Crockery Painted with Portraits of Famous Women from History

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The Queen of Sheba
The Queen of ShebaThe Famous Women Dinner Service, 1932-34. Images courtesy Piano Nobile

The Bloomsbury artists that made a statement by adorning 50 Wedgwood plates with the faces of history’s exemplary women in 1932

In 1932, Kenneth Clark (then director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) asked Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to paint him a dinner service. Bell’s notebook records the order in full: “36 large plates, 12 smaller plates, 36 side plates, 12 soup cups & saucers, 1 salad bowl & stand, 2 junket dishes, 6 oval dishes at different sizes, 2 sauce boats & stands, 4 pepper pots, 4 salt pots, 4 mustard pots, 2 sauce tureens & stands & handles, and 3 Liverpool jugs.”

Two years later, the artists presented Clark with a set of 50 Wedgwood plates, each decorated with a portrait of a famous woman from history. The subjects are depicted in loose brushwork, among whimsical line and circle motifs, in blue, brown, and yellow glazes. The plates are typical of the Bloomsbury ethos of decorative homewares; by painting formal dinnerware with playful portraits, the artists demonstrated the relationship between fine art and domestic pleasure. It was not quite what Clark had in mind. “It turned out differently to what we had expected,” he wrote, noting that the plates showed “Bloomsbury asserting its status as matriarchy.” It was certainly a spirited political gesture; “It ought to please the feminists,” Bell wrote to Roger Fry. Now, art historians see the plates as a key to understanding Bloomsbury’s evolving style and politics. After 30 years in private hands, the dinner service came to light last year, and will be shown in London.

“Very little is known about women,” wrote Virginia Woolf, Bell’s sister, in 1929. “The history of England is the history of the male line, not the female. Of our fathers we know always some fact, some distinction. They were soldiers or they were sailors; they filled that office or they made that law. But of our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers, what remains?” Finding new ways to represent women’s histories was at the heart of Woolf’s literary endeavour, playing with the boundaries of biography in her work – crossing centuries and genders with Orlando, and writing the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel in Flush – but the selection of women for the dinner service was an opportunity for the artists to reclaim stories of female success and notoriety. The portraits – subdivided into Women of Letters, Queens, Beauties, and Dancers and Actresses – include George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (pictured with 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.

There are some unlikely feminist icons, too. Nell Gwyn, the mistress of Charles II, is included alongside Agnès Sorel, a beauty of the French court and the first woman officially recognised as a royal mistress; Christina of Sweden, who refused to marry and abdicated from her throne in 1654, is paired with George Sand, the 19th-century French author who disguised herself in men’s clothing. Across the collection, these 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 exhibition, 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 plates themselves indicate Bloomsbury’s radicalisation of the domestic, begun in 1913 with the Omega Workshop – an artist collective for the applied arts – and continued in the rural setting of Charleston, where Grant and Bell hosted lively gatherings around their dinner table. By making tableware the medium for their provocative project, they overturned the formalities of conventional hospitality and reconceived the dining table as a setting for radical domestic politics. With wit and humour, the artists created a network of irreverent and pioneering women that testifies to the conviviality of mealtimes at their Charleston home. “It’s about imagined connections between these women,” says Leaper. “It’s great fun to think of a dinner party where they’re around the table together.”

From Omega to Charleston: The Art of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant 1910-1934 is on show at Piano Nobile Gallery, London, until April 28, 2018.