The Charleston Attic

Month: October, 2015

Judging a Book by its Cover

Recently in the Charleston Attic, in amongst a box full of bold charcoal studies and painted designs, we found a book cover without a book. The hardback has been separated from the papers it once bound together. Either torn off to create an object of its own, or worn away from its pages by years of use, we have only the cover by which to guess about the book itself.


CHA/P/2311 Recto. Painting, abstract motifs, paint on book cover. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This intriguing piece has inspired speculation in the Attic. Perhaps it was painted to represent the book that it held. Green and blue leaves hang across from the right edge as if growing from the now missing pages that the cover would have opened onto. It is as though the story is almost spilling from the pages onto the cover. Book design and illustration were, indeed, a part of the Bloomsbury oeuvre. The Omega workshops published books bound with designs by Dora Carrington and Roger Fry; Virginia and Leonard Woolf established the Hogarth Press in 1917 where they printed works including T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and David Garnett’s Lady into Fox; and Virginia Woolf published many of her own works on the Hogarth Press, with covers designed exclusively by her sister Vanessa Bell from 1919. Frances Spalding writes about this sisterly enterprise commenting that

“this collaborative work encouraged consideration of the relationship between literature and art. Formerly Virginia had on occasion been slightly repelled by the Bloomsbury painters’ insistence on purely visual qualities. Now suddenly her interest in painting grew stronger; she visited the National Gallery and tried to describe to Vanessa her response in front of certain paintings… In turn Vanessa began to take a more critical interest in books”.

The sisters’ works came together in book design, Vanessa Bell interpreting Virginia Woolf’s words in image, distilling moments from literature in art. Bell was particularly interested by Woolf’s short fiction, writing to her in July 1917 “why don’t you write more short things […] there is a kind of completeness about a thing like this that is very satisfactory and that you can hardly get in a novel”.


CHA/BKS/29. Book, “A Haunted House”, Virginia Woolf, with original dust jacket by Vanessa Bell, The Hogarth Press, London, 1947. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

CHA/BKS/30. Book, “The Death of a Moth”, Virginia Woolf, with original dust jacket by Vanessa Bell, The Hogarth Press, London, 1947. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The cover design that we have found in the Attic would have made a fitting dust jacket for Woolf’s impressionistic short stories Green and Blue. It has been noted by Benjamin Harvey in his essay on Virginia Woolf, Art Galleries, and Museums that the presentation of these stories, side by side on opposite pages, creates an “imagistic diptych”. The stories are almost like two paintings hanging next to each other. Thus Harvey suggests that Woolf’s style is almost curatorial. Indeed the painterly qualities of Woolf’s prose compares to the fluid brushstrokes on the book cover here in the Attic. Moreover, the imagery on the recto reflects the short story Green which opens with the lines:

“The pointed fingers of glass hang downwards. The light slides down the glass, and drops a pool of green. All day long the ten fingers of the lustre drop green upon the marble. The feathers of parakeets—their harsh cries—sharp blades of palm trees—green, too; green needles glittering in the sun. But the hard glass drips on to the marble; the pools hover above the desert sand; the camels lurch through them; the pools settle on the marble; rushes edge them; weeds clog them; here and there a white blossom; the frog flops over; at night the stars are set there unbroken”

The book cover seems to mirror this description. The green leaves on the right transform from glass to feather and back to palm tree leaves only to abstract into the green dots on the left, just as Woolf’s glass “drips on to the marble”.


CHA/P/2311 Verso. Painting, acrobatic figures, paint on book cover. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The inside cover depicts a wholly different design of three acrobatic figures underneath a scallop-edged and star-studded hole. This hole is made more obvious here, camouflaged somewhat by the abstract foliage on the front. This led us to ask whether the hole could have provided the means for the young Julian and Quentin Bell to spy on the adults under the pretence of study at Charleston during their lessons in the orchard. A visitor to the Attic also proposed that this could be a gunshot hole, which could very well have been inflicted upon an unsuspecting book in the garden during Julian and Quentin Bell’s childhood experiments with their air gun. However, the cut out hole follows a delicate pencil outline, drawn on the verso side, suggesting this was part of a larger and premeditated design.

Indeed, the hole and the verso design suggest an entirely different use for this book cover. Perhaps the cover was not decorated to represent the book that it held but was reclaimed and refashioned into a work of its own. If so, it is similar in style to Quentin Bell’s painted ceramic reliefs and “goggle-boxes” in which figurines adorn plates and can be spied upon through peepholes populating rooms from different eras. One particular ceramic design, Mademoiselle Zedel, the Human Cannonball, depicts a female performer bursting through a screen held by two male acrobats in matching leotards. Our book cover could perhaps be a precursor to this piece in which the three figures are preparing for Mademoiselle Zedel’s launch that culminates in Bell’s ceramic work. Perhaps she is preparing to fly through the hole in the book cover above their heads.

It is quite possible that Quentin Bell’s works and designs could be found amongst the sketches and preparatory works of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in the Attic as Quentin Bell spent much of his childhood at Charleston and had a ceramic studio here from 1937 when his first kiln was installed. Simon Watney writes of how, much later, in the 1960s

“on most weekday mornings Quentin would let himself into the house and pad straight through to his pottery, which opens off the little walled garden that is reached from Duncan’s studio. […] Quentin cut a burly figure in his big blue overalls, often smeared with slip, or splashed with colour if he was decorating. The small talk was often hilarious. Here Duncan and Quentin met as artists.”

We can imagine the book cover left to one side in Quentin’s ceramic studio before he set out into the house for lunch. Or maybe the work he was doing now had been inspired from studies such as this book cover painted earlier in life.

Whatever its purpose and whoever its creator, it fits in very well at Charleston. Its painted cover is like the patterned walls and furniture, inspiring us that any object can provide a canvas. We imagine it blending in very nicely with paintings and other books – perhaps some wearing Quentin Bell’s c.1935 dust jackets – on a table in the studio downstairs.


CHA/P/440. Dust jacket, Quentin Bell, “Heredia”, circa 1935, gouache. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Child’s Play

“to become a child is to be very literal; to find everything so strange nothing is surprising” (Virginia Woolf, ‘Lewis Carroll’)

Can art catapult one back to childhood? Woolf’s reading of Alice in Wonderland – written when her niece Angelica Garnett was a newly mature twenty one – responds cheerfully in the affirmative. This week in the gift we discovered a collection of childhood drawings by Angelica Garnett; immersed in their whimsical world of elaborately dressed dowagers, fugitive pets and fairy princesses, we too can concur with Woolf’s statement.


CHA/P/2279 Recto. Angelica Garnett, drawing, sketch of woman and animals, ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The first stages a triumphant escape by a trio of varyingly domesticated animals: a pig charges forth upon an enormous daisy, followed by two similarly transported dogs. A young woman looks uneasily upon the scene from below, her arm outstretched in appeal. Woolf’s spaniel Pinka frequently visited Charleston during Garnett’s childhood – if not floating on flowers then certainly frolicking amongst them – but such jaunts were necessarily fleeting. Indeed, Garnett’s puzzling little sketch may appear trivial, but it evokes a mood both playful and plaintive strikingly commensurate with her recollection of childhood in Deceived with Kindness (1984).


CHA/P/2279 Verso. Angelica Garnett, drawing, sketch of two women, ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Overleaf, Garnett’s young woman makes a partial return: her severe bob is suddenly in bejewelled bouclés; her gesture of anguish replicated as an expression of etiquette by two (rather sullen) debutantes in full crinoline. A neat, prim signature is followed by a sprawling, decorative reiteration, only to transform again into a tiny set of initials floating by a woman’s head like a stray sartorial embellishment. Practicing her signature, Garnett might also be understood as rehearsing alternate identities, an experiment with selfhood as provisional and fanciful as her drawings.


CHA/P/2281 Recto. Angelica Garnett, drawing, sketch of fairies, ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The next shows a fairy en pointe holding a star-spangled staff, wearing a shapely bodiced dress and a petal tutu. Garnett’s fairy queen displays a delight in costume styling reminiscent, perhaps, of  Duncan Grant’s elaborate ballet designs previously explored on the blog. Beneath her a series of bonneted women scurry into the distance, one arm held aloft; Garnett’s figures become incrementally smaller, until the woman’s form is suggested merely by a collection of inky dots. Here the infant artist does not merely draw for pleasure or identity practice, but sketches as a form of self-schooling, attempting a study of movement and perspective.

Notable too in Garnett’s drawings is her choice of canvas. Conventional sketch pads are shunned, with Garnett composing instead upon the letter paper of 37 Gordon Square; a location that remains, however, curiously absent from Garnett’s memoir. Vanessa Bell moved to number 37 with her four year old daughter in 1922 and remained there until 1929, but it is 46 Gordon Square that Garnett recalls as site of infant artistic experimentation and play. Whether ‘paper-cutting’ chains of ‘ballet dancers’ and ‘exotic flowers’, or receiving a painting lesson from Vanessa (if regrettably, ‘almost the only’ one) Garnett recalls relishing the creative opportunities afforded by living amongst the artists and intellectuals of their London address.

And yet, looking again at Garnett’s fantastical sketches, the exclusion of 37 Gordon Square from the realm of autobiographical realism seems rather fitting. A space productive of fantasy must also bear its imprint, remaining concealed from prying, public eyes. Although composed upon letter paper, Garnett’s drawings are not necessarily seeking a recipient: was Garnett hoping to circulate these images amongst her family and friends as if they were, indeed, dispatches from her interior world, or was she merely visualising its structures and subjects to reinforce its private reality?

Garnett’s fantasy world is evidently ‘quite unlike ours’ (as Vanessa Bell remarks of the visions saturating her own childhood) yet it does cast an illuminating light over the art world of Garnett’s infancy.

Roger Fry lauded the ‘direct expressiveness’ of artwork by children, seeing their capacity to convey emotion as far surpassing the abilities of their adult counterparts. An exhibition of children’s drawings at the Omega Workshops in 1917 cemented Fry’s celebration of their work as not merely a trifling interest, but as a serious challenge to the hierarchies and limitations of the conventional art historical canon. Published concurrently to the exhibition, Fry articulated the particular power of their work in an article for The Burlington Magazine. In ‘Children’s Drawings’ Fry highlights a sketch of a snake by nine year old David John (son of artist Augustus John) arguing that his drawing – if appearing naïve – uniquely embodied ‘the snakiness of the snake’. Motivated solely by ‘a vivid directness of feeling’, children can approach the canvas unobstructed by tradition or regulation. Figurative study constitutes an important part of any artistic apprenticeship, but Fry frames the child-artist as more creator than copier, more concerned with imagination than mimesis:

‘Children, if left to themselves, never, I believe, copy what they see, never, as we say, “draw from nature”, but express, with a delightful freedom and sincerity, the mental images which make up their own imaginative lives.’

The energy and inventiveness of Garnett’s drawings suggest a home environment where her imaginative life and its expression were encouraged. Fry was, after all, ‘a grandfather with paternal and avuncular overtones’; judging by Garnett’s charming early work, one might assume his benevolent presence moved easily from the affectionate to the artistic.

A nascent talent can be seen in full bloom in Garnett’s later paintings.  Here Garnett depicts a very different pair of young women: her daughters.


CHA/P/53 Angelica Garnett, painting, “Two girls”, circa 1940, ink and gouache on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

“Oh the joy of walking!” – From Charleston to Monks House on foot

“I am extremely happy walking on the downs […] I like to have space to spread my mind out in.” (Virginia Woolf’s diary, September 5 1926)


CHA/P/2283 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, Map of South Downs, ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

As cool autumnal colours spread across the landscape and misty grey mornings shade the South Downs behind Charleston, we remember our last week with our fellow interns Alice and Samantha. This last week together, the last in September, was bright and warm. On one glorious morning we strode out from Charleston, taking inspiration from Virginia Woolf, following in her footsteps across the Downs to her seventeenth century cottage Monks House in Rodmell.


Striding across the Downs

Having scaled the steep ascent, following our navigator Alice, we looked down upon Charleston as Virginia Woolf would have done, writing to Vanessa Bell in May 1916 “I wish you’d leave Wissett, and take up Charleston”. At that time Vanessa was living with Duncan Grant and David Garnett at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk where the men had been working the farm as conscientious objectors. When later that year the Central Tribunal decided that Grant and Garnett could not be self-employed but must find work elsewhere, Vanessa Bell followed up on her sister’s suggestion of a move to Sussex. She secured work for Grant and Garnett with Mr Hecks at the neighbouring New House Farm and obtained permission from Mr Stacey, the tenant of Charleston, to whitewash the walls, creating the blank canvas for the Charleston we know today. This was all in September, and they moved in October, 99 years ago. As we looked down at Charleston from the top of the Downs we too felt excitement, as Vanessa Bell must have done on her first visit, at the prospect of beginning our own chapter at Charleston working with the Angelica Garnett Gift.


Autumnal produce from Monks House garden

On we strode, following the undulating line of the Downs, described by Virginia Woolf as like “long waves, gently extending themselves, to break quickly; smooth & sloping”. Coming over the crest of our final rolling hill we crossed the river Ouse and made our way up to Monks House. The garden was still in full bloom. We passed a box of marrows and apples and navigated our way up from the succulent greenhouse through the small garden spaces to the lawn spreading out from the left of Woolf’s writing studio. Here a performance was taking place. Spectators sat in a circle of deckchairs around an actor giving a reading from Woolf’s novel Between the Acts. The passage fit the day perfectly, as if it described the scene before us:

“Rows of chairs, deck-chairs, gilt chairs, hired cane chairs and indigenous garden seats had been drawn up on the terrace. There were plenty of seats for everybody. But some preferred to sit on the ground […] The trees barred the stage like pillars. And the human figure was seen to great advantage against a background of sky. As for the weather, it was turning out, against all expectation, a very fine day.”

Our own Becky was chosen from the audience to take on the persona of the “small girl, like a rosebud in pink” whose lines open the play within the novel. Afterwards we made our way back down to the house itself.


Writing desk at Monks House

The Woolfs did not move to Monks House until 1919. Their previous country home in Sussex was at Asheham House, just three miles away in Beddingham, where they and other members of the Bloomsbury group had stayed from 1912. When in March 1919 the Woolfs were given six months notice to leave, they began a search for a new home, resulting in the purchase of Monks House in July. Virginia Woolf records her pleasure at their success at auction in her diary writing “We own Monks House (this is almost the first time I’ve written a name which I hope to write many thousands of times before I’ve done with it) for ever”. She writes at length about the abundant produce in the garden, which Leonard Woolf seems taken with, and for herself she states “it suits me very well, too, to ramble oft among the Telscombe downs”.

Indeed, the location was perfect to feed her love of walking, an activity which helped her to think through her writing. Settling into life in Rodmell in early 1920 Woolf writes of how Monks House offers a much richer supply of walks than Asheham did. Years later in 1934 she still felt strongly about hiking across the Sussex landscape, writing in her diary:

“Oh the joy of walking! I’ve never felt it so strong in me […] the trance like, swimming, flying through the air; the current of sensations & ideas; & the slow, but fresh change of down, of road, of colour”. (Woolf’s diary, October 1934)

On top of the Downs she is swept away in thought. She seems to find a freedom in walking that enables her to release her creativity.


Woolf’s writing studio in Monks House garden

Our first forays into the Angelica Garnett Gift have mirrored and even traced the Sussex countryside that surrounds us here at Charleston. Duncan Grant’s map of the South Downs charts the bold contours of the land. We have found sketches of cows and horses who Woolf may have met on her local rambles. And a small butterfly has also found its way into our box.


CHA/P/2266 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, sketch of a cow, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


CHA/P/2267 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, sketch of a horse, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


CHA/P/2306 Recto. butterfly cut out, paint on card. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Spots, Dots and Dashes

Pattern design is central to the art of Bloomsbury. From the repeated motifs which can be seen at Charleston to the rugs and linens produced by the Omega Workshops experiments with repeated shapes and bold colours are a common theme in the legacy of the group. As we prepare to hand over the Angelica Garnett Gift into the safe hands of our new attic interns we wanted to share some of the beautiful designs that have been found in the Gift to date.


CHA/P/1658 Recto. Duncan Grant, painting, pattern design, pen and paint on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

‘The Omega scorned the Edwardian taste for pastel shades and matching tones; it flung reds, greens, blues and purples across table tops and on to screens.’


CHA/P/1809 Recto. Duncan Grant, painting, two tile designs, pencil and watercolour on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

most innovative craftsmen and women of the inter-war years sought qualities closely linked to developments in fine art. Touch, spontaneity and a freshness with materials (paramount qualities for Fry) became essential goals.’


CHA/P/1717 Recto. Duncan Grant, painting, bird pattern design, watercolours and coloured pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

By April 1913 Vanessa Bell had discovered the challenge of designing pattern repeats: ‘it’s rather fun painting after doing all these patterns. Duncan has been trying to do a pattern but gets even more muddled than I do, in fact I don’t think he’ll ever master repeats.’


CHA/P/1676 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, carpet design, coloured pencil and ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


‘the printed linens are [?being] executed also a certain number of hand made rugs but I am anxious to get on to carpets…. My artists show a surprising aptitude for design of all kinds. They have a [?charming] invention and real taste… the great problem is how to boil down ideas into practical results.’ (Roger Fry to collector Michael Sadler)

‘… I do think we shall have to be careful, especially in England where it seems one can never get away from this fatal prettiness. Can’t we paint stuffs etc which won’t be gay and pretty?’  (Vanessa Bell to Roger Fry)


 Just as Charleston was transformed and evolved over the years with the artists decorating surfaces with patterns and designs so must the Angelica Garnett Gift. We wish the new interns the best of luck with their work and hope you enjoy reading about their discoveries and research.

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