The first museum showing of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s Famous Women Dinner Service is one of the inaugural exhibitions at the new art galleries opening at Charleston Farmhouse
When Kenneth Clark and his wife Jane commissioned Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to design them a dinner service, the great art critic and patron had just dined with art dealer Joseph Duveen on a blue and gold Sevres dinner service made for Catherine the Great.
The year was 1932 and the inspired couple gave Bell and Grant a free reign with their design. It’s fair to say that Clark at least was surprised by the results, having imagined a wide ranging set of decorative crockery that included everything from soup tureens to mustard pots – possibly decorated with motifs that echoed the interior of Charleston.
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The wholly unique set they received, which was painted onto a set of plain white Wedgwood dinner plates, was indeed made by Bell and Grant at Charleston, but it depicted famous women throughout history, from Cleopatra and Mary Queen of Scots to Jane Austen and Greta Garbo.
They chose a typically Bloomsbury-esqe parade of characters grouped into 12 dancers and actresses, 12 writers, 12 ‘beauties’, and 12 queens. They then brought the number up to an even fifty by painting each other, so Duncan Grant, mercurially, became the only man in the series.
Clark may have been surprised by his unwittingly proto feminist commission, but his then wife, Jane, was apparently in on it all the way corresponding with Bell regularly to discuss the set’s development – even conferring which actresses or beauties to include as the designs developed.
The result was an eclectic array of women from history and contemporary society that included the Greek poet Sappho, Helen of Troy, Pocahantas and the 11th century Japanese novelist Murasaki.
And this being Bloomsbury, Bell’s sister Virginia Woolf made the final cut together with a portrait of the Victorian stage actress Ellen Terry, based on a photo portrait taken by Bell’s great aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron.
We don’t know to what extent the Clark’s used their innovative set of crockery, but the plates have survived in remarkably good condition.
For a long time they disappeared from public view with their whereabouts unknown until very recently.
Effectively in private ownership since its commission in 1932, the set was inherited by Lord Clark’s second wife Nolwen de Janzé-Rice after his death in 1983, when she took the service to her home in France. On her death, the service was sold at auction in Germany and its location remained unknown until it was purchased by a private collector and returned to England.
For their return to Charleston these unique works of art are united with preparatory drawings, as well as four test plates for the project, which were found and identified in the property’s attic studio in 2015.
Charleston launches its new exhibition and events space and a new restaurant in two 18th-century farm buildings on September 8 2018 with three exhibitions: ‘Orlando at the present time’ is a contemporary response to Virginia Woolf’s renowned novel Orlando and will be accompanied by ‘Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases’ and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s Famous Women Dinner Service.
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‘It is not so much a house as a phenomenon’ Quentin Bell once said of Charleston. It was in 1916 that the phenomenon came into being, as Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and David Garnett made the move from Suffolk to Charleston, where Clive Bell and Maynard Keynes were also to…