set up an unconventional household with Grant’s lover, the author David Garnett. They transformed the farmhouse’s dark, damp interiors with an abundance of colourful decoration: still lives, animals, dancers and abstract patterns are daubed on walls, doors and furniture – even onto bed frames. Over the following decades, the house became a meeting place for artists, writers and intellectuals.
Bell had learned how to throw during the Omega days but had little interest in mastering the complexities of potting. Instead she and Grant turned to painting blanks thrown by others – including, later, by Bell’s son, Quentin (‘We shall all be able to make a little extra cash by twiddling our brushes about on his pots’, wrote Bell in 1926). A small kiln was built at Charleston in 1937, and from this Quentin Bell produced domestic wares and sculptures. These dot the surfaces of their unconventional home – loosely potted, cheerfully painted earthenware with a naïve aesthetic well-matched to the Staffordshire f latbacks and folk art figurines of which they were fond.
To create the Famous Women Dinner Service, Grant and Bell decided against making pieces themselves or using those made by more skilled peers. Instead, they toured Wedgwood’s factories to choose blanks, settling on creamware (a robust high-fired earthenware) and a limited palette of yellow, brown, blue and black glazes. With each portrait framed by the circular plate, they recall that famous description of the Bloomsbury group: ‘they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.’ TOURING AMBASSADORS Although Kenneth Clark may have known little of what was coming, his wife Jane discussed the commission extensively with Bell; it was two years before the artists settled on their final shortlist of characters. The portraits, mostly based on paintings or photographs, were painted at Charleston and the plates sent to Stoke-on-Trent for glaze firing. In 2015, preparatory sketches and a handful of test plates were found in the attic and placed on show in Grant’s studio.
‘We are in discussions with several museums and building a touring schedule for the Famous Women, both abroad and in the UK for 2020–21. The plates will then return to Charleston,’ says Dr Clarke, who describes the Famous Women as ‘ambassadors’.
‘By sending the plates out into the world, more people will be aware of the artists and the wider group, and will think of them in a new, more political light,’ he explains. ‘I hope they will help encourage people to visit Charleston to experience the place first-hand, and to find out more about these extraordinary artists.’
Visit charleston.org.uk; piano-nobile.com
26 Ceramic Review | July/August 2019