The Charleston Attic

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Vanessa Bell’s Bathers

Pierre Bonnard’s bathers – the plural is perhaps misleading, for most of his soaking or somnolent nudes were his obliging wife Marthe – lean, lie, or wilt within their enclosed, mistily realised domestic interiors, but rarely do they rise – inelegant, immodest, uneroticised – in the manner of this recently discovered Vanessa Bell nude.

bathing scene

CHA/P/2439. Vanessa Bell. Bathing Scene. Recto. 49cm x 41cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The wide lilac trimmed bathtub – notably not the narrow, murky green of the tub at Charleston – provides a backdrop for Bell’s awkwardly limbed emerging nude. One arm clutches her side, the other – and our eyes follows her downcast face in its direction – is angled for leverage of her knee. Attentive to the body’s mechanics, Bell is equally sensitive to how the body is experienced in a particular mood, how emotions are embodied. Dappled in unfleshly greens and aquamarine, her ratios radically mismatched (no accident of perspective could generate such an attenuated upper arm, so large a foot) Bell here cedes the figurative to feeling. Size is consistent with effort, suggestive of and responsive to the sensation of weight. The unusual sheens of her skin could, in turn, allude to the estrangement from one’s body elicited by these private rituals. One must temporarily regard one’s body as an object, a vessel – and a fragile one, at that – requiring cleaning, care, and attention.

Anatomy, for Bell, is a means of expression, not an opportunity to strive for representational accuracy; the bather’s surroundings are likewise impressionistic, unconcerned with strict verisimilitude. A hazy geometry of burnt orange, white and periwinkle blue suggest a curtain withdrawn to a pane of glass: rays of sunlight thin to a milky iridescence; pear-shaped daubs of paint smudge into the suggestion of steam. A fastidiously detailed toilette – the mirrors, brushes, and towels littering many of Bonnard’s scenes, not to mention the similar set-pieces of Edgar Degas – is set aside. A sense of privacy trespassed, of intimacy easily if unwillingly ceded – of an omnipotent, virile beholder, in short – lent the conventional bathing scene a fair amount of its appeal. Yet prying becomes almost an impossibility here, as nothing in Bell’s interior is especially familiar; all is avowedly and self-reflexively painted. Abandoning the more prurient forces underpinning the genre, then, Bell’s is a study rather of colour reduced to its optical minutiae, of paint responsive to divergent and shifting materialities.

The Bath 1925 by Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947

Pierre Bonnard, The Bath, 1925. oil on canvas. 86cm x 120.5cm. Photograph © Tate

Bathing scenes had long held a complicated erotic appeal: voyeuristic pleasures aside, these images served to both amplify and assuage anxieties over the cleanliness (or indeed the essential, irrevocable dirtiness) of the female body. Bonnard’s bathing scenes are often praised for their depictions of marital intimacy, nevertheless they remain – however gentle or loving his gaze – reiterations of masculine agency and feminine passivity so prevalent in the Western European art historical canon. Bonnard’s 1925 painting of his wife is typical, imagining her submerged to her chin, swamped by white porcelain, the lifeless nymph of his homely arcadia. Here a shimmering jaundiced blue, Bonnard’s later “Nude in the Bath” (1940) fully dissolves the female body into the bathwater. Tired tropes associating women with the elemental, fluid, and uncontrollable are deployed without compunction; for there are ways of concealing ideology by making claims about perception. Faux-naive in consistency and colour, the circular floor tiling and cross-hatched panelling allude to the visual vocabulary of Post-Impressionism; the bather’s porous and permeable body is, in this light, merely a formal consideration, an expression of fleeting tonal relations, nothing more.

pb bath 2

Pierre Bonnard, Nu Dans La Baignoire, 1940. watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper. 28cm x 32.1cm. Photograph © Christie’s.

Bell’s appropriation of the traditional scene is not without its own quiet, queer eroticism, but seems more keenly responsive to the subjectivity of the bather, and certainly less willing to essentialise in the name of aesthetics. Her gestures radiate a vulnerability – the hand on hip feels protective, and is disproportionately sized as if to bolster or shield – but are balanced against something more defiant, wilful. Note the hunched shoulder, the elbow aslant, the legs splayed. Held aloft and glossed by a sheen of white, the foot reaches beyond the bathwater and – toes touching the scribbled, unfinished outer edge of the tub – the picture plane itself. The bather is at once delicate and robust, sensual but self-commanding, with Bell’s eye trained less to the body’s allure, and more to its tension and mass, its muscle and movement.

Of course, this canvas was not Bell’s sole foray into bathing scenes, and more than likely represents a later work – the absence of dating entails a certain embrace of obscurity – to her 1917 masterpiece “The Tub”.  Originally intended for the Garden Room at Charleston (but never hung) this strikingly large work depicts a woman undressed, playing absently with her plaited hair, her bath skewed to face the viewer, agape like an astonished mouth. Generic similarities are accentuated by the broadly anti-illusionistic style the works share, most noticeable in their spare, vibrantly hued environments. Even the bathers are encountered as echoes. Neither preen nor perform for the painter; both look away, without vanity or shame, their thoughts elsewhere. Yet a uniquely acute sense of unease pervades “The Tub”: every element – from the drooping floral arrangement to the deep purple pillar – is tersely separate, static.

The Tub 1917 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961

Vanessa Bell, The Tub, 1917. oil (?) and gouache on canvas. 167cm ×108.3cm. Photograph © Tate.

Frances Spalding has read the painting as charged with the emotional turmoil of Bell’s complex early life at Charleston, the three wilting flowers an allusion to the painful, ongoing ménage-a-trois between Bell, Grant and Garnett. However tempting, such biographical readings belie Bell’s awareness of the canon, and her especially fraught relationship with its androcentric history. “The Tub” could thus be better understood as invoking the bathing scene only to admit a profound discomfort, to concede the paralysis and emotional aridity of a genre so freighted with epistemic violence. By the time of her later painting, one can only assume Bell felt the hostile genre had been neutralised, reconciled, and able, finally, to capture an animated, agential vision of female subjectivity.



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.

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


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.

“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.

Statements of artistic identity in Vanessa Bell’s self-portraits by Dr. Hana Leaper

Former Charleston Attic intern Dr. Hana Leaper will be hosting a research lunch at The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art this Friday the 20th November. She will be speaking about Vanessa Bell’s self portraiture. Here is the abstract:

Vanessa Bell’s good looks, and famous family and friends frequently overshadow her reception as an artist. Throughout her four known, finished, self-portraits, Bell acknowledges these issues, making reference to her heritage, her frequent role as a model, and her position amongst the first generation of professional British women artists. Despite her reputation as a purely formal practitioner, Bell utilized these works to create direct statements about both her artistic and personal identities. Through them she positioned herself in relation to the canon, and insisted on her vocational commitment. Coming at either end of her career, these works can be read in sequence to provide evidence of the fundamental constituents of Bell’s practice, whilst also providing an index of the artist’s development.

Places are still available. To reserve a place on this free event please contact The Paul Mellon Centre’s Events Manager, Ella Fleming on We hope to see some of you there.

Vanessa Bell Self Portrait bbc your paintingsSelf Portrait by Vanessa Bell, c. 1958. The Charleston Trust. Photograph © BBC Your Paintings




Painting Plymouth: Duncan Grant and the British Navy

Today is the anniversary of VE Day, marking seventy years since the end of World War II in Europe. This momentous occasion will be commemorated with events all over the United Kingdom. The Angelica Garnett Gift has recently unearthed a number of sketches featuring naval officers in Plymouth, and today seemed the perfect time to share these works by Duncan Grant. These drawings offer insight into Grant’s occupation during the war and also allow an opportunity to reflect on Charleston and what VE Day meant to its residents.



Top: CHA/P/1398, Duncan Grant, Figure Studies, ink pen on paper, 1940, 25.9 cm x 17.8 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust. Bottom: CHA/P/1011, Duncan Grant, An Officer and a Sailor, pencil on paper, 1940, 39.6 cm x 29cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Grant had been approached by the War Artists Advisory Committee in March 1940 and following discussion he agreed to travel to Plymouth and work on producing naval studies. In return for his commitment Grant would receive a wage of one pound a day plus travelling expenses and worked under the condition that he would submit all sketches and finished works for censorship. He lived and worked in Plymouth for two weeks and whilst there met with John Nash, who was working as an official war artist. Nash warned Grant that ‘spy mania’ was rife in the docklands and that it would be impossible to paint in that area without constant interruption. Following Nash’s advice Grant chose to depict sailors undertaking gunnery lessons in the naval barracks, and it is the sketches of these observations that we have found as part of the Angelica Garnett Gift. Other preliminary sketches and the final finished work depicting Grant’s time recording the working lives of sailors in Plymouth are in the collections at the Imperial War Museum.


CHA/P/1014, Duncan Grant, Two Military Figures, 1940, pencil and Biro pen on paper, 29 cm x 39.4 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Despite the devastation that was heaped upon the area during the Blitz, Grant was grateful for his experiences of naval life. In a letter to Jane Bussy, written in June 1940, Vanessa Bell describes how he returned;

‘with a great respect for their immense efficiency and charm and had most interesting stories of high and low life in Plymouth.’

Bell was an avid letter writer during the war and in the Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell, edited by Regina Marler, we see her describe the daily difficulties or war, being unable to travel and seek the company of friends, growing awareness of death and how ‘untidy’ the world was becoming. A letter dated March 12th 1945 to her daughter Angelica gives an account of ‘V week’ and how members of Bloomsbury and the local community chose to commemorate the occasion;

‘We have had a very quiet V[ictory] week except for Maynard’s entertainments… we enjoyed open windows and lights streaming out, and fireworks in the distance and even, we thought the lights of London – and bonfires everywhere…Finally we went home and turned on all our outdoor lights and the garden was simply fairy land – with nightingales- yes, we were sure of it – singing loudly. we walked about on the lawn and did our best to realise we were at peace’


Photograph of VE Day Celebrations in London, 8th May 1945. © Rootsweb Ancestry



Look behind the scenes at Charleston Farmhouse

The Charleston Attic is famous! Thanks to our friends at Blogging Woolf for supporting our project.

Blogging Woolf

Charleston AtticOh, the lovely connections we make in the world of Woolf. This time, the connection gives us all a behind-the-scenes look at Charleston, the Sussex site known as Bloomsbury in the country.

Alice Purkiss, a curatorial trainee at The Charleston Trust, contacted Blogging Woolf via a Facebook message last week to ask that we help publicize The Charleston Attic, a blog put together by Purkiss and fellow trainee Dorian Knight.

CharlestonIn existence one year, the blog shares the trainees’ research at Charleston and includes a discussions of Woolf and her works. According to the blog, it “is a record of our work cataloguing, researching and interpreting the Angelica Garnett Gift from the Charleston attic – overlooked by a bust of Virginia Woolf.”

Recent posts of particular interest to Woolfians include:

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Excavating Bloomsbury – The Angelica Garnett Gift and the Archaeological Imagination

Last week on the first day of Charleston’s 2015 opening, curatorial trainee Dorian Knight presented his research on the Angelica Garnett Gift. He focused on how this archive in its entirety can be analysed using the approaches of an archaeologist, with the intention of yielding a new and original interpretation.

This was done by thinking about ruins, a theme of obvious concern to archaeologists. If we consider an ancient temple that has fallen into ruin, our attention is first drawn to the picturesque processes of material decay, ivy and moss growing into crumbling stone. This ruination is parallel to the state of the Angelica Garnett Gift; prior to its cataloguing the Gift was raw, unprocessed and unconserved, with stranded and fragmented pages of all sizes, ages and materials, grouped together en masse as seen below, items occasionally wrapped around one another, materials smudging. Thinking of the Gift in this way draws attention to the materiality of the objects as they undergo ruination, which can lead to a number of speculations about their character and aesthetics.

Items in the gift prior to photographing and cataloguing. ©The Charleston Trust.

Items in the gift prior to photographing and cataloguing. ©The Charleston Trust.

One of these speculations is the importance of the medium itself; although it is the artistic content of the Angelica Garnett Gift that may garner the most interest, I believe thinking as an archaeologist highlights the importance of these pieces not just as art works, but as artefacts, to be felt, touched and sensed; because to engage with the sensory, tactile and corporeal nature of the Gift is to appreciate it on a profound level that forces us to pay attention to the physical textures of the Bloomsbury world.

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