The Charleston Attic

Month: January, 2016

Living Art

“The Dial” opens its 1924 issue with assurance on the range and rank of work within : “It is the purpose of this folio” the editors declare “to bring together examples of the best and most characteristic work of the leading artists of this time”. Amongst a roll call of more predictable Modernist luminaries, Duncan Grant and Marc Chagall appear side by side: Chagall’s study for “A Pinch of Snuff” (1912) – “It is Written” – features alongside Grant’s 1918 watercolour “Women with Ewer”. While Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso and Derain are accredited contexts to Grant’s work, and therefore unsurprising companions to Grant’s print in the issue, Chagall and Grant are rarely aligned artistically or otherwise. This week in the gift we discovered Chagall’s print from the magazine, interspersed so seamlessly amidst Bell and Grant’s sketches we at first assumed it was a copy.

Although closer inspection revealed the piece to be a highly-wrought facsimile, the artist’s copy – as Walter Benjamin observes – was a precursor to the technological modes of reproduction that were reaching their zenith during Bell and Grant’s career. Titled “Living Art”, this issue of “The Dial” not only evidences the growing popularity of facsimile reproductions, but also gestures to the enlivening potential of the procedure. Where a museum-bound work of art offers a single, static experience, the facsimile enables multiple encounters embedded into the life of the beholder. An artwork glimpsed at an institution may linger in one’s memory, but a facsimile can become a daily means of charging one’s artistic practice with form, flavour and style. Once distantly revered, artworks became accessible, intimate, incorporated into patterns of everyday existence. Therefore, whether consciously or not, the distribution of facsimiles participated in a broader political project Benjamin summarises thus:

“Modern technological reproduction strips […] institutions and their iconic artworks of their aesthetic authority.”

Once the province solely of an elite, reproduction rendered high art common property. Chagall and Grant’s work may have been radically de-mystified by appearing in reproduction, but their relation to each other initially appears tenuous, obscure.


“A Pinch of Snuff” by Marc Chagall, 1912. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. CHA/P/2585. Recto “It is Written”, watercolour on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Marc Chagall was born in 1887 near the city of Vitbesk (once part of the Russian Empire, now Belarus) to an observant Hasidic Jewish family, a cultural tradition that would come to influence his entire oeuvre. Although undoubtedly distant both culturally and geographically in their upbringings, Chagall, Bell and Grant were all equally enamoured by the Parisian art scene nascent during the first decade of the 20th Century. Chagall arrived in Paris the year Roger Fry introduced a scandalised British public to the French capital’s avant-garde, and only a few years after Grant made his own coming-of-age trip to the city. While Grant worked under Jean-Paul Laurens (admittedly not for long; his aesthetic conservatism impelled Grant elsewhere) and later Jacques Emile Blanche, Chagall befriended the city’s Modernist visionaries, including Guillame Apollinaire, Roger Delaunay, Fernand Leger, Modigliani and Andre Lhote. Despite frequenting very different artistic coteries, Chagall and Grant were both mesmerised by Cubist and Fauvist art. Like Grant, however, Chagall experimented with the tenets of Modernism – dabbling most notably with their rich and unconventional colour palette – while retaining a visual iconography unique to his imaginative world. Indeed, Chagall’s sustained commitment to figurative and narrative art echoes Grant’s return to more traditional themes following a boldly abstract period.

Turning from the plane of abstraction, the pair each developed an idiosyncratic form of Modernism that was, nevertheless, markedly similar at times in tone. Chagall’s quirky motifs ranged from Russian folkloric figures to women in flight, pastel-hued farm animals to eccentrically-strummed musical instruments. Grant, especially in his decorative work, favoured a similarly fantastical range of imagery: nymphs preen upon panels, doors stage tumbling acrobats and a cupboard witnesses a scene of serenading lovers. One is inclined, then, to agree with Vogue who remarked in 1924 that “Mr Duncan Grant has restored fantasy to furniture”. Flirting with a whimsy and sentimentality often anathema to their own avant-garde, both have since been said to possess a curiously literary quality. Chagall, Rainer Metzger suggests, sought “the imaginative strength of the poet”; Grant courted a “free play of connotation and allusion” Christopher Reed places closer to contemporary formalist literature than any concurrent art movement.

However, “It is Written” is not the sort of dreamscape tying Chagall’s aesthetic to Grant’s, but rather an homage to his homeland, particularly the Orthodox lifestyle that so shaped his childhood. Chagall’s otherwise realist image of contemplation is lent a lyricism by an impossibly turquoise-toned Talmudic scholar and the searing yellow of his surroundings. When compared to Grant’s contribution to “The Dial” – the sensual, pastoral “Woman with Ewer” – their differences could not be more pronounced.

dg ewer

“Woman with Ewer” by Duncan Grant, 1918. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

If not lead to Chagall’s work when allied by “The Dial”, Grant may have returned to this study following his 1966 trip to New York, where he was shown Chagall’s decorations at the Lincoln Opera House, and later his stained glass window at the United Nations building. For Chagall was equally eclectic in his talents: just as Grant worked across mediums, establishing himself as a fine artist unafraid of decorative art or commercial projects, Chagall was a painter, lithographer, etcher, ceramist and designer.

Speculation aside, this unusual find offers a reassuring counterpoint to Modernism’s often troubled relationship to Jewish culture; Grant’s preservation of the facsimile in particular indexes an admiration and respect for Chagall’s striking mediation on Jewish identity.

Julia Margaret Cameron at 200

Last Friday we attended the Julia Margaret Cameron at 200 conference at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Julia Margaret Cameron’s legacy had an impact upon her great niece, Vanessa Bell, who hung Cameron’s photographs at 46 Gordon Square embedding Bell’s Victorian heritage within the Modern life she and her siblings were forging for themselves and their contemporaries.

We were especially interested in contemporary artistic responses to Cameron’s work that continue to explore the pioneering aesthetic of her photography that so captivated Bell more than 100 years ago.

Sunara Begum, a British artist of Bangladeshi descent, spoke of her collaborative work attentive to the colonial subjects of Cameron’s photography. This work culminated in a travelling exhibition entitled ‘Retracing the Eye’ in 2015:

Begum’s interest in the pioneering work of the 19th century Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, inspired her to stage a new interpretation of her work, engaging and developing a timeless relationship with her images. Begum re-imagines the life of her silent subjects, over a century later, and her work is a symbol of untold stories. (


Lionel%20Sunara%20Begum%20Retracing01.jpg Lionel%20Sunara%20Begum%20Retracing07

 Photographs © Sunara Begum


A Self-Portrait

In celebration of #MuseumSelfie day here is a self-portrait of Duncan Grant that hangs in Vanessa Bell’s bedroom at Charleston. If you are interested in self-portraiture read our previous blog which details Dr Hana Leaper’s research on Vanessa Bell’s self-portraits.


CHA/P/65 Verso. Duncan Grant, “Self-Portrait”, circa 1910, oil on canvas. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Original Woodcuts

In The Bloomsbury Artists – Prints and Book Design Angelica Garnett remembers her mother Vanessa Bell sitting by the stove on dark evenings sketching on her lap. One can imagine Bell in such a pose at Charleston trying out designs for the various woodcuts that she produced over the course of her artistic career. This print by Bell from the 1950s, a recent find in the Angelica Garnett Gift, could have been designed on one such evening.


CHA/P/2571. Recto. Vanessa Bell, print, basket of fruit, ink on card. © The Charleston Trust

In this stylish woodcut design a basket of fruit takes centre stage; fresh fruit – light grapes and gleaming two-tone apples – rolls towards the front, tumbling amongst the woven basket, its intertwining branches shaping the deep tall structure. The striped background unfurls like drapes around the basket, following its elegantly curved edges. Here Bell uses the contrast of black and white to capture light and movement. It is reminiscent of her book cover designs for titles such as Hogarth Essays and features typical motifs from her work such as curtains and the shape of the vase. The woodcut, printed onto a thick piece of card, is also similar to Bell’s calendar designs. Indeed, a small tear-off pad of calendar pages would have fit nicely in the rectangle formed beneath the basket.

Woodcuts were an important part of Bell’s oeuvre and the project of putting together a book of woodcut prints had occupied her since Virginia and Leonard Woolf had set up the Hogarth Press in 1917. She wrote to her sister upon receiving the Woolfs’ first publication Two Stories, comprised of “The Mark on the Wall” by Virginia and “Two Jews” by Leonard, admiring both her sister’s writing and Dora Carrington’s woodcut illustrations. She proceeded to add

“It has occurred to me, did you seriously mean that we might produce a book (I mean pamphlet) of woodcuts? Both Duncan and I want very much to do some, and if you really thought it feasible, I should like to get a few other people also to produce one or two each and get together a small collection. Could this be arranged with your new press?”

Plans went ahead but later that year a dispute with Leonard Woolf over the layout of the print led to a temporary abandonment of the project. It was taken up again the following year by Roger Fry and was eventually published by the Omega Workshops under the title Original Woodcuts by Various Artists.


Nude by Vanessa Bell, 1918. Published in Original Woodcuts by Various Artists  © Bonhams.

Duncan Grant later recalled how woodcutting was a new endeavour for the artists, explaining “We [Bell and Grant] learned to do it ourselves … I think Roger may have helped us at first. I found it very easy, but Nessa had difficulties at first. She kept gouging holes in herself”. However, it was not the fear of physical injury that would stop the pair from working but Charleston’s rural location and thus the shortage of decent artist’s supplies. Indeed, Bell wrote of this hindrance to Roger Fry in 1918:

“I have done another woodblock. Duncan has done 3 altogether. But we are both waiting for a fine tool with which to finish them. I hope Bunny may bring one back from London tomorrow and then we can soon get them done and send them to you.”

The Tub by Vanessa Bell, 1917. © Tate

Woodcutting had an effect on both Bell and Grant’s other artistic outputs, Vanessa Bell in particular using woodcuts to refine her artistic practice. She made her woodcut print Nude at the same time, and based around the same image, as her painting The Tub. The print was used by Bell as a method to figure out proportion and design issues in her larger piece, being helpful due to its smaller size. Nude was also published alongside other works such as Dahlias in the final version of Original Woodcuts by Various Artists and suggests that, as well as a tool for refining her composition, Bell saw it as a work in its own right. Bell also began making woodcut illustrations for many of Virginia Woolf’s books, as discussed in a previous blog post Judging a Book by its Cover, inaugurating a long relationship of sisterly artistic collaboration.

Duncan Grant’s print Hat Shop designed for Original Woodcuts by Various Artists, also reveals a relationship between print making and his design work. Hat Shop depicted hats that he had designed to sell in the Omega Workshops (James Beechey The Bloomsbury Artists – Prints and Book Design) and thus was not only a clever marketing scheme but also represented the merging of fine and decorative arts at the Omega Workshops. We have recently found some Omega hat designs in the Angelica Garnett Gift (image below) which could have provided inspiration for these woodblocks. Grant also designed prints for various commissions throughout his life including one in 1965 from The Folio Society to produce illustrations for its publication of Arthur Waley’s translation of Monkey: a folk-tale of China, more commonly known simply as Monkey, discussed on a previous blog post. Another print that we have found in the same box in the Attic as Bell’s basket of fruit is Duncan Grant’s cover design for In an Eighteenth Century Kitchen, published in 1969 by Cecil Woolf. These later print works show the enduring appeal of the print form in Grant’s artistic career.


CHA/P/2454 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, Omega hat designs, pen on grid paper. © The Charleston Trust

The final publication of Original Woodcuts by Various Artists in early 1919 included woodcuts by Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Roald Kristian, Edward Wolfe, Simon Bussy and McKnight Cauffer. However, it was the Omega Workshops’ last communal project and by June the same year Roger Fry had announced its closing down sale. Although the workshops had not taken off as Fry had imagined, the publication of the prints made a final parting statement about collaboration and innovation in artistic work in England. Indeed, copies of the book survive to inspire us into the modern day and Jeanette Winterson describes the delight that a copy of Original Woodcuts by Various Artists now brings in her own book Art Objects: “Is it the hand-decorated coloured-paper wrappers, or the thick cream insides, or the fact that she [Virginia Woolf] stitched this book that I have before me now? It is association, intrinsic worth, beauty, a commitment to beautiful things, and the deep passage of the woodcuts themselves”.

bell dahlias

Dahlias by Vanessa Bell, 1918. Published in Original Woodcuts by Various Artists © V&A


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