The Charleston Attic

Tag: Bloomsbury

From Patterned to Plain: A Visit to the Courtauld Gallery Exhibition on Omega Workshops

We visited the Courtauld Gallery’s display of items from the Omega Workshops. The Workshops operated in London between 1913 and 1919 under the directorship of Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. The Courtauld is fortunate to be able to draw on its extensive collection of Bloomsbury art and design, much of which was bequeathed to it by Fry.

The current exhibition is small, but it successfully demonstrates the willingness of the Omega artists to apply their decorative ideas in many forms, from fine art, to rugs, screens and tableware. The exhibition even includes a musical instrument, a type of harpsichord known as a virginal. This was extravagantly decorated by Fry, somewhat to the dismay of Arnold Dolmetsch who made it.  

The exhibition was effective in teasing out different aesthetic ideas within the group by placing highly patterned work alongside deceptively simple ceramics. We were thrilled to see Duncan Grant’s Lily Pond Design, familiar from the table at Charleston, applied in a dramatically different context on a large folding screen (pattern has been photographed below). Grant’s work made an interesting contrast with a selection of Fry’s monotone tableware, in which Fry pursued his interest in form and the imperfections left by the artist’s touch.

Lily Pond design on screen

Duncan Grant, 1913-14, oil on wood, screen with Lily Pond design, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


Roger Fry, 1913, white coffee pot, , tin-glazed earthenware © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

The exhibition also touched on the Omega artists’ receptiveness to the influence of other cultures.  For example, Grant is said to have borrowed ‘liberally from African textiles’ for a rug design (see below).[i] This is perhaps not surprising as African designs featured in Fry’s lectures and the Omega Workshops sold textiles produced for the African market.  Moreover, the Omega Workshops’ active period followed a period of heightened interest in African art, especially among artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Fry, some of whom owned African sculptures.  Further signs that Grant shared their interest can also be found in the Angelica Garnett Gift, which includes sketches of African dance masks.


Duncan Grant, 1913, rug, hand-knotted wool with a jute or hemp warp, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


Dance mask

CHA/P/3316, Duncan Grant, drawing, Bapende dance mask, colour wash and charcoal, © Charleston Trust

Dance mask

CHA/P/3323, Duncan Grant, Ibibio dance mask, charcoal on paper, © Charleston Trust


The shape and colour of Fry’s ceramics echo those of the Chinese Song dynasty (960-1279) and include his 20th century take on a traditional rice bowl and a turquoise tureen with a bison, or Chinese lion, on the lid.


Roger Fry, c. 1916, black-glazed bowl, glazed earthenware, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


Roger Fry, 1915, blue-glazed cover tureen, glazed earthenware, mould made © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Previous posts on the blog describe how Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell shared Fry’s interest in China, especially after Julian Bell’s move to Wuhan in central China to teach English. This is also reflected in the Angelica Garnett Gift, where we have re-discovered tourist souvenirs from China and sketches of figures wearing traditional dress known as ‘Han Fu’.

Chinese tourist souvenir

CHA/P/4029, Chinese souvenir of floral design and traditional poem, ink on Chinese paper, © Charleston Trust

Chinese child

CHA/P/4024, Vanessa Bell/Duncan Grant, Chinese child, pencil on tracing paper, © Charleston Trust

The exhibition ‘Bloomsbury Art and Design’ continues until 21 September 2017. For further details click here to visit their website.




[i] Courtauld Gallery London, Bloomsbury Art and Design, London: Courtauld Gallery, 2017.

Europa and the Bull in ‘The Arts’


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Duncan Grant, illustration for ‘Europa and the Bull’ poem by W Rodgers, ‘The Arts’ journal, 1946.

This week in the Gift, we look at a series of objects that reveal a more commercial side to Duncan Grant’s work. In 1946 a commission by ‘The Arts’ a modern art journal, under the editorial supervision of Herbert Read, Edward Sackville-West, and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, provided a public platform for a new artistic collaboration. Grant’s contribution to the magazine was a painting and illustrated poem of ‘Europa and the Bull’ by W. R. Rodgers.

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‘The Arts’ Issues One and Two, Lund Humphries & Co Ltd; London.

‘The Arts’ was interdisciplinary in nature, covering a range of artistic forms and practices within each issue. The first two issues feature in detail painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre, film, music, poetry and philosophy. The journals were designed to be aesthetically stimulating, presenting cover work and illustrative interpretations of poems and prose by contemporary artists alongside high quality colour lithograph plate representations of more prominent works.

The utilization of a variety of paper and print techniques emphasize the depth and detail in the featured images; the subsequent quality of the images were evidently realized by the editorial board. Content was also held in high regard as the journal features many esteemed writers such as Clive Bell (this was most likely the connection that secured Grant his commission), Edward Sackville-West, Robert Medley, Sir Kenneth Clark, Benedict Nicolson and Raymond Mortimer amongst others. At ten shillings a book the high quality was quite matched by the price, and readership would have most probably been limited to the educated middle classes. With only two issues published, Issue One in 1946 and Two in 1947, information regarding the journal is unfortunately limited.


 CHA/P/2705 Recto. Duncan Grant, design for ‘Europa and the Bull’ poem by W Rodgers, pen on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Duncan Grant’s works in the gift includes studies for the illustrated poem as well as the final piece used. Gaining inspiration from ‘Europa and the Bull’, Grant’s form emulates classical mythology as well as the natural world. The cross-hatching of black penned lines against the text blurs the poem into the piece, mirroring the imperfect lines of language. Impressionistic in line, the inscribed pen strokes add texture and tone to the image.

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‘The Arts’ Issue One, Lund Humphries & Co Ltd; London.

The opening page of the poem and thus Grants illustrated segment (this original was not found in the AG gift), is strikingly juxtaposed with a large photograph. An abstracted female form seated pronounces a smooth modernist sculpture by Henry Moore, which sits opposite the contrasting classical design. A black pen illustration envelopes the poems text, showing seated female nudes frolicking in the textured grass. This work somewhat mirrors the panels Grant produced for the Cunnard Commission, a design for interior decorative panels to be exhibited on RMS Queen Mary (although these were later rejected).

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‘The Arts’ Issue One, Lund Humphries & Co Ltd; London.

 The feature comes to a close with a lucid and bright painting by Grant. A matte paper displays the colours in block form and in an array of fresh pastels we are finally introduced to Europa. She lays nude on the back of the Bull, one arm above her head gesturing playfully with a red scarf, the bull moves steadily through the water, expressive of a unity between them.

Two images within the gift show studies for this final print, evidencing differing concepts for the composition of the piece. Grants inspiration from the myth of Europa is clear; where Zeus captures her in the form of white bull and their sexual relationship legitimises Europa’s powerful son, King Minos of Crete.

CHA/P/2626 & CHA/P/2627 Recto. Duncan Grant, designs for ‘Europa and the Bull’ poem by W Rodgers, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The piece below is a design that did not make the final print, though it could have been inspiration for the final image used as the same colour palette is evident.

CHA/P/2704 Recto & Verso. Duncan Grant, design for ‘Europa and the Bull’ poem by W Rodgers, inscription “Design for ‘Europa and the Bull’ poem by W Rogers, (sic) c1945”, pencil and gouache on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This set of images were not Grants only work produced for the journal; also linked is a study for a front cover of ‘the Arts’ in his usual bold style full of form and movement. Figures appear to be dancing across the pages, acrobatics with circular instruments create motifs repeated throughout the piece displayed in the curves of the male physique and reflected in the text form. We do not know if this was an early study for one of the initial two journals or a suggestion for the next, nevertheless production for ‘the Arts’ was unfortunately discontinued in 1948.


CHA/P/1803 Recto. Duncan Grant, cover design of ‘The Arts’ journal, never produced, watercolour on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust



On Vanessa Bell’s Birthday: 30th May 1879

Vanessa Bell née Stephen was born on this day in 1879. A key member in the creation of the Bloomsbury aesthetic, Vanessa was a prolific worker and over the course of her life produced vast quantities of paintings, drawings, interior design and furniture decorations, woodcuts, book covers, textile and crockery designs. There is a large portion of her work in the AG Gift, spanning from her earliest days at Charleston to her death in 1961.

CHA/P/606 Vanessa Bell. Sketchbook. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Today, on the day of Vanessa Bells birthday, we are sharing works found in Charleston archives, that celebrate the legacy she left here.


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CHA/P/174 Recto. Vanessa Bell, The Kitchen,  c.1943,  painting.  Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Painted from inside Charleston this image shows a young Grace Higgins, Charleston’s housekeeper (1920-70), in the kitchen  preparing a meal. A basket of fresh vegetables from the garden lay in the foreground these would have been an important part of supplementing rations during wartime. With the help of Grace, Vanessa ran an orderly and welcoming household and Grace’ work meant that Vanessa could paint full time.


 CHA/P/2501 Recto. Vanessa Bell, print of classical scene in Rome, ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Vanessa’s travels are well documented in the gift and she explored France, Italy and England often in the summertime. Painted during a trip to Rome this image shows a picturesque scene of a church with sculptures that stand on plinths in front of its facade. Vanessa was inspired by both the classical architecture and art of these destinations. Many classical figures and studies are featured within sketchbooks in the gift.



CHA/DEC/3 Vanessa Bell, Fireplace early 19th Century, painted 1925-30, marble. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This colourful and modern fireplace painted between 1925 and 1930 shows Vanessa’s skill in abstracted domestic design. Proudly displaying her cross hatching and circular motif this playful piece is perhaps a quinessential example of Bloomsbury design aesthetic. Situated in Clive Bell’s study this is one of the first objects visitors view when visiting Charleston today.

On Duncan Grant’s Male Nudes


In 1910, at the age of twenty-five, Duncan Grant’s career began to take off. His work was beginning to be recognized, having been shown more widely, and the period of 1908-11 is viewed as being one of rapid productivity for Grant as an artist. ‘He was always very productive,’ Douglas Blair Turnbaugh wrote, ‘[Though] at this time…in his early twenties, his creative genius was beginning to be recognized, and he was considered a leading contributor to the Post-Impressionist movement in England…he had [already] a thorough understanding of French and Italian schools of the past, and highly developed technical skills.’


Duncan Grant, from various photographs taken by the artist in preparation for his studies, George Leigh Mallory, 1912, 46 Gordon Sqaure, Photographs © Estate of Duncan Grant


Richard Shone cites ‘[Grant’s] early portraits of his friends and… relations [as] encapsulate[ing] the sound technical accomplishment [that]he had achieved by his early twenties.’ In 1908, after returning from Paris where he had studied classical painting in the Louvre, Grant was residing at 21 Fitzroy Square in London. It was here that he seriously began painting portraits. As Blair Turnbaugh observed; ‘He took a studio near Belsize Park Gardens and began a series of brilliant portraits of everybody within his reach, including…new friends, and many relatives ….’ In his studio on the first floor, Grant invited friends and family to pose for his painting and drawings to save the expense of hiring professional models. He liked to photograph his models, and ‘These photographs were references for some of Duncan’s erotic drawings and paintings’, as erotic photography was back then illegal and utmost discretion was essential.

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Duncan Grant, preparatory photographs, Vanessa Bell and Molly MacCarthy, 1913, taken in the artists’ studio at 46 Gordon Square, Photographs © Estate of Duncan Grant


Grant also posed naked himself for photographs to be taken in his studio. Between 1909 and 1911, he produced of succession ‘youthful’ self-portraits that, in characteristic face-on, close-up style, were ‘intimate and direct’, as identified by Shone. In choosing to portray himself unabashedly, his apparent ease could be seen as a reflection of the intense pleasure he was experiencing in his personal life.



Duncan Grant, Study For Composition (Self-Portrait In Turban) (1910), oil paint on canvas. Photograph © National Gallery


Grant and John Maynard Keynes were lovers during the early years of Grant’s initial critical acclaim, and they remained so until about 1910. Happily, this relatively brief romantic period of theirs did not deter their friendship, which prevailed until Keynes’ death. Grant’s biographer Frances Spalding thought it telling of Grant and Keynes’ relationship that, ‘…when he reminisced about th[eir] affair, Duncan gave his close friend Paul Roche the impression that Keynes ‘was closer than anyone except perhaps Vanessa [Bell], and even closer than her in some respects…in the uncluttered recognition one male can have for another.’


Duncan Grant, Portrait of John Maynard Keynes (1917-18), oil paint on canvas. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


Indeed; ‘The significance of Maynard for Duncan went very deep and in old age…Before the end of [that] June [of 1914] he had fallen in love with Maynard and experienced an immediacy of rapport greater than he had ever known.’ This relationship would no doubt have heightened Grant’s sense of creativity s as he became more confident with his sexuality. As Spalding put it, ‘Maynard…liberated Duncan through his own attraction to the genuine and that which was without pretence.’ It helped greatly that Keynes himself had been in a liberal environment when he was a student, ‘[at] Kings College Cambridge [where] homosexuality ha[d] become…rampant.’ in the early 1900s.

Years later, when Roche sat as a model for Grant, Roche observed how he worked, and saw that in his style, Grant had what he saw as a ‘determination not to please [aesthetically] except by telling the truth, and telling the truth through the intransigent beauty of paint,’ Perhaps an element of the openness that Keynes had shared with Grant had found itself within Grant’s portraiture style as he captured his chosen sitters.

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Duncan Grant, Paul Roche with leg raised; date unknown, charcoal and gouache. Photograph © Christies 2015


In the summer of 1910, Grant and Keynes holidayed together in Greece and Turkey, and took delight in photographing each other naked against the backdrop of the aged classical landscape. Christopher Reed saw the activity of picture-taking as Keynes’ and Grants’ way of ‘enacting the links they perceived between ancient and modern homoeroticism.’, and this was therefore a kind of an affirmation of sexuality; ‘…free of the repressive structures of [their] own culture[s].’

For Grant, it would have brought into clearer focus through the lens in his mind, the image of the classical male nude; ‘out of doors,.’ Bathing (1911) captures Grant’s idealised version of the male nude, aptly classicized in following of his preferred artistic style. The work was praised; namely, The Spectator remarked that, ‘…the figure scrambling into the boat in the background is a noble piece of draughtsmanship…[the work] gives an extraordinary impression of the joys of lean athletic life.’ Grant hired a model which he photographed in his studio in preparation for the work, allowing him the freedom as well as the accuracy to produce the life-size panorama that came to be so successful.



Duncan Grant, Bathing (1911), oil paint on canvas, Photograph © Tate.

Duncan Grant’s relationships with his models have been much looked at and written about, as they are interesting and complex; they were an integral part of his work and life. Though he made studies of men and women alike; ‘Integral to his creative process…attractive men were as vital a source for Duncan ‘s creative imagination as women were for Picasso’s.”, and he drew his lovers.

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CHA/P/2630 Duncan Grant, study of female nude, charcoal on paper, Photograph © The Charleston Trust

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CHA/P/2629 Duncan Grant, study of female nude, charcoal on paper, Photograph © The Charleston Trust


The sitters depicted in these sketches of his that we have unearthed this week as part of the Angelica Garnett Gift are less familiar to us. Grant used numerous models in his work throughout his lifetime; some who were paid, though many were family, friends, close or acquaintances.

The two sketches of the female nudes are drawn with their heads turned away from us; their bodies twisted slightly away from the way they are facing, a pose subtly characteristic of Grant’s nudes. These two females were paid models who sat for Grant in about 1930. As a more established artist, Grant would have been able to afford to do this more than he had done so in his early career. The two sketches of the male nudes, both signed and dated, are of friends of their artist. Their inscriptions; ‘Mark, Charleston, 4th June ‘70’, and, ‘EC Farah, ‘65’, refer to the model, date and the place they were done. (Charleston, in the case of the 1970 drawing), as stylistically, we can attribute the works to Grant although he did not sign them.


CHA/P/2629 Duncan Grant, study of male nude, charcoal on paper, (1970), Photograph © The Charleston Trust


CHA/P/2634 Duncan Grant, study of male nude, charcoal on paper, (1965), Photograph © The Charleston Trust

From the relaxed way they hold themselves, as well as the intimate perspectives from which they are drawn, there is the sense that all of the sitters felt comfortable exposing themselves to Grant for the sake of his art, as was often the case. The sense of truth expressed in the body laid bare is heightened when it is expressed by creative means, and Duncan Grant made no secret in asserting his creativity.


The Process of Abstraction

In many of the sketches by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in the Angelica Garnett Gift one can see the tangible ephemera of everyday life abstracting. Still life scenes become shapes and darts over the course of a sketchbook. Subjects are reworked and refined as outlines of their former selves. People disappear, represented instead by the shapes of their clothing and surroundings. In these works we see the artists’ processes of abstraction, using the contours of landscapes and the shaping of the figure to create significant forms.

Lily Pond Duncan Grant Art Gallery of South Australia

Duncan Grant Lily-Pond design. Photograph © Art Gallery of South Australia.

Bell and Grant experimented with abstract art in the 1910s both in their individual work and in their designs for the Omega Workshops. Grant’s Omega design Lily-Pond used in the Lily-Pond Table that can be seen in Maynard Keynes’s bedroom at Charleston is a notable example. This piece, like many of the sketch works in the Angelica Garnett Gift, though abstract is still recognisably representational. The dark depths of the pond are the bottomless backdrop to the drama of golden scaled fish rippling the lily pads and creating dancing reflections of light. Similarly an abstract landscape sketch by Duncan Grant that we have found in the Gift (see below) replicates the motion of the natural world. Wind moves in a spiralling motion above cliffs and wavy lines rise from the ground and along the edge of a cave. Fish also swim in a pool of water in this sketch, but now they are all facing the same direction, copies of themselves. Indeed, the forms in the sketch are more graphic, more geometric, than those in Lily-Pond. The bold lines of the sketch both capture the mood of this perhaps imaginary landscape whilst refining its representation into abstraction.


CHA/P/2318 Recto. Duncan grant, drawing, abstract landscape study, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Vanessa Bell was also interested in the abstraction of the natural world. Her lesser known painting Landscape, painted on the back of another of her works Window, Still Life, uses the colours and shapes of nature to communicate the feeling of being in a landscape, rather than what it may actually look like. It is as if the fleshy coloured shape of a figure mid-way down the painting is swimming through this landscape, which could be both lily pond and shaded canopy in the same moment. Lines and blocks of colours are also used to insinuate the fall and refraction of light upon the natural scene. This painting is particularly interesting due to its being on the back of another work Window, Still Life from 1912-13. Indeed, the canvas of Landscape was cut down to fit the size of Window, Still Life meaning Landscape must pre-date it and that it was an early experiment into abstraction for Vanessa Bell.

(c) Henrietta Garnett; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Landscape by Vanessa Bell. Photograph © The Cheltenham Trust.

Works like these would develop in Vanessa Bell’s work culminating in 1914 when she created one of the first completely non-representational abstract paintings made by a British artist. This pioneering Abstract Painting developed alongside other paintings which used geometric shapes, such as her portrait of Mary Hutchinson in 1915 and her 1915 self portrait. In these paintings the abstract shapes and colours relate to the colours used to demark the sitter. It is thus possible to read these backgrounds as abstract representations of the portraits themselves.


Mrs St John Hutchinson by Vanessa Bell, 1915. Photograph © Tate.

At the same time Duncan Grant created his Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound (1914) which was a design for a long piece of abstract work which would be hung over mechanical spools rotating the design enabling it to be viewed sequentially through the aperture of a box as it passed. He also intended it to be set to music, specifically a slow movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Although this project was never realised this and Bell’s works in abstraction assert their importance to the development of abstract art in the 1910s in England.


CHA/P/2399 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Indeed, the Angelica Garnett Gift is a rich resource for considering their approach to abstraction. When Bell painted her groundbreaking abstract canvas she had, as Richard Shone notes, “seen hardly no non-figurative work by other artists”. This suggests that Bell, influenced by the visual vocabularies of Post-Impressionism brought to England by Roger Fry in 1910, developed her works into abstraction on her own terms. Indeed, the gift gives us glimpses of abstraction in action. A Vanessa Bell sketchbook which includes various studies of fans also contains a sketch in which two well dressed ladies are reduced to the shapes of their fans and feathered hats themselves, standing before a table abstractedly set with a glass of wine and a bowl of fruit for lunch. Furthermore, a page of sketches by Duncan Grant focusing on the female form is also dotted with decorative motifs that mimic the curvature of the female body.


CHA/P/606/42. Vanessa Bell, drawing, decorative motifs, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Although abstraction seems to have been key to both artists’ oeuvres in their artistic development and their continuing process of design for works of art and decorative commissions, Quentin Bell later recalled how Vanessa Bell felt that purely abstract work enacted a loss of the subject matter that she craved. Despite moving away from abstract aesthetics in painting the Angelica Garnett Gift is revealing the continuing importance of abstraction as a method of thinking through composition and design in the works of both Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.


CHA/P/2487 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, abstract design, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.


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

“she might have walked among the fair women of Burne-Jones’s Golden Stair; but she spoke with the voice of Gauguin”

Last Friday we travelled from Bloomsbury in Sussex to its origins in Bedford Square to hear one of the first Charleston attic interns, and current Paul Mellon Centre for British Art Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Hana Leaper talk on Vanessa Bell’s self-portraiture. We stepped inside the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art’s newly refurbished interiors, leaving the golden autumn leaves falling from the trees outlining the park onto the crisp pavement outside. We moved through to the seminar room and sat around a large oval table ready for Dr. Leaper to begin her talk.

Leaper opened by detailing Vanessa Bell’s artistic and aesthetic maternal ancestry, examining how Julia Margaret Cameron’s pioneering photography memorialised her niece Julia Stephen (nee Jackson) – Vanessa Bell’s mother – as an icon of Victorian feminine beauty. Leaper examined how Bell inherited her mother’s image as “the angel of the house”,  only to radically complicate this representation throughout her artistic career. She highlighted this tension between Bell’s image as the mother of Bloomsbury, mythologized as silent and serene, and her identity as a self-conscious and articulate member of the Modernist avant-garde.


Abstract Painting by Vanessa Bell, circa 1914. Photograph © Tate

Leaper examined Bell’s first known finished self-portrait from 1912, where she captures herself  in the act of painting, surrounded by the homely accoutrements of the drawing room at Gordon Square. A black outline separates Bell from the background, boldly pressing her image into the foreground. Distancing herself from the bookcase that adorns the wall behind her, Bell at once distances herself from her family’s literary heritage. Confidently wielding a paintbrush, Bell asserts rather her identity as an artist. By obscuring her face – as she does too in a later 1952 self-portrait, also discussed by Leaper – Bell resists not only her literary background, but also her legacy of feminine beauty.

Leaper went on to highlight Bell’s recurring emphasis on a particular ligament in her neck, a line paid equal attention by Julia Margaret Cameron in her portraits of Julia Stephen. Used to index strength of character, and made all the more prominent by the obfuscation of all other facial features,  Bell uses this familial physical idiosyncrasy to resist classification as a Burne-Jones “beauty”. Bell thus highlights the strong feminine features that define her maternal lineage, drawing attention away from their definition as “angels of the house”.


Self-portrait by Vanessa Bell, circa 1915. Photograph © Yale Center for British Art

Leaper moved on to compare Bell’s self portraits to portraits painted of Bell by Duncan Grant and Roger Fry. She argued that these portraits, by men central to Bell’s  life, lacked the psychological complexity that she communicates in her own self portraits. Grant and Fry’s portraits were thrown into particularly sharp relief by Bell’s 1915 self-portrait. Here Bell’s face absorbs the colours of the backdrop, an arrangement strongly reminiscent of the abstract works Bell was working on concurrently. Bell once again incorporates her art practice into the imagery of self-portraiture, thus claiming the centrality of her creative work to her identity. A defiance, moreover, radiates from the image: her pose is awkward; her figure fills and threatens to spill out of the frame. She is monumental but not statuesque. Yet Grant and Fry, painting her portrait at a similar time, attribute to Bell the poise and classical beauty of statuary.

With self-portrait and portraits placed side by side, Leaper uncovered the extent of Bell’s rebellious representations. She is three dimensional and dynamic, often difficult, confrontational and restless. Her essence cannot be captured. She is like Virginia Woolf’s “will-o-the-wisp” in her essay on fiction Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown who tauntingly says “my name is Brown. Catch me if you can”.

Underpinning Leaper’s thesis was the notion that Bell’s later works deserve greater critical attention. Leaper compared Bell’s final known finished self-portrait, which hangs in the garden room at Charleston, to other late self portraits by artists such as Chardin and Rembrandt, thus re-contextualising her work within the art historical canon. While these self portraits by male artists were revered as great works, demonstrative of their maturity, Leaper suggested that Bell’s equivalent has been frequently obscured by biographical readings, seen by many to represent her suffering after the death of her sister Virginia Woolf and eldest son Julian Bell. Perhaps, Leaper concluded, a wider cultural hostility towards older women conditioned this response, as it could be better understood as a defiant act of self-expression, in keeping with Bell’s other self portraits.

Vanessa Bell Self Portrait bbc your paintings

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

We would like to thank Dr Hana Leaper and the Paul Mellon Centre for a fantastic and illuminating research lunch.

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




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.

Apollo in his Temple


CHA-P-1240 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, Women at Work, ink on lined paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

In February 1910 Duncan Grant was invited by Maynard Keynes to join him on a visit to Greece and Asia Minor. While their physical relationship was over by this time, as detailed in an earlier blog post here, the couple remained close friends and continued to travel abroad together, their trips often funded by Keynes. These excursions provided an ideal opportunity for Grant to visit galleries and heritage sites, and to paint and draw local landscapes and people. The creative results of his observations are captured in numerous sketchbooks and upon loose sheets of paper found within the Angelica Garnett Gift.

A particularly interesting token of the 1910 trip was recently uncovered; a thin sheet of lined writing paper upon which a hastily-drawn group of women in long robes and headscarves has been sketched. Like many of the loose works in the Gift this object has dual status, as upon turning the page we discover that Grant has sketched the scene on the back of a letter sent to Keynes by the Compagnie Messageries Meritimes confirming his booking for the Paquebot Senegal, the boat that would take the two friends from Piraeus to Troy on the 12th April, 1910. Although the drawing could have been made later than this (as detailed on the blog previously, Grant often kept materials to use at a later date) it is quite likely that Grant made the drawing during this trip with Keynes.

Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant’s biographer, describes the pair’s journey:

Duncan and Maynard left London on 17th March 1910 and were away for seven weeks in all. They travelled by boat from Marseilles to Athens, and on arrival found a hotel that faced the Acropolis. In Athens they employed a dragoman to accompany them on a journey by horse through the Pelopommese. They travelled through mountain villages to Bassae, carrying food supplies with them. It was a memorable trip. ‘I must tell you about Greece when I see you,’ Duncan wrote to Lytton. ‘It is a divine country…but the remains of ancient Greece. Oh! how melancholy they make one.’

While at Bassae Keynes photographed Grant posing nude, in the guise of a Greek god: ‘I developed Apollo in his temple at Bassae yesterday and printed him to-day,’ Maynard told Duncan. ‘He is lovely…It will be quite unnecessary to take in the Sportszeitung anymore.’


CHA-P-1240-Verso. Letter to Maynard Keynes confirming tickets for the Paquebot Senegal, 10th April, 1910. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Spalding continues:

They moved on to Turkey, travelling on the Paquebot Senegal, stopping at Troy where they stayed with an English couple who owned a farm on the banks of the Skemander. At St Smyrna they were both much taken with the exotic colours and noises of the bazaar. However, Duncan was disappointed with Constantinople, finding it too large and its narrow streets filthy, though he thought the Hagia Sophia one of the most impressive buildings he had ever seen. He felt much happier at Brusa, the ancient Ottoman capital, with its magnificent mosques, tall minarets, cypresses and hot spring baths, situated amid beautiful scenery overlooked by Mount Olympus. One of the most significant experiences of all was the opportunity to familiarise himself with Byzantine mosaics.

Later the same year Roger Fry’s First Post-Impressionist Exhibition opened at the Grafton Galleries to much excitement and controversy. The show would have a deep and lasting impact not only on Grant and other members of the Bloomsbury group, but also the wider art world and gallery-going public. Grant’s work of 1911 to 1912 reveals the impact of the Post-Impressionists, but also of his discovery of Byzantine mosaics and romanesque decoration seen on excursions abroad such as the 1910 trip with Keynes.

On the Roof

Duncan Grant, On the Roof, 38 Brunswick Square, oil on canvas, 1912

His painting titled On the Roof, 38 Brunswick Square made in 1912 has been seen to combine such sources. Depicting Virginia Stephen, Adrian Stephen and Leonard Woolf relaxing on the mezzanine roof at the back of the large eighteenth century house shared by the Stephen siblings and their friends, the painting’s pointillist brushwork, flat picture plane and mosaic-like patches of colour present an amalgamation of the cultural, historical and artistic sources influencing the artist at this time.


CHA/P/185 Vase, circa 1911, ceramic, decorated by Duncan Grant, made in Tunis, North Africa, 34 cm x 20 cm x 20 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Such influences are also reflected in a number of Grant’s decorative works made during this period, an example being a vase purchased and decorated by Grant in Tunis during a trip in 1911 and displayed in the Studio at Charleston. This vase combines both the influence of Post-Impressionist design with its calligraphic nude (Grant was particularly impressed by Henri Matisse’s ceramic works shown at Fry’s 1910 exhibition), and the utilitarian form of traditional Tunisian earthenware.


CHA-P-1773. Duncan Grant, painting, Men in Turkey. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Grant continued to travel and paint abroad, even in his old age. This large painting, found in the Angelica Garnett Gift, depicts a scene witnessed by Grant during a trip to southern Turkey with his close friend Paul Roche in 1973.

In addition to its role as a biographical object, the letter sent to Maynard Keynes is interesting for its inclusion in the Angelica Garnett Gift in the first place. The 8000 items that make up the archive all originated at Charleston and were only taken into storage after Grant died in the 1970s. The artists did not move to Charleston until 1916, therefore this letter and its accompanying drawing had been kept by Grant and moved to the house amongst all manner of personal affects years after it was first received by Keynes in Athens during his trip with Grant in 1910.

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