The Charleston Attic

Category: Architecture

At Charleston, ‘The kitchen was always warm and smelt of fresh coffee.’

For those who are regular readers of the The Charleston Attic blog, and have been following our progress as the newest Attic Interns through our work with the Angelica Garnett Gift, it may be of interest to hear that we have been spending some time away from the collection and from the attic in favour of the annual Charleston Festival.

Our festival roles took us downstairs through the house and into the kitchen. In keeping with the annual Festival tradition of curatorial services-turned-catering, we became fully immersed in our duties as ‘Green Room Hosts’; preparing for, receiving and generally looking after our guests with gusto. Perhaps we could have been seen as following in the footsteps of Grace Higgens (albeit for a very brief period), who worked tirelessly for over fifty years in the kitchen at Charleston.

 

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Axel Hesslenberg, The kitchen at Charleston. Photograph, The Charleston Trust © Axel Hesslenberg

Grace, who worked for the Bell family and at Charleston as a housemaid, nurse, cook and housekeeper, was regarded by Quentin Bell as ‘being mostly in the kitchen’. Grace’s daughter-in-law, Diana Higgens, who first visited her at Charleston in 1952, also recalled; ‘Grace spen[ding] long hours in the kitchen…’ Of Grace’s kitchen duties, she recalls that she was constantly busy; ‘…the Aga was her only means of cooking and had to be stoked up night and morning with coke. The kitchen had a concrete floor that she washed most days with a mop and bucket…The sink was an old yellow stone one, with a wooden draining board and a plate rack above to drain the plates off.’

Whilst the kitchen was altered quite a bit in the 1980s during the restoration, it has nearly always been used as a working kitchen from the days that the Bell family occupied Charleston. A photograph of it after the restoration, taken by Alan MacWeeney in the late 1990s, for the book, ‘Charleston: a Bloomsbury house and garden’, shows that the post-war modern adaptations, such as the refrigerator and Aga, acquired when Grace was working there, still serve as adequate when the kitchen is used for entertaining today.

From her visits, Diana Higgens remembered that, ‘The kitchen…was warm and always smelt of fresh coffee.’ We can report that there was not a dissimilar atmosphere present in this room during the Festival! Despite the fact that this room has always been used as a kitchen, what has changed about the original function is that meals are now eaten in here as opposed to the dining room, where the family and their guests ate.

In addition to its prevailing homely and comfortable atmosphere, which Quentin Bell described as ‘cheerful and convivial’, what also remains unchanged about the kitchen at Charleston is the amount of people around the table. When she worked there, Grace always had visitors, including the postman, who would stop for a chat and a cup of tea. Virginia Nicholson pronounces it, ‘a most welcoming place to spend time.’; as a child, she and her siblings would ‘help her [Grace] bake and scrape out the bowl afterwards.’ Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were also not averse to entering the kitchen on a regular basis. In taking charge of the running of the household, Vanessa Bell would come down at the beginning of each day to discuss meal and other requirements with Grace, and Duncan Grant would often gather the plates after a meal and bring them in from the dining room into the kitchen for Grace to clean.

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Axel Hesslenberg, Tiled plaque situated behind the Aga cooker, made by Quentin Bell as a testimony to Grace Higgens’ devotion to Charleston;  the kitchen at Charleston. Photograph, The Charleston Trust © Axel Hesslenberg

Despite the observed formalities between the family and Grace when she worked for them, she was, according to Quentin Bell, ‘a central figure in ‘Bloomsbury…coping [within her role] in the most amicable manner with the eccentricities and vagaries of artists and their friends.’ The tiled plaque dedicated to Grace behind the Aga in the kitchen made by Quentin Bell after her retirement from Charleston is a recognition of her faithfulness to the family. It reads: ‘She was a good friend to all Charlestonians.’

 

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Tony Tree, Grace Higgens, who sits in front of her portrait painted by Vanessa Bell in 1943, Photograph © The British Library

From our time working in the kitchen at Charleston, we have gained an insight into how it was run as a household. We have also had the privilege of hosting a variety of fascinating guests; it really has been a pleasure to be a part of this year’s festival.

 Certainly we have more of an appreciation for Grace; for the extent of her duties and for the long hours that she must have worked. Without her services, it would have been impossible for Bell and Grant to produce the work that they did, and with that thought in mind we return to our work with the collection.

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‘Collaboration at Cambridge: Bloomsbury Heritage in Domestic Aesthetic’

Last week was #MuseumWeek 2016, and to celebrate, The Charleston Attic will once again be joining institutions all over the world by writing a blog post reflecting one of the themes trending on Twitter.

Thursday’s theme of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, shows the scope for discovery within the several thousand works on paper and canvas that make up the Angelica Garnett Gift.

Last week also marked our independence as the new Attic Interns as we continue with the task in hand: to photograph, catalogue and publish Grant and Bell’s works so that they may be viewed online. There is much excitement to be had in unearthing new items in the collection, and it seems like the perfect opportunity, in celebration of Charleston’s cultural heritage through the Gift, to talk about this week’s findings in relation to the theme.

We have been looking closely at two sketchbooks by Duncan Grant; dated circa 1919 and 1923 respectively. Grant, as we well know, was always drawing- his sketchbooks alone make up a large part of the Gift. The earlier sketchbook contains preparatory figurative studies for the mural that Grant and Vanessa Bell had designed for John Maynard Keynes’ rooms at Webb’s Court, King’s College, Cambridge in 1920. These were the second set of murals that John Maynard Keynes had commissioned from Grant for his Cambridge rooms; the first being in 1910. These four panels were covered some years later and the room redesigned in 1920, when a new mural was put in place.

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Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Mural for John Maynard Keynes (1920), Webb’s Court, King’s College. Photograph © King’s College Archives.

Filling entire pages in the book, the figurative studies in pencil and charcoal are emphasized by the variations of shadow and shading made through the boldness of the pressed line on the faded cream paper. Looking at Grant’s sketches of these figures, his focus on certain parts of the body is apparent. His large rough outlines of hands and feet, drawn as appendages to the shapely legs and arms continuing off the pages, conveys bodily movement, as we imagine what the figures would look like as a whole.

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CHA/P/2620/19 Duncan Grant, study of feet, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

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CHA/P/2620/9 Duncan Grant, study of hands, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The figures depicted on the panels are vivid; they are painted in bright colour, and are almost life-size. The poses they strike are dynamic. Although they are dominant – as painted figures they are made the focus of the space’s decoration – the poses they strike are less sexualized than the figures in the original mural by Grant, where surviving photographs show a revel of semi-nude male and female dancers cavorting in a lush vineyard, their baskets burgeoning under the weight of nature’s pleasures in the form of fresh fruit.

‘Grant’s imagery links the abundance of nature with the sensual pleasures of wine, music, and the body, so that nature is figured as sensual and sensuality is asserted as natural.’, writes Christopher Reed about the scene in the early mural in ‘Bloomsbury Rooms’. ‘These themes anticipate the subsequent half-century of Bloomsbury’s domestic iconography, and, in broadest terms, express the group’s determination to implement a domestic existence in opposition to the conventional Victorian equation of civilisation with dominion over nature and discipline over the body.’

The figures in Grant’s initial 1910 mural and in his later 1920 collaboration with Bell are classical, a decidedly  Post-Impressionist aesthetic that harks back to the Renaissance. This is as much a reflection of his painterly style as it is of Bell’s, and it marks one of their earliest artistic collaborations in interiors.

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CHA/P/2620/20 Duncan Grant, figure study, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

Grant’s early and later designs for these murals, conveys, in Reed’s words, ‘…[a] sensual vision’ on Grant’s part, one which ‘re-imagine[s]…a domestic environment to express [a] new way…of life [through]…sexual identity.’Reed saw Grant’s decoration of Keynes’ living space as ‘sett[ing] a modern stage for a new way of life’ for Keynes, ‘the life of a young economist [at Cambridge] who was Grant’s friend and lover.’

The expression of radical ideas through creative practises was the drive behind the Bloomsbury domestic aesthetic that led to Charleston. The interiors decorated by Bell and Grant are as much a demonstration of their artistic practises as their works on canvas. Through our work with the collection, we are gaining a rich insight into the cultural heritage at Charleston.

The objects and their surroundings provide tangible evidence of a past way of life and work. This quotidian sketchbook of Duncan Grant’s is one of many, just like all of the sketchbooks Grant tucked away in the nooks and crannies in corners of the rooms at Charleston. Today is it this particular sketchbook, filled with rough studies for the mural on Keynes’ sitting room wall, that reveals traces of the early Bloomsbury domestic aesthetic.

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CHA/P/2620/2 Duncan Grant, figure study, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

 

 

 

 

#architectureMW – The Lost Spaces of Bloomsbury

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From left to right: CHA-P-616-41, CHA-P-598-4, CHA-P-612-48. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

While Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell created decorative interiors in houses across Britain, Charleston is the only example of their work remaining in its entirety today. Destroyed by fire, enemy bombs or purely the differing taste of a new occupant, so many extraordinary designs have been lost. For many, the only lasting reminder of their existence are the numerous floor plans, notes on colour schemes, lists of addresses and decorative designs found within the pages of sketchbooks in the Angelica Garnett Gift. These small drawings and brief notes therefore offer an invaluable insight into an important part of Bell and Grant’s oeuvre that is now lost.

You can read more about Bell and Grant’s interior schemes in our previous post, ‘Vogue November 1924: Modern English Decoration’

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