The Charleston Attic

Month: July, 2015

‘The firm of Bell and Grant’ and the Famous Women Dinner Service

‘Though I usually despise any work of art to which the word Bloomsbury is attached, I was delighted by a deliriously camp set of ceramic dinner plates by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant with the imaginary portraits of famous women.’

                        Richard Dormant Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, review: ‘makes Clark fallible but more likeable’ 19th May 2014

In 2014 Tate Britain held the exhibition ‘Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilization’. This was the first show devoted to Clark, one of the most influential figures in the British art world during the last century. Clark fulfilled many roles during his professional life; that of scholar, educator, collector, patron, writer, administrator and broadcaster, and in all he stayed loyal to his central belief in the importance of art for human life.  At the heart of this exhibition is an examination of the support Clark gave for modern British artists, as during the 1930’s and 1940’s he was one of the most active collectors of contemporary British art.


(top) CHA/P/1645, Duncan Grant, drawing, design for the Famous Ladies dinner service commissioned by Kenneth Clark 1932, pencil and ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust (bottom) CHA/P/1646, Duncan Grant, drawing, design for the Famous Ladies dinner service commissioned by Kenneth Clark 1932, ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

In the Attic Studio at Charleston, we have recently identified a series of interesting sketches by Duncan Grant that form the basis of a commission for Clark. The ‘Famous Women Dinner Service’ is a collection of forty-eight plates that Grant and Vanessa Bell designed as part of a one-hundred and forty piece set. It is one of the largest commissioned works produced by the Bloomsbury artists and sketches for a number of plates and of different ‘Famous Women’ have been found as part of our on-going exploration of the Angelica Garnett Gift.


CHA/P/1709, Duncan Grant, drawing, design for the Famous Ladies dinner service commissioned by Kenneth Clark 1932, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Clark was a loyal and influential supporter of the artists and in 1933, shortly after his appointment as Director of the National Gallery, he commissioned the dinner service. Writing his autobiography, Clark would later state that the commission was an attempt to ‘revive’ Grant’s interest in the decorative arts. Writing about his visits to Grant’s studio, Clark described how:

‘it contained groups of rusting pottery, gathering dust, and vases of mimosa which had long since lost all the colour of life. On these unappetizing themes Duncan and Vanessa concentrated their talents… in an attempt to revive his interest in decorative art we asked him and Vanessa to paint us a dinner service.’

Kenneth Clark Another Part of the Wood, 1974 pp.247-8

Clark had already purchased and commissioned various works by Grant; two pastel studies from an exhibition in June 1933, a 1932 Wedgewood cream-wear jug incorporating images of Clark and his wife Jane, and a portrait of Jane that, while taking several years to produce, nevertheless sealed the friendship between the two men.

There was no brief for the commission and Clark left the artists free to decorate the service however they saw fit. The person perhaps most excited about the venture was W.W Winkworth, an occasional painter, collector and great expert of Far Eastern ceramics, known to his friends as Billy. He corresponded with Bell about the upcoming designs:

‘I have just seen the Clarks, and of course, being a great enthusiast not only about your work and that of Mr Grants, but about dinner-sets, I was much moved to think what an addition to ceramic achievement might be made if you designed one…designing original pottery is of course an activity in which some of the greatest artists have interested themselves; your own work and Mr Grant is well known to everybody in this connection.’

W.W Winkworth to Vanessa Bell 3rd March 1932

‘Billy’ envisaged Grant and Bell reviving the ‘hausmaler’s’ art (the term used to describe painters of faience, porcelain and glass who bought blank pieces from factories to decorate at home or in their workshops) and he introduced them to Mr. Wreford, an agent at the Wedgwood showrooms at 24 Hatton Gardens. At the showrooms Grant and Bell were shown the various blank services that were available for their decoration. Shunning the modern styles, the pair selected a more traditional design, similar to the 19th century moulds that were used at the Aubagne pottery which was founded in 1837 in Provence.

Having selected the style of plate Grant and Bell went to stay with Josiah Wedgwood and his wife, taking tours around the works and painting experimental designs on white plates. It is the initial designs for the dinner service that we have found in the Gift. These preliminary designs were carried out on round scraps of paper and card and depict portraits of women throughout the ages in pencil and ink. The artists had settled on the theme of ‘Famous Women’ for the commission and produced decorative images of twelve queens, twelve famous beauties, twelve writers and twelve actresses, in addition to a set of period women and two portraits of the artists themselves. Virginia Woolf was also included in the set, alongside ‘Miss 1933’ which caused Bell to remark that ‘it ought to please the feminists’.



 (top) CHA/C/136a, Duncan Grant, plate, Mme la Marquise de Caux (Adelina Patti) one of a set of four plates from the Famous Ladies set commissioned by Kenneth Clark, ceramic. Photograph © The Charleston Trust (bottom) CHA/C/136b, Duncan Grant, plate, one of a set of four plates from the Famous Ladies set commissioned by Kenneth Clark, ceramic. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

We have four tests for the plates in our collection at Charleston which were loaned to Tate for the 2014 exhibition. They show images of Madame Adelina Patti (a highly acclaimed 19th century opera singer), Queen Mary, Princess Mathilda and an unidentified woman. The women we have found on the preliminary sketches are also unidentified, yet they are a great example of Grant and Bell’s design process for a commission that took over a year to complete. Other sketches for the ‘Famous Women’ series are currently in private collections, such as those depicting Virginia Woolf and Greta Garbo. The design for Queen Christina of Sweden currently resides in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

The whereabouts of the original forty-eight plates and other items that made up the one-hundred and forty strong dinner service are unclear. We know that they remained a part of Clark’s household until his move to Saltwood Castle in 1956, having already survived the Blitz and numerous changes of address. We also know that following the death of Jane, and the marriage of Clark to the French heiress Nolwen de Janze Rice, the dinner service along with many other works in his vast collection were moved to homes in Normandy and London. After that we can only speculate to the ownership and location of the dinner service, as it has been suggested that they were last seen at an auction in Hamberg in around 2000.


 (top) CHA/P/1704, Duncan Grant, drawing, design for the Famous Ladies dinner service commissioned by Kenneth Clark 1932, coloured pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust (bottom) CHA/P/1703, Duncan Grant, drawing, design for the Famous Ladies dinner service commissioned by Kenneth Clark 1932, coloured pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Though the ‘Famous Women’ are unique in their design, Grant and Bell were involved throughout their careers in the production of china for the mass market, for example their collaboration with Foley China and the 1934 exhibition ‘Modern Art for the Table’ at Harrods. The preparatory sketches for this commission found in the Gift are wonderful examples of the relationship between patron and artist, in addition to the personal and professional partnership referred to by Virginia Woolf as ‘the firm of Bell and Grant.’


Summer at Charleston

In December we wrote a blog post about Christmas at Charleston. The house was bitterly cold and remote, conditions which, combined with the hardships imposed upon households in wartime Britain and the complications following Angelica’s birth on Christmas day 1918, prompted Vanessa Bell and her family to leave Charleston for London. In finer weather, however, it was a very different place to live and from 1919 until the outbreak of the Second World War, Charleston was used primarily as a summer residence for Bell, Duncan Grant and Bell’s children, in addition to their many friends and visitors.

walled garden group

Members and friends of the Bloomsbury group in the walled garden at Charleston, 1928. From left to right: Francis Partridge, Quentin and Julian Bell, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell and Beatrice Mayor. Roger Fry seated with Raymond Mortimer in front. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

It was during these summer visits that Quentin Bell considered Charleston to be at its best:

What I think of as the golden age of Charleston lasted for about twelve years, from 1925 to 1937. Perhaps a list of guests who came there may give an idea of the company we kept. Apart from the obvious people – the Woolfs from Asheham and later from Rodmell, the Keynese from Tilton over the way, and Roger Fry who planned the new studio and designed the walled garden – there were Lytton Strachey, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, Raymond Mortimer, G.E. Moore, Frances Marshall, William Plomer, T.S. Eliot, Janie Bussy, André  Dunoyer de Segonzac, Jean Renoir and Charles Mauron…

…On a fine day one would discover Clive with a few friends comfortably seated on the gravel in front of the house, enjoying the sunshine, The Times, their conversation and sometimes even the books that they were supposed to be reviewing for the New Statesman.’

In Charleston: Past and Present, Quentin’s sister, Angelica Garnett, similarly alludes to this ‘golden age’, but writes that its existence was only possible due to the temporary nature of Charleston’s use at this time:

It must be remembered that this paradise was an occasional one; had it been permanent it would probably not have survived. The strain on Vanessa, as its inspiration and mainstay, would have been too great. She needed London for the stimulation, the contacts and the revelations it could provide her with, and the sense that there she was not expected to be responsible for everything. Perhaps it was because she was less available there that London seemed to me dark and gloomy, suggestive of Hell. The interludes at Charleston were by contrast clothed in light, in which I could not only fraternise with plants and animals, but dabble in paint.

As mentioned here by Angelica, and discussed in an earlier blog post The Garden at Charleston, the spaces surrounding the house provided both inspiration and refuge for the artists and children in good weather. Bell and Grant would paint amongst the flowers in the walled garden, or shade of the orchard, while the children would scheme up all manner of games and adventures to be enacted around – and on – the pond at the font of the house.

Quentin Julian and AngelicaQuentin on the pond

Left: Quentin, Angelica and Julian in the garden at Charleston, c. 1922. Right: Quentin on the pond at Charleston, c. 1923. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

We have found numerous sketches of the garden and its abundant produce by Bell and Grant in the Angelica Garnett Gift, and most recently uncovered the painting below of the pond in fine weather. Interestingly this scene has been painted over another work, possibly made much earlier by Grant.


CHA/P/1747. Vanessa Bell, The Pond at Charleston, c. 1955, paint on canvas, 39.6 cm x 31.6 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The pleasures of the garden were also brought inside the house, with freshly cut flowers filling vases and home-grown produce stocking the larder. Furthermore, Vanessa Bell’s bedroom, Duncan Grant’s studio and the garden room all have doors which open directly into the walled garden, thereby allowing the boundary between inside and out to dissolve in warmer weather. Quentin Bell recalled the pleasure of strolling into the moonlit garden on a summer’s night:

Cheroots were lit and there was Haydn or Mozart on the old clockwork portable. One went out through the windows, and to Mozart was added the delicious scent of tobacco plants…we who had ventured out spoke in hushed voices as though in deference to the night.

The garden room took a particularly central role as a gathering place on summer’s evenings. Here the household and their guests chatted, debated and recited, or simply snoozed over a book (or in Bell’s case, her knitting). ‘Eventually the garden room was adopted as a drawing room by the adults,’ Quentin Bell recalled in Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden. ‘Its great charm was that in fine summer weather one could saunter out into the garden and have a quiet smoke or perhaps a quiet chat with the scent of flowers all around.’ Having recently begun photographing larger painted works in the Angelica Garnett Gift, we found a charming painting by Vanessa Bell which both captures the room on a bright summer’s day and illustrates its role as meeting place at the threshold of the house and garden.


CHA/P/1567. Vanessa Bell, painting, View of the Garden Room at Charleston, c. 1950. Paint on card. 61.5 cm x 51.4 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

In The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art, author Jans Ondaatje Rolls describes hot summer afternoons at Charleston, when ‘adults gossiped, laughed and bantered freely with one another, while the children played about near the pond. A refreshing cup of tea, a second slice of cake, a gentle walk around the garden: a perfect afternoon tea in the garden at Charleston.’ Virginia Woolf regularly visited for such occasions by bicycle from nearby Rodmell, and, like the warmth of the day, her presence would always raise the spirits of her hosts. As recounted by Clive Bell in his book, Old Friends:

She might be divinely witty or outrageously fanciful; she might retail village gossip or tell stories of her London friends; always she was indescribably entertaining; always she enjoyed herself and we enjoyed her. “Virginia’s coming to tea”: we knew it would be exciting, we knew that we were going to laugh and be surprised and made to feel that the temperature of life was several degrees higher than we had supposed.

The spirit of Charleston in summer lives on to this day: from tea and cakes served in the Outer Studio Café and classes of budding artists painting amongst the flowers in the walled garden, to evening operas in the orchard, the atmosphere that enticed the Bloomsbury group back each year is as strongly felt today as it was when Virginia would come to tea.

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