The Charleston Attic

Month: December, 2015

A Flake of Snow


CHA/P/1757 Recto. Duncan Grant, print, winter scene, ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The pond at Charleston, which ripples the reflection of the house façade with jumping fish and swimming ducks in warmer months, is shown here frozen over with young skaters etching patterns into its glistening surface. This print by Duncan Grant is a proof of a commercial print, possibly inspired by the bitter winter of 1947 when the frozen pond become an impromptu ice hockey pitch for a group of local youths. The design has been reproduced as the Charleston Christmas card for this year and is the kind of image that a young Quentin Bell, on his first visit to Charleston in 1916, may have had in mind. He describes his anticipation before his first visit and the disappointing reality of being met by a wet autumn afternoon in Charleston Past and Present:

“at the age of six I can have had only a very imprecise idea of what a lake would be like, and the front pond at Charleston seemed vast. In my imagination it could have been an ocean. But there was a disappointment. Just before we left London I was taken, for the first time in my life, to the cinema. Believe it or not, they were already making films about Scott of the Antarctic… I was immensely enthusiastic about the whole thing and got it into my head that in travelling south from London we were making for the Pole… but when we arrived at Berwick station and were driven off through damp green fields… the sight of the Downs, mountains without a flake of snow on them, depressed me greatly.”

Although seemingly impressed by the vast size of the pond in comparison with his diminutive six-year-old self, Quentin Bell’s mood is dampened by the similarly incremental weather. However, he goes on to admit “I, who had been so anxious to discover snow and ice, soon forgot my enthusiasm and was not at all grateful when the hard winter of 1916-17 struck us”. Our Christmas blog from last year details the icy reality of this inaugural winter in a house with no electricity or running water.

Although the winter this year seems to resemble more of Quentin Bell’s disappointing “damp green fields” than the print above, we are still hoping, like a six-year-old Quentin Bell, for a white Christmas.

We look forward to continuing to share our finds in the Attic with you in the New Year. Season’s greetings from the Charleston Attic.

Season’s Greetings

With the festive season now upon us at Charleston – heralded by the arrival of lush poinsettia and fronds of fir in the pottery – we look to The Angelica Garnett Gift for glimpses of Christmases past. Festive scenes shine amongst the studies like a thimble stowed in plum pudding; our discoveries, however, have not been as traditional as this simile might suggest. What once stood proudly announcing the season now nestles amongst sketchbooks and drawings: Christmas cards offer unusually intimate – and often frustratingly enigmatic – insights into the relationships that coalesced in Charleston across decades.

CHA/P/2307. Recto. Christmas card, printed on card with reproduction insert. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.


CHA/P/2307. Verso. Christmas card, printed on card with reproduction insert. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Here ordinary seasonal wishes adorn the outer leaf, but the card opens to reveal a vibrant scene from a 16th Century Chinese painting. Although counter to conventional Christmas iconography, ‘Children playing with a Phoenix’ offers a jovial, colourful image of pleasure and play appropriate to the season. Details of the picture’s current home – the British Museum – are tucked alongside other defining features in the top left corner. Location in mind, one might imagine Bloomsbury regular – and Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum –  Dr. Arthur Waley posting such scenes to his peers. Supplementing the ‘Best Wishes’ of the card with their own ‘Love and Kisses’ is surprisingly not Waley, but Yvonne Kapp. Quentin Bell described Kapp as a ‘magnificently active’ political advocate and writer, who befriended him despite frequently (and one suspects rather teasingly) denouncing him as a ‘bourgeois social democrat’. Later a biographer of Eleanor Marx, Kapp’s shying away from more overt Christian symbolism could be explicable through this particular intellectual perspective.

A rather different bird graces this more traditional 1967 Christmas card sent from Deidre Connolly to Duncan Grant. While the phoenix frolics with infant revellers, a robin is perched on and encircled by bright graphic swirls of poppy-like stalks.


CHA/E/97 Christmas card to Duncan Grant from Deidre Connolly, circa 1967. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Decorations may be stored and reused over the years, but one rarely holds on to Christmas cards; their presence in the gift thus always comes as a welcome surprise. Might they hold sentimental value, or simply have acquired longevity by accident? A card could be easily bundled into a drawer alongside more artistic endeavours. Yet some, perhaps, offer as much aesthetic satisfaction as any of their drawings or prints.

CHA/E/56 Christmas card, ‘Madonna and Child’ by Giovanni Bellini, from Denys and Cynthia Sutton, circa 1972. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Admirers of Bellini’s work throughout their artistic careers, this sumptuous reproduction not only affirms a friendship, but reaffirms a sense of artistic identity.

Regardless of how they came to reside in the gift, one cannot help finding these private tokens of affection captivating, looking for traces of emotion and intimacy in unfamiliar hands.

“a charming garden, run rather wild”

Monty Don will this week be exploring the garden at Charleston, situating its unkempt allure – as Woolf would have it – within broader 20th Century shifts in garden design. The rich history of the Charleston Garden was explored on the blog earlier this year, and we urge those eager to tune into Monty Don’s ‘The Secret History of the British Garden’ to take a look.

From the attic we have become accustomed to a bird’s eye view: hedgerows, roses and gravel paths unfurl behind glass, framed by large North-facing windows. Even the thickest condensation (and inevitable wintery transformations) cannot conceal the colourful imagination and flair for flora and fauna. Our panoramic perspective has provoked an even keener excitement for Monty Don’s programme: he promises rather a digging deep, an up-close look at the culture and conditions producing the garden so central to the artistic lifestyle at Charleston.

Charlestonians not only relished the garden as a space of languor and pleasure, but also as a space of industry, education and creative inspiration. Indeed, away from regulated interior spaces – where eating, sleeping, reading and painting generally occurred in separate, dedicated spheres – the walled garden offered unique freedom of activity, an intermingling of generations, passions and goings-on. Props for still-life studies were sourced as readily as cooking produce for Grace Higgins; lawns set up for lessons – as in Grant’s 1917 ‘Lessons in the Orchard’ – shook off their stuffiness to stage amateur theatrical productions. Although delightfully amorphous in purpose, the garden had a distinct style, in accordance with the home’s ad-hoc Post-Impressionist style. As Virginia Nicholson recalls:

“like the house was not intended to be tasteful or restrained. It is as though the exuberant décor of the interior has spilled through the doors”

In 1986, with this vigorous and improvised spirit in mind, Sir Peter Shepheard set about restoring the garden, by then so densely overgrown that even Woolf would have struggled to see its idiosyncratic beauty. Shepheard, hoping to reinstate Charleston’s greenery as ‘an apotheosis of the traditional English cottage garden’, was broadly guided by Roger Fry’s 1917 designs, supplemented by a heady mix of paintings, photographs, correspondence, and memory.

Amidst sketches of centaurs, sleeping children and Sussex landscapes – an interweaving of fantasy and reality commensurate with the role of the garden itself – we recently discovered this litany of floral possibility.
a charming garden 1

CHA/P/2438/10. Recto. List of seed varieties. Pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Purchased, planted or simply desired, this faintly pencilled list of flowers gestures to the central role occupied by the garden in daily artistic inspiration. Practical notes on seed variety and quantity rest comfortably against figure studies and frivolous doodles. Certainly more verbal than visual, the list nevertheless possesses a peculiarly aesthetic quality: an indecipherable code of circles, stars and full stops attend ‘Candytuft’, ‘Sweet William’, ‘Tobacco Plant’ and ‘Forget-Me-Nots’. Whether or not sown in soil, these imagined flowers blossom throughout Bell and Grant’s sketchbooks.

   charming gard 2charm gard3
CHA/P/2404. Recto. Study of poppies. Paint on paper. CHA/P/2403. Recto. Study of roses. Paint on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

 One hopes that Monty Don will find the Charleston Garden as bewitching as its inhabitants, as Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry in 1926:

 “It’s so divine here now one can’t bear leaving… The garden is full of dahlias and red admirals and one can sit out all day if one likes”

charm gard 4

CHA/P/2406. Recto. Study of flowers. Paint on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

“The Maternal Paradox: The Private Portraiture of Vanessa Bell” by Samantha Wilson

Last Wednesday we travelled once more up to London, this time for the annual British Portraiture conference at The National Portrait Gallery, attending a talk by another former attic intern Samantha Wilson. Wilson’s research explores the uneasy relationship between the eye of the mother and that of the artist, arguing that Vanessa Bell’s portraits of her infant son stage a conflict between the emotional attachment of the former with the practical detachment of the latter. The lecture was focused through the lens of a particular object from the gift, a 1908 velum-bound sketchbook by Vanessa Bell containing studies of her infant son Julian Hewert Bell.

The book, and the sketches within it, Wilson argued, not only embody Bell’s burgeoning maternal affection, but also offer glimpses of the artist at work, deep in thought, studiously engaged in artistic exercises. Julian’s shifting, developing form proved an especially ideal subject for studies of movement, connecting Bell’s domestic subject matter with concurrent – broadly male-authored, and widely celebrated – experiments by Cubist painters. Indeed, Wilson boldly suggested that one can situate Bell’s most experimental work in the early years of her children’s lives. Wilson thus framed Bell as representing a radical, uniquely maternal – and inevitably overlooked – current of Modernism.


 CHA/P/621/15. Vanessa Bell, drawing of the artist’s son Julian, 1908. Sketchbook. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Yet why, Wilson’s talk implicitly asked, is the concept of a maternal Modernism  – or maternal artistry in general – so seemingly paradoxical? The conflict, Wilson argued,  results from a socially imposed contradiction between pregnancy and artistry, one aggravated by the Victorian values Bell inherited. While pregnancy often served to exclude women from the public sphere, artistic productivity – especially one concerned with exhibition and sale – entailed a resolute commitment to self-promotion and public engagement. Hence the prevalence, Wilson implied, of the mythologized ‘childless artist’ – women too committed to their craft to procreate – a trope famously fulfilled by her own sister Virginia Woolf. However, attempts at a reconciliation of these roles pervade Bell’s work, but particularly, Wilson suggested, in Bell’s more prominent, resolutely public Post-Impressionist paintings.

Wilson picked out Bell’s 1912 ‘Nursery Tea’ alongside her (now lost) 1913 ‘Woman and Baby’ as instances where scenes conventionally coded as domestic and feminine are lent an avante-garde treatment. In a landscape where acclaimed  Modernist painters – from Wyndam Lewis to Pablo Picasso – busied themselves aestheticizing urban isolation, violence and advanced mechanization, the unique nature of Bell’s subject matter cannot be stressed enough. Here, Wilson concluded, Bell achieves a conflation of her conflicting visions: motherhood is depicted through highly experimental means, and crucially without recourse to anecdote or sentimentality.

nursery tea

The Nursery Tea, 1912 Vanessa Bell. oil on canvas © Christies

After Julian’s death in 1937, Bell recalled her early days of motherhood as implicitly tied to her art practice:

“sitting at a long window looking onto the square with him on my lap. Clive beside me. Intense peace & joy. Painting him in his cradle every morning as he lay & kicked. Drawing as he began to stagger about (I still have those).”

Bell’s parenthetical aside belies a sustained, passionate commitment to possessing and cherishing these works; as Wilson remarked, Bell’s normally detached attitude to her paintings – unruffled by the loss of her studio in an air raid – is here set aside. Therefore ultimately, in Wilson’s reading, the preservation of this sketchbook represents a prevailing of the maternal over the artistic: memory and mourning collapse any critical distance, allowing the survival of work otherwise considered expendable. It is the eye of the mother, then, as well as Wilson’s illuminating talk, we can thank for the endurance and exploration of this beautiful object.

A Little Bistro

The Charlestonians spent many winters in the South of France in retreat from the blustery darkness that has recently taken hold of the fields surrounding Charleston. In October 1922 Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and the children Julian, Quentin and (Vanessa and Duncan’s natural daughter) Angelica Bell made the journey to St Tropez accompanied by Grace Germany (nee Higgins) “the angel of Charleston” and their nanny Nellie Brittain. They were to spend the winter at La Maison Blanche. These festive seasons abroad were well documented by Grace Germany in her diaries. She records one particularly merry Christmas day spent in St Tropez:

“the weather was quite nice but very cold. Great excitement with Julian, Quentin and Angelica examining their presents. The boys gave me an elephant and some chocolates. Mr Grant a bottle of scent. Louise being away, Mrs Bell, Madame Santucci and myself cleaned out the kitchen and scullery. We had a Plum pudding and mince pies, roast pork, preserved fruits, dates, figs and oranges, also wine for luncheon. M. Landau came for tea, they had a Xmas tree and Xmas cake and we had one. After we had a firework display.”


CHA/P/2416/11. Duncan Grant, Sketchbook. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

In keeping with these seasonal trips to France, the South of France has made an appearance in the wintry attic. We have recently discovered a sketchbook that accompanied Duncan Grant on a visit to the South of France. Filled with sketches of café scenes, beachside bathers, and a cat in a bowl, it is, however, this sketch of two old ladies eating dinner (above) that has caught our eye. Pressed against this page, untouched since it was placed there, we found a receipt for the meal Grant seems to have ordered at the café he describes in both word and image in this picture. We imagine him, tired and hungry after a long city trek searching for a good dinner, flinging himself into a bistro chair and sketching the two French ladies whose image, chatting over lemon sole, had persuaded him to dine at this “little bistro” named Chez Marcel on the receipt. Perhaps, after eating, he placed his knife and fork across his plate and scrawled down this recollection of his day thus far, framing his sketch with a story:

“Sometimes perfect things happen. As for instance at Cagnes-Sur-Mer I looked in vain I explored backstreets and hidden churches built of concrete over bridges over unexpected dikes. I look for café to eat. Like false lures, the dead alive cheap and nauseating came my way until I saw a Brasserie. There it only sold coffee and beer. But opposite something very inoffensive met my eye, a little bistro and two very old French ladies outside eating lemon sole and lemon.” (Duncan Grant, Sketchbook, CHA/P/2416/11).


CHA/E/233 Recto. Restaurant receipt from Chez Marcel, Cagnes-Sur-Mer. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Here we see Grant trailing the streets of Cagnes with his sketchbook, led first by artistic observation and then by his stomach. He embodies the image of the flaneur, the “painter of modern life”, a concept discussed in our previous blog post Friendship and the Flaneur. Indeed, Cagnes-sur-Mer, nestled in the radiant light of the South of France, inspired a generation of artists including Andre Derain, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Paul Cezanne who featured in Roger Fry’s 1910 Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries. Originally an artisan fishing village, this suburb of Nice on the Cote d’Azur provided these artists with inspiration in the form of deep blue seas frothing onto rounded pebbles, medieval buildings winding up to the top of the castle hill and narrow streets named after flowers.

Duncan Grant visited Cagnes in 1937 shortly after visiting Paris with Vanessa and Quentin Bell where they saw Pablo Picasso who was working on his painting Guernica. This post follows Grant from this meeting, detailed in our recent blog on The Spanish Civil war, on his solo travels south to the coast whilst Vanessa Bell returned to England. During his time in Cagnes Grant visited Renoir’s house, which is the Renoir Museum today, and called on Eddy Sackville-West who was staying at Aldous Huxley’s villa nearby. Duncan himself was also visited by Jean Campbell who invited him to stay at Fontcreuse.

France was, as Jans Ondaatje Rolls writes in her The Bloomsbury Cookbook, “always the chief source of foreign inspiration for Bloomsbury – whether in food or art”. In this recently discovered sketch the two are perfectly combined and satisfied in one. We see Duncan Grant searching for and finding the perfect moment, the perfect scene to sketch, the perfect meal to enjoy. From the 1920s Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant spent longer periods of time in France with the staff from Charleston. In 1921 they spent the autumn and winter in St Tropez in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean bay. Later in the 1920s and into the 1930s they spent year on year in Cassis, leasing La Bergere, a stone cottage surrounded by vineyard and dubbed “Charleston in France” by Leonard Woolf’s biographer Victoria Glendinning. These locations had as much an effect on the artists’ paintings as the cooks’ dinners. Elise Anghilanti, the cook at La Bergere from 1928, taught Grace Germany many French recipes which she could reproduce back in the kitchen at Charleston.

If this sketch is from Grant’s 1937 trip to Cagnes it provides us with a rare glimpse into his thoughts and moods years later. Frances Spalding notes how on this visit he returned to La Bergere which was now let to another family and regretted that they had not spent more time there. However, his is also a somewhat unromantic view of the town of Cagnes. The scene he conjures is dotted with concrete buildings and “nauseating” cheap eateries. Perhaps this is shaped by a well-worn familiarity with the region. And yet, at the end of his narrative he finds his perfect moment, swept up again in the romance of the region. He finds himself enchanted by a little bistro: the perfect place for dinner, coffee and a glass of wine.

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