Out of the Bloomsbury Mud

Francesca Wade

In the summer of 1932, Kenneth and Jane Clark visited Duncan Grant’s studio. They found it filled with dusty pottery, ‘unappetising’ faded flowers and ‘brown and purple canvases’ which made Clark’s heart sink. But his despair was stalled by the discovery of some ‘brilliant pastels … where the medium had saved [Grant] from the virtuous application of Bloomsbury mud’, and the ‘beautiful drawings and oil sketches’ which his wife found languishing under Grant’s bed. ‘In an attempt to revive his interest in decorative art,’ he writes in his autobiography, ‘we asked him and Vanessa to paint us a dinner service.’ Two years later, Bell and Grant presented Clark with 140 pieces, including 50 Wedgwood plates illustrated with portraits of famous women from history – 12 writers, 12 queens, 12 beauties and 12 dancers or actresses, and one of each of the artists, painted by the other. ‘It ought to please the feminists,’ Bell wrote, offhandedly, to Roger Fry.

The service vanished in the 1980s, last seen in the Normandy home of Clark’s second wife, who was presumed to have sold it. Anyone interested in it has had to make do with black-and-white photographs in which many of the plates are stacked up, their faces hidden. But it recently resurfaced in the collection of an undisclosed European collector, who has now put it up for sale. It was displayed by Piano Nobile at the Masterpiece fair this month, and will be shown in the autumn at their London gallery.

‘We think back through our mothers if we are women,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own. Women were ‘all but absent from history’, she argued, in part because of the pervasive idea that ‘publicity in women is detestable’, while chastity had acquired ‘religious importance in a woman’s life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest’. Unlike the 39 table settings in Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1979), which draw on – and tell – a radical history of the type Woolf sought, the famous women in Bell and Grant’s dinner service aren’t all obvious feminist icons: Mary Wollstonecraft isn’t among them, for example; nor is Emmeline Pankhurst. Glamour and hereditary power are emphasised. But all of them led highly scrutinised public lives, tolerating – or in many cases thriving on – scandal, and subverting norms of chastity and domesticity in a quest for individual freedom.

Many of these women risked their reputations with unconventional domestic arrangements, from dalliances with royalty to secret weddings. George Eliot lived openly with a married man, whom she called her husband; Charlotte Brontë, who (Woolf writes) was ‘made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world’, rebelled against her father to marry Arthur Bell Nicholls; Elizabeth Barrett Browning (depicted here with her dog Flush, of whom Woolf was writing a mock-biography in 1933) was disinherited by her furious father after her marriage to Robert Browning.

Princess Pauline of Metternich was a famed patron of the arts, who smoked cigars and once made headlines for fighting an ‘emancipated duel’ with Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg in 1892, with whom she had quarrelled over flower arrangements. ‘Pretty, witty’ Nell Gwyn was one of the first women to act on stage, achieving stardom at a time when public discourse readily equated actresses with prostitutes. George Sand strode round Paris in breeches and cravats, while Queen Christina of Sweden (described by the pope as ‘a woman without shame’) adopted masculine dress, refused to marry (following the example of Elizabeth I, whom she admired) and eventually abdicated. ‘Miss 1933’, whose inclusion conveniently dates the service, is the most ambivalent about her own spectacle. Dorothy Eley was the only college graduate in history to win the Miss America pageant, which she later condemned as a ‘cattle auction’. She went on to become a teacher, a planespotter in the Second World War and a bridge master.