A Missing Feminist Masterpiece

In 1932 the famed art historian Kenneth Clark, the director of the National Gallery in London, and his wife Jane Clark, commissioned Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to produce a 148-plate dinner service for his personal household. They were not specific about what the theme or subject the plates should be, and Bell and Grant decided together upon representing famous women through the ages from England and from across the globe, with both London stage actresses Ellen Terry and Sarah Siddons, to more farflung historical women like the Queen of Sheba and Sappho. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell's portraits are included in the plates, as was one man (lucky fellow) artist Duncan Grant. The artists traveled to Stoke-on-Trent and toured pottery factories, selecitng Wedgwood creamware blanks that have a homespun quality resembling the plain arts-and-crafts styling of the Omega Workshop artists.


Plates.jpgThe plates were a part of the private estate of the Clarks, and then were inherited by Clark's second wife, who then left them to her daughter, who years later sold them at an auction in Hamburg. The auction house closed and records weren't available, and the plates disappeared from view. The plates were known for decades only from a photograph of the Clark's dinner table. 


Through a lucky series of events involving the clearance and sale of a flat in London, the plates were discovered again by Dr. Robert Thomas, the founder of Piano Nobile, who only saw a glance of a few and didn't at first realize what he was looking at. It was only later when a purchaser of the flat and its contents decided to sell the plates that Thomas realized what he had first spied. 


The bold and provocative feminist aspect of the plates, and the fact that it precedes Judith Chicago's similarly themed dinner service, "The Dinner Party," has only just become recent news. Matthew Travers, a director at London's Piano Nobile gallery, told Artnet, "All of the women they depicted did something interesting and powerful, and often were quite scandalous--the Bloomsburys might have said 'liberated'--in the way they lived their private lives, and often did not conform to the patriarchies they were living in."


"This is the holy grail of Bloomsbury ceramics because it was lost for a generation," said Thomas, who acquired them and is hoping the plates will go to Charleston, the estate of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Until that happens, they are on view through April 28. 


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Speaking of which, this watercolor plate design (above) for Bell's Charlotte Brontë plate, 1932, sold last year at Forum Auctions for £8,125 ($10,480).


Images: (Top) Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, The Famous Women Dinner Service, 1932-34. Courtesy of Piano Nobile; (Bottom) Courtesy of Forum Auctions.