A key figure in twentieth century British art, art historian, museum director and broadcaster Kenneth Clark was one of the most active collectors of contemporary British art during the 1930s and 1940s.
Shortly after his appointment as Director of the National Gallery in 1932 he was inspired to commission an artist-designed dinner service following a lavish meal in New York with art dealer Joseph Duvee, during which they ate from an elaborate blue-and-gold Sèvres service, originally made for Catherine the Great.
Clark decided to commission artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to design his dinner service. The pair had already gained recognition in the applied arts through the Omega Workshops, where – along with a revolving roster of other artists – they produced textiles, furniture, book covers and homeware.
In his autobiography, Clark would later reveal that the commission was an attempt to ‘revive’ Grant’s interest in the decorative arts. Writing about his visits to Grant’s studio, he described how:
‘it contained groups of rusting pottery, gathering dust, and vases of mimosa which had long since lost all the colour of life. On these unappetizing themes Duncan and Vanessa concentrated their talents… in an attempt to revive his interest in decorative art we asked him and Vanessa to paint us a dinner service.’
Kenneth Clark, Another Part of the Wood, 1974, pp.247-8.
Grant and Bell had absolute freedom to decorate the plates however they chose, and the commission soon changed from a conventional ceramic service to a work that broke the barrier between the decorative and the fine arts.
Painted at Charleston between 1932-1934, what emerged were 50 hand-painted Wedgwood ceramic plates that chronicled famous women from antiquity to contemporary life. The portraits – subdivided into ‘Women of Letters’, ‘Queens’, ‘Beauties’, and ‘Dancers and Actresses’ – include George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, 10th-century Japanese poet Murasaki and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (pictured with her spaniel Flush); the Queen of Sheba and Elizabeth I; Dante’s Beatrice and the Pre-Raphaelite artist and model Elizabeth Siddal; Greta Garbo and Ellen Terry. The final two plates depict Bell and Grant, the only man in the series.
It’s fair to say that Clark was at least 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.
We don’t know to what extent the Clark family used their innovative dinner service, but the plates have survived in remarkably good condition.
In the Famous Women Dinner Service, women are invited to sit at the head of the table, so to speak. Their lives, achievements and accomplishments become the focal point of the conversation.
A closer look at the list of women whom Bell and Grant chose to include reveals their profound understanding of the importance of female histories and stories which are often untold, suppressed, or erased completely.
In October 1931, Vanessa Bell somewhat offhandedly wrote to Roger Fry that the project ‘ought to please the feminists’. And indeed, the Famous Women Dinner Service follows in the footsteps of her sister Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, but also anticipates contemporary feminist politics.
Many of the ‘famous women’ celebrated in the plates led complex and unconventional lives, resisting tradition and societal expectations in favour of individual freedom. Some used stage names and pseudonyms to follow their chosen professional paths. Others had to do so in order to express an alternative sexual identity. Across the collection, the women crafted identities which subverted social mores and for Bell, it was ‘an illustration of women in different capacities’ and a reflection of Bloomsbury’s new sexual politics. Dr Hana Leaper, who has catalogued the plates since their rediscovery and co-curated the 2018 exhibition at Charleston, considers The Famous Women Dinner Service a joyful sorority:
‘These women might not have known one another and they might not have lived in the same epoch, but there’s an overlapping strength of character.’
For a long time the plates 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 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.
The Famous Women Dinner Service returned home to Charleston in 2018 and went on free public display for the first time thanks to the support of Piano Nobile Gallery and generous grants from the Heritage Lottery Memorial Fund and Art Fund, as well as donations from a circle of remarkable women who each sponsored a plate.
When Charleston reopens this spring, visitors will be able to come face to face with these fascinating plates once again.
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