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Posts Tagged ‘Famous Women Dinner Service’

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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Here’s a piece from The Charleston Attic blog on the 140-piece dinner service featuring famous women created by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. It is one of the largest commissioned works produced by the artists and was commissioned in 1932.

‘The firm of Bell and Grant’ and the Famous Women Dinner Service.

The Virginia Woolf plate is pictured in Diane Gillespie’s The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell Vanessa Bell (1988, 1991), as illustration 4.13 on p. 199. Gillespie discusses the plates briefly on p. 198. The plate pictures a young Virginia Woolf in profile with her long hair secured at her neck or pinned up; it’s difficult to make out which.

According to Gillespie, the plates were divided into four groups and Woolf’s plate is included in the writers’ group. Woolf’s plate features a border of alternating squiggles and large dots. In a July 27, 2015, message to the VWoolf Listserv, Gillespie noted that she was able to see a number of the plates during the 1980s in the home of Lady Clark.

Ann Donlon wrote a Oct. 9, 2013, post about the plates on her blog after a visit to Charleston. Titled Dinner Plates, it includes images.

Also see Woolf on a plate, a 2009 post on Blogging Woolf about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party that includes a Woolf plate.

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