By Alice Purkiss
In 1916, the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant moved to Charleston, a remote 17th century farmhouse nestled beneath the Sussex Downs. Accompanied by Duncan’s lover; David (Bunny) Garnett, Vanessa’s children with her husband Clive Bell; Julian and Quentin, and Henry the dog, the artists established an unusual home that would become a centre for Bloomsbury visual and literary experimentation and expression. Many of the group’s members regularly visited the house, including Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster, and were often joined by friends such as Vita Sackville West, Dora Carrington, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Benjamin Britten.
As soon as they arrived, Bell and Grant set to work painting and decorating the interior of the house and its contents in their expressive and colourful style; from table tops and bed headboards, to walls, doors and baths. The artists had been important contributors to Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, a business established in 1913 to create furniture and household goods designed by contemporary artists and craftsmen. Charleston was therefore furnished throughout with Omega products, including furniture, fabrics and crockery. Also housing a collection of works by important modernist such as Picasso, Sickert and Derain, Charleston became a unique and progressive environment whose inhabitants challenged contemporary social norms. The creativity felt inside the house also spilled out into the garden, where an oasis of dramatic colour, scent and texture was planted which offered artistic props and inspiration, in addition to spaces for theatrical performances and quiet contemplation. Bell and Grant lived and worked at Charleston until they died; Vanessa in 1961 and Duncan in 1978.
Following Grant’s death, the piles of sketches, sketchbooks and canvasses that had filled his studio at Charleston were transferred to London to be sold by Grant’s dealer, Anthony D’Offay. Later returned to Bell and Grant’s daughter, Angelica Garnett, on D’Offay’s retirement, the remaining collection of over 9000 works was gifted by Garnett to The Charleston Trust in 2008. I have been a Curatorial Trainee at Charleston since October of last year, working to photograph, catalogue, conserve and research this incredible resource, much of which has never been seen before. The role is part of a three-year project which will enable twelve early career art historians to receive comprehensive collections management training while enabling in depth academic research on the artists and their work.
The Gift contains an eclectic assortment of items which offer a fascinating insight into artistic practice at Charleston; the drive to create and record was not hindered by the materials available at hand. Instead, anything that would make or take a mark was employed and included in a house brimming with line, shape and colour. All manner of materials were used and are contained within the Gift: from studies on cartridge paper, canvas and in sketchbooks, to designs and notes made hastily on the backs on envelopes, household appliance instruction booklets, hotel letter paper, invoices, personal correspondence and graph paper. Included in one box of loose papers alone are a 1910 letter to JM Keynes confirming his booking for First Class ferry tickets, an invoice for a new radio from 1936, the agenda for an Arts Council of Great Britain meeting held in 1946, a letter from the headmaster of a school in Reading regarding a case of German Measles from 1926, a 1950 Christmas greeting, and a solicitor’s letter regarding a will from 1949.
All of these documents boast a sketch or annotation of some form; from abstract doodles and pattern designs to careful line drawings of classical nudes, farm animals and landscape scenes. While dates are recorded on each item in a postmark or heading thereby giving a suggestion of provenance, we can only speculate as to whether the sketches themselves made on these papers were created at the same time or at a later date. As so little was disposed of at the house, it is likely that such scraps would have cropped up years after they were first received and used as new paper for sketching or note-taking.
Not only does this variety of items demonstrate the drive for creative expression without privilege given to one material over another, these unusual items also offer glimpses into the artists’ private lives through personal correspondence and appointments. With the addition of the occasional coffee ring, dusting of cigarette ash and child’s doodle, the objects in the Gift offer an exciting visual biography of the two artists and the life they lived at Charleston.
I have been a Curatorial Trainee at Charleston since October of last year, working to photograph, catalogue, conserve and research this incredible resource, much of which has never been seen before. I developed an interest in pursuing a career in collections management during my masters degree at Oxford, where I had the opportunity to curate an exhibition of contemporary artworks in the city. In addition to the practical skills acquired during this voluntary role, the department’s course provided an excellent grounding in modern art history and critical theory which has been invaluable to subsequent roles in the museum industry, and to my current traineeship at Charleston. The position is part of a three-year project which will enable twelve early career art historians to receive comprehensive collections management training while enabling in depth academic research on the artists and their work, and therefore offers a rare opportunity to gain valuable experience in a highly competitive sector.
The project to catalogue the Angelica Garnett Gift is one year in, and only a relatively small number of items have been photographed and catalogued so far. As such a rich academic resource full of intriguing objects, the project promises to unearth a wealth of material to inspire and enrich new research into the life and work of Bell and Grant, and the wider Bloomsbury circle. You can read more about the work and research undertaken by the Curatorial Trainees on The Charleston Attic blog, and keep up to date with upcoming opportunities to participate in the project on The Charleston Trust’s website.
Alice Purkiss graduated with a MSt in History of Art and Visual Studies from the department in 2012. Following roles at The British Library and Tate, she has most recently undertaken a curatorial traineeship at the Charleston Trust.