The Famous Women Dinner Service is a collection of 50 hand-decorated plates celebrating famous women throughout history, from Helen of Troy and Cleopatra to Mary Queen of Scotts, Jane Austen and Greta Garbo.
Commissioned by Kenneth Clark in 1932, the dinner service was painted by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant during their time at Charleston. After this the plates disappeared from public view and their whereabouts were unknown until very recently. The dinner service is considered one of the best examples of works by Bell and Grant and is unique. There are 50 plates in the set, with the final two depicting Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the only man in the series.
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 Elizabeth Siddal; Greta Garbo and Ellen Terry. Many of these women lead complex and scrutinised lives, resisting marriage in favour of unconventional domestic arrangements and individual freedom.
Across the collection, the women crafted identities which subverted social mores, using stage names and pseudonyms to join professional ranks or express alternative sexual identities. For Bell, it was “an illustration of women in different capacities” and a reflection of Bloomsbury’s new sexual politics. 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.”
The Famous Women Dinner Service is on display in the Outer Studio (open 10am to 5pm, Wednesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays), having been purchased by The Charleston Trust with 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.
More about the Famous Women Dinner Service:
The Famous Women Dinner Service: A Critical Introduction and Catalogue by Dr Hana Leaper, one of the first scholars to work on the Angelica Garnett Gift at Charleston
Banner Image: Famous Women Dinner Service, courtesy of Piano Nobile (Robert Travers Works of Art Limited).
Informal reading and discussion group, exploring Bloomsbury texts and themes. First Sunday of every month.
CRESSIDA BELL talks to her sister, Virginia Nicholson, about Charleston, her design work and curating ‘In Colour.’