a man called Fiedler in London, a rather large, big Dane, who had the very good idea of having this cast iron stove, why not produce a model which had tiles round it like proper Continental stoves? So, Duncan and I went off to see Mr Fiedler…

He goes on to discuss the design process:

There was a standard Cozy Stove…just a metal thing about this high; would I design this thing. And it had to be done according to certain principles which were enunciated by Mr Fiedler. First of all… you can’t clamp the tiles on to the Cozy Stove itself, it had to be a separate case…and then of course it couldn’t be…a great big solid affair, because it had to be a commercial thing, so the idea was [that] each tile was to be made with a loop at the back, two loops, to be threaded on metal rods do you see, and then workmen could then easily assemble that with a bit of cement in everybody’s house without any difficulty. So, anyway my job was simply to design the look of the exterior of the stove. Well knowing Duncan’s work very well by then, I gave him this kind of shape…to decorate in the kind that he would like.

Medley continues, describing Duncan’s decorations and the issues that followed:

Duncan and I went down to a potter that he had in the Isle of Dogs…and duly painted all these tiles, and that was all fun. And then of course, what happened was that the tiles were then fired, and the typical kind of Bloomsbury misfortune happened, of course that somehow the mixture hadn’t been right and a lot of the tiles didn’t come out, didn’t fire too well. I mean they were all right, it was very arty, artistic in a certain sense, but like a lot of Bloomsbury art then, the way they painted things, there was a kind of slightly haphazard thing about it…

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‘Cozy Stove’ designed by Duncan Grant and Robert Medley, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Image sourced here

The finished tile designs are highly reminiscent of Grant and Bell’s decorations at Charleston, with their circular motifs, scalloped borders, stippled colours, and bold fruit and figurative motifs. Despite its commercial failings, one can argue that visually the Cozy Stove successfully united Grant’s ‘haphazard’ Bloomsbury style with a commercially-produced utility object, a unison similarly achieved with his fabric designs for Allan Walton Ltd. and ceramics for Foley. Although Grant and Medley’s offering did not go into production as intended, the Cozy Stove did go on display at the V&A, where it can still be seen today in the 20th Century Gallery.

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Detail of the fireplace in Clive Bell’s Study at Charleston. Photograph © Penelope Fewster

The full transcript of the interview with Robert Medley can be accessed here

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