Repairing the studio blind

By Charleston’s Conservation Cleaner, Kathy Crisp

A birds-eye view of the studio at Charleston. Photo © Kathy Crisp.

While Charleston has been closed over the last few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we haven’t been working on our collections. However, gratefully funded by Historic England,  I have continued working to keep the house and collections safe and secure.

In November, the rest of the curatorial team, Darren and Emily returned from furlough and we were able to work together on an urgent project, fixing the studio blind. During October the nylon pull cord from the highest blackout blind suddenly snapped. There was now no way of closing it and keeping out the daylight which can be damaging to the collection. The challenge was, it was very high up. To reach it safely we had to move all the objects and furniture away from that side of the room so we could carefully bring in the enormous platform step ladder from the galleries.

Tables were set up for the purpose of moving the collection of objects and art materials off the newspaper-covered table under the studio window. Another sturdy table was used for the several large pots from the studio windowsill. We moved the painter’s table — which is actually screwed to the wall — so there was room to place the ladder. These movements then allowed for the inspection and cleaning of the floor beneath, and the walls behind.

Darren went up the ladder first and replaced the cord successfully. I was eager to get up there afterwards and vacuum several years’ accumulation of dust, dead flies and cobwebs. Subsequently, I cleaned those generous panes of glass which flood the studio with diffused north light.

This high vantage point gave me such an unusual view of the room, I had to take some photographs. It felt like I was looking down into a doll’s house version of Charleston!

Beneath the dust: two carpenters who signed their names at the top of the studio wall in 1984. Photo © Kathy Crisp.

When I vacuumed the thick layer of dust at the top of the wall, I uncovered some pencil writing from two carpenters who signed their names in 1984.  Probably done back when the windows were replaced during the restoration of the house.

The wonderful collection of large pots and vases were then checked over and tiny spots of fly and spider excrement were removed with a touch of water and a cotton wool swab. Many of the ceramics in the house were repaired during the 1980s which makes them extremely fragile. To avoid the risk of damage, we move them as seldom as possible.

The ladder needed all three of us to fold it down safely and slowly manoeuvre it out of the studio door into the garden and then back up to the galleries where it lives. The assortment of artist’s supplies was then cleaned and condition checked before restoring them to the newspaper-lined table.

The blinds are now working correctly, blocking out the light when the house is closed. Too much light, artificial or natural, even with the UV protection, can cause irreversible damage to the collection. The new cord should remain strong for many years to come.

When Charleston can finally welcome back visitors, my first morning task will be to open the binds and shutters, bringing the house to life.

The Bloomsbury Look

What is the ‘Bloomsbury Look’? Charleston’s former curator Wendy Hitchmough reveals how the Bloomsbury group generated its avant-garde, self-fashioned aesthetic through art, photography and dress in her captivating new book.  (more…)

Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddal and the Famous Women Dinner Service

Today Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862), or Lizzie as she was styled and commonly known, would be celebrating her 191st birthday.

Siddal was an English artist, poet, and artists’ model whose beauty, talents and life were recognised by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in their playful, yet groundbreaking project: the Famous Women Dinner Service.


Duncan Grant’s nude portraits

It’s National Nude Day! A great opportunity to draw your attention to one of my all-time favourite paintings in Charleston’s collection — Standing Male Nude (c.1935) by Duncan Grant — and have a brief look at the trajectory that nude painting took in Grant’s oeuvre.


Omega Workshops, 1913-1919

Opening room of the Omega Workshops, 33 Fitzroy Square, London. © The Charleston Trust

On 8 July 1913 the Omega Workshops opened their doors at 33 Fitzroy Square in the heart of bohemian London.

Founded by painter and art critic Roger Fry (1866-1934), the Workshops employed some of the most radical avant-garde artists of the day, with Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and Duncan Grant (1885-1978) as co-directors. Their anti-establishment approach paired with Post-Impressionist experimentalism produced modern designs and items for the home, from printed fabrics and textiles to ceramics, furniture and clothing.


Bloomsbury portrait comes home: Duncan Grant’s painting of Vanessa Bell returns to Charleston

portrait of Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant

Duncan Grant (1885-1978), portrait of Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), signed and dated 1915 © The Charleston Trust


We are thrilled to announce that a beautiful portrait of Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant has entered Charleston’s collection through the Arts Council’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme, and will be on public display here at their Sussex home in the new year.

The full length portrait of Vanessa Bell was painted by Duncan Grant around 1916. It is a rare example of Grant’s use of collage and demonstrates his skill in using facets of bright, luminous colour to build up the picture surface. The abstract background is reminiscent of designs for Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops and adds a dynamism to the composition. The portrait is oil and collage on wood, possibly a table top or door. 

Grant completed three paintings of Bell wearing an evening dress made of red paisley fabric. In the version in the National Portrait Gallery, London, the pattern of the material and the construction of the dress have been recreated in paint, Grant echoing “the rhythm of the drapery,” emulating its folds and shadows. In a second version Grant introduces sections of the actual material that the dress was made from. The version to be displayed at Charleston recreates the design in paint and collage.

The long and at times intimate relationship between Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant can be charted in the numerous portraits they made of each other. This portrait comes from a particularly important period of that relationship, one that includes the beginning of their sexual relationship, their imminent move to Charleston and the setting up of a domestic and working space together.

The painting is quintessentially a Charleston painting. A portrait of an artist by an artist, of a friend by a friend and of a lover by their lover. Painted during the uncertainty of wartime, quite possibly at Charleston itself, it marks the development of a friendship into a love affair while defining the development of an artist’s individual style.

Nathaniel Hepburn, Director and Chief Executive, The Charleston Trust, said:

“This early portrait of Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant is one of the most beautiful and significant works to enter Charleston’s collection. We are thrilled that it will be on public display for future generations to enjoy and are extremely grateful to the executors of Anne Olivier Bell’s estate, the Arts Council and the Acceptance in Lieu panel for choosing to allocate this wonderful painting to Charleston.”

Arts Minister, Helen Whately, said: 

“Vanessa Bell was an extraordinary artist and a leading figure in one of the most creative groups in Britain during the 20th century. It is great news that, thanks to the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, this important portrait will return to Charleston – a place that was so special to the sitter and artist.”

Edward Harley OBE, Chairman, Acceptance in Lieu Panel said:

“I am delighted to announce the allocation of this portrait by Duncan Grant of his fellow artist and lover, Vanessa Bell. This picture has numerous links to the Bloomsbury group, and it is most appropriate that it has been allocated to Charleston. I hope that this example will encourage others to use the Acceptance in Lieu scheme to continue to enrich public collections in the UK.”

The portrait will go on permanent display at Charleston, initially as part of a wider exhibition programme in February 2020 in the museum’s new galleries, before being hung in Clive Bell’s Library at Charleston. The Library was originally Vanessa Bell’s Bedroom and contains some of the earliest decorations in the house. It became Clive Bell’s Library when he moved to Charleston just before the Second World War.

The portrait was given to Anne Olivier Bell, who was married to Quentin Bell, by the artist in circa 1973.