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Fifty ceramic plates decorated with images of famous women through the ages, from Sappho to Greta Garbo to Virginia Woolf. That describes the Famous Women Dinner Service painted by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant between 1932 and 1934 that is now on display in the Outer Studio at Charleston.

The series includes 12 dancers and actresses, 12 writers, 12 beauties, and 12 queens, each painted on plain white Wedgwood, in addition to a set of period women and two portraits of the artists themselves. The women are surrounded by bold patterned borders, with Duncan as the only man in the series.

History of the dinner service

Bell and Grant painted the dinner service for Kenneth Clark, the art historian and director of the National Gallery, and his wife Jane. As a friend and patron to Bloomsbury artists, he owned a large collection of their work. The dinner service the Clarks commissioned was made up of 140 pieces and was one of the largest commissioned works produced by the Bloomsbury artists.

Charleston

The service remained a part of the Clark household until a 1956 move to Saltwood Castle. Remarkably, it had already survived the Blitz and numerous changes of address before it went missing.

Historians considered the dinner service lost for nearly 40 years. Last year, officials at the Piano Nobile Gallery were shocked when one of its clients admitted to having the entire set, which was quietly returned to the UK.

It is now owned by The Charleston Trust, thanks to the support of Piano Nobile, generous grants from the Heritage Lottery Memorial Fund and Art Fund, and donations from a circle of remarkable women.

The artistic process and feminist philosophy

The dinner service forms an impressive testament to Bell and Grant’s close working partnership at Charleston. They carefully researched each woman they chose, basing most of their paintings on photographs and portraits.

The design, which places women at the center of the conversation, was left to the discretion of Bell and Grant; the two artists did not need final approval from the Clarks.

The exhibit information at Charleston notes that, “The final 48 famous women make an intriguing and unexpected list, one that demonstrates Bloomsbury’s understanding of gender equality” and “anticipates feminist politics.” As Bell noted to Roger Fry in 1932, the project “ought to please the feminists.”

The research

The series features women with “an overlapping strength of character,” according to Hana Leaper, who has completed groundbreaking scholarship on the series. Her scholarly work  has been followed by closer scholarship dedicated to the individual plates.

This research was published in print for the first time last year as From Omega to Charleston: The Art of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant 1910-1934 . The book was produced in partnership with the Paul MellonCentre for Studies in British Art.

Four years earlier, in 2014, curatorial interns at Charleston discovered preliminary sketches for the plates and posted the findings of their research on the Charleston Attic blog. The initial designs were carried out on round scraps of paper and card in pencil and ink.

When the Literature Cambridge course on Virginia Woolf’s Gardens ended last month, I was among the students who took a coach trip to Charleston, where we viewed the entire collection.

Very little is known about women,” wrote Woolf in 1929. “The history of England is the history of the male line, not the female. Of our fathers we know always some fact, some distinction. They were soldiers or they were sailors; they filled that office or they made that law. But of our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers, what remains? – Virginia Woolf, “Women and Fiction,” 1929

This figure greets visitors to the Famous Women Dinner Service exhibit on display in the Outer Studio at Charleston.

Overall view of the Famous Women Dinner Service at Charleston

Plates depicting actresses in the Famous Women Dinner Service

Plates depicting writers in the Famous Women Dinner Service. The Vanessa Bell plate is in the second row from the top, far right.

More notable women in the Famous Women Dinner Service

Various famous women from throughout history are depicted in this selection of plates from the Famous Women Dinner Service.

The Virginia Woolf plate in the Famous Women Dinner Service, which was hand-painted by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant between 1932-1934.

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Leonard went over it, and says it’s a most delightful house and strongly advises you to take it . . . It has a charming garden, with a pond, and fruit trees, and vegetables, all now rather run wild, but you could make it lovely.

That was Virginia Woolf’s description of Charleston in a letter she wrote to her sister Vanessa Bell in 1916.

Vanessa took her sister’s advice. She arrived at Charleston in Firle, Sussex, via taxi in October of the same year. She would call it her home for the rest of her life.

She did not arrive alone, however. She was accompanied by her children, Julian and Quentin; fellow artist and sometimes lover Duncan Grant; his lover, David Garnett; a nurse; a maid; a cook; and a dog named Henry who would be memorialized forever on a wall in the home’s library.

Vanessa made the home her own until her death in 1961. During the years of the Great War, she lived there full time. Afterwards, she and her children, who now numbered three and included Angelica, her daughter with Duncan, born on Dec. 25 1918, moved back to London and used Charleston as a summer home.

The golden age of Charleston

During the interwar years, which Quentin Bell described as “the golden age of Charleston,” famous friends from the worlds of literature, art, and politics, visited the home on a regular basis. By the start of World War II, Charleston became the family’s full-time home and a wartime refuge once again.

After the death of Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell in 1964 and Duncan in 1978, Angelica Garnett, lived at Charleston alone until 1980, when the Charleston Trust was formed. It is this entity that set about restoring the house to its current state, circa 1950s, with all of the furnishings and personal items left behind by its occupants preserved intact.

Literature Cambridge road trip to Charleston

We visited Charleston, known as Bloomsbury in the country, as the first charming stop on our coach trip, once our Literature Cambridge course on Virginia Woolf’s Gardens ended last month.

Exterior door to Vanessa and Duncan’s studio at Charleston

We toured the home, with every surface painted and decorated by Vanessa and Duncan — from doors to woodwork to furniture to bathtubs. There was so much to see that it was impossible to take in every detail, even though it was my second trip.

Here’s what we saw as we soaked up the Post-Impressionist beauty and palpable energy of this unique home:

  • Clive’s ground floor study, with its fireplace designed by Roger Fry and its fireplace surround and window embrasure decorated by Vanessa
  • The dining room, with its black walls stenciled in grey and yellow by Duncan and Quentin and its large round wooden table decorated by Vanessa.
  • The second floor bedrooms of Duncan, Clive, and Maynard Keynes, where he wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace 
  • Vanessa’s first floor bedroom with its en suite bath that scandalized the residents of Firle and its French doors that open to the lavish garden
  • The library, with its book-lined walls and Duncan’s painting of dog Henry below the north wall
  • The green bathroom, with its bathtub decorated with a 1969 painting of a nude by Richard Shone
  • The artists’ studio, constructed by Vanessa and Duncan in 1925, where they worked together until World War II, when Vanessa had her own studio built at the top of the house.

Tour Charleston in words and photos

Photographs are not permitted inside the home, as some of the artwork displayed is owned by private individuals.

But I recommend the book Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden if you want to read more about the home and view its gorgeous, colorful, and individualized rooms. You can also take a room by room photo tour of the home on the Charleston website.

As a result of the ban on interior photos, I had to limit my photography to the outdoor spaces. But the home is famous for its beautiful garden, so scroll down for a pictorial walking tour.

Then take a look at the Blogging Woolf post about our Literature Cambridge trip to Monk’s House that same day, where photos were permitted inside and out.

The pond at Charleston lies beyond the lawn that fronts the house. In 1917, it was larger and deeper and was the home of carp and eels. Quentin Bell’s sculpture of a levitating woman is installed on the far shore.

Charleston as seen from the farm track to the home. The gravel, the lawn, bushes, and the facade of the house are the same as in the time of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

The close-boarded wooden gate to Charleston, with a square pillar topped by one of two urns cast by Quentin Bell in 1952. They sit on either side of the gate.

Entry to the walled garden at Charleston

Toadstool sculpture within the gate of the walled garden

Tile plaque mounted inside the flint and brick wall noting garden restoration details

Small pond lined with ceramic tiles, originally decorated by Vanessa about 1930 but replaced with copies by Quentin.

Hollyhocks frame a cast of a Giovanni da Bologna sculpture of a modest lady in the Charleston garden. She stands in a corner beneath an apple tree.

The flint and brick garden wall with a row of casts of antique heads, many of which have been replaced over the years.

This window at Charleston frames a pot of red geraniums.

A view of Charleston from in front of the pond

Cressida Bell items for sale in the Charleston gift shop

Fabrics for sale at the Charleston gift shop, with designs by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant

 

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Our marvelous Literature Cambridge course on Virginia Woolf’s Gardens ended last Friday. But perhaps the best was yet to come.

Our class, along with some of those enrolled in this week’s Fictions of Home class, went on an all-day outing to Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s home in Rodmell, and Charleston, the nearby home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and others. Beautiful, incredibly moving, and breathtaking.

I’m traveling today, so only have time to post these tweets. But I promise to provide more about the trip after I am back in a room of my own.

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I made the leap. I signed up to attend the Literature Cambridge course Virginia Woolf’s Gardens this summer at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.

Along with others, I will be there July 14-19 learning about the importance of gardens to Woolf’s life and work, from her early story “Kew Gardens” (1917) to her last novel, Between the Acts (1941).

Other course readings include Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928) and A Room of One’s Own (1929).

Daily schedule

Each day starts with a lecture presented by a leading scholar. A seminar or a Cambridge-style one-hour supervision (tutorial) for students in groups of three or four follows, taught by lecturers and post-docs from the University of Cambridge to discuss the topic of the day, looking closely at that day’s text.

Lecturers include Suzanne Raitt, Gillian Beer, Alison Hennegan, Clare Walker Gore, Karina Jakubowicz, Oliver Goldstein, Trudi Tate, Kabe Wilson and Caroline Holmes.

Manuscript, excursions, and more

We will also get to view the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own held in Cambridge.

When the course ends, I’ll head out on two excursions — to Monk’s House and Charleston. I visited both sites in 2004 but am eager to go again.

Virginia Woolf’s writing Lodge at Monk’s House

We’ll also have time to explore Cambridge on our own, go punting, discuss literature with other students, and reflect, the website tells us.

Listen to Caroline Zoob’s podcast

Hear Caroline Zoob, author of Virginia Woolf’s Garden, interviewed by Literature Cambridge lecturer Karina Jukubowicz.

Spots available

There is still space available in the course. You can get more information and book online.

‘Everything tended to set itself in a garden where there was none of this gloom.’
– To the Lighthouse.

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Oh, to be in London next week! The book launch of From Omega to Charleston: The Art of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant 1910-1934 will take place at Hatchards Piccadilly, 187 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9LE, March 14.

A panel discussion with Piano Nobile will be held at 5 p.m.  The book launch is 6 – 8.30 p.m. Limited seating is available. RSVP by emailing events@hatchards.co.uk

About the book

Added below is information provided by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain:

The book is published to accompany the exhibition From Omega to Charleston: The Art of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, 1910-1934, this fully illustrated catalogue includes an essay and catalogue entries by Richard Shone (author of Bloomsbury Portraits (1993) and curator of The Art of Bloomsbury, Tate, (1999), the book explores the unique creative relationship shared by Bell and Grant through rarely seen works from private collections, some of which are reproduced for the first time, and a selection of loans from The Charleston Trust.

Famous Women Dinner Service

The second half of the publication focusses exclusively on The Famous Women Dinner Service. Begun in 1932 at the request of the art historian and director of the National Gallery Kenneth Clark and his wife Jane, these fifty plates were decorated with images of famous women through the ages, from Sappho to Greta Garbo.

Considered lost by art historians for nearly 40 years, the dinner service forms an impressive testament to Bell and Grant’s close working partnership. A ground-breaking essay by Hana Leaper is succeeded by closer scholarship dedicated to the individual plates. Produced in partnership with the Paul MellonCentre for Studies in British Art, this research is published in print for the first time.

The glorious catalogue is available for view on the Issuu website.

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This Christmas day, I unwrapped a present from my landlady and, completely unexpectedly, a small purple hardback book with gold lettering and a beautiful portrait of Virginia Woolf fell onto my lap. I was delighted, and proceeded to read it cover to cover amidst wrapping paper and ended up holding back tears to prevent myself being utterly embarrassed in front of my in-laws.

virginia woolf life portraits

© Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford

Virginia Woolf (Life Portraits) by Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford poetically weaves the story of Woolf’s life with Alkayat’s considered text and Cosford’s illustrations, a fresh response to the Bloomsbury aesthetic. It opens with the following quote from Mrs Dalloway:

She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was on the outside, looking on.

This liminality, both the relation between work and life and Woolf’s psychological flux, is represented thoughtfully throughout the biography.

street haunting in life portrait

© Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford

Alkayat focuses on the personal details of life: how Vanessa Bell’s sheepdog Gurth accompanied her “street haunting”, how Leonard and Virginia Woolf spent nights during the First World War in their coal cellar sitting on boxes, and that they later named their car “the umbrella”. She also puts us on a first name basis with Virginia, Vanessa and Duncan, et al. – a choice which made me feel closer to their world.

charleston in woolf life portrait

© Nina Cosford

Cosford’s illustrations are both sensitive to the Bloomsbury style and offer a fresh perspective. Her bold lines and patterns used to illustrate the pages about Vanessa Bell’s cover designs for Virginia Woolf’s novels, for example, are edged with mark-making in the mode of Bell. Her use of colour also seems emotive, following the waves of high and low that punctuate the narrative. Her illustrations capture the paraphernalia of every-day life, from the objects atop Woolf’s writing desk – diary, hair grips, photo of Julia, sweets – to the plants in the garden at Monks House, bringing Virginia’s life closer to home.

monks house plants

© Nina Cosford

Illustration and text come together beautifully in this miniature autobiography and would provide any reader with a poetic and surprising escape into the life of Virginia Woolf.

 

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Amongst a box filled with stretched canvas and paintings on wood, we re-discovered these fantastic landscapes of the local area. Both painted by Vanessa Bell, the first is of the old Coach Road looking towards Firle Tower on the right. The leaves on the trees appear to be blowing in the wind, the farmland and coach road painted lightly in pinks and purples to represent the human touch on the landscape…

Source: Local Landscapes of Firle | The Charleston Attic

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