In the 1930’s Vanessa Bell and her partner and fellow artist Duncan Grant returned much of their attention to the decorative arts. They had always included decorative art in their work and commissions even starting the Omega Workshops together. They had made virtual museums of the various homes they shared in their long relationship but in 1931, they turned their attention to pottery and the art of making plates. They were instructed in this medium by the potter Phyllis Keyes. Eventually they were commissioned by Art Historian Kenneth Clark to create a dinner service. He gave them free range to do whatever they wanted.
In her biography of Vanessa Bell published in 1983, Frances Spalding tells us about Clark’s surprise when he learned they had created “forty-eight plates decorated with portraits of celebrated females, twelve queens, twelve writers and twelve beauties, including ‘Miss 1933’. (“It ought to please the feminists,” Vanessa announced). The commission took more than a year to complete for in addition to the plates there were jugs and bowls, the whole service amounting to some 140 items”(Spalding 259).
My interest was piqued as I read this because I was in the middle of reading several books and writing several posts about feminist artist Judy Chicago, including her groundbreaking The Dinner Party installation created in the 1970s where she created 39 plates honoring historic and important women.
If you can count you know that the previous quote about Bell and Grant’s plates does not add up to 48. In the article “Decades Before Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party,’ Virginia Woolf’s Sister Made a Set of Dinner Plates Celebrating 50 Historic Women,” Sarah Cascone lets us know that there were also 12 artists and dancers represented and that Bell and Grant painted one of each other. There were in fact 50 plates.
More recent information indicates that Mr. Clark did have an idea what Bell and Grant were up to and that his wife Jane actually took a large role in the decisions and consulted closely with Bell on the project that came to be named The Famous Women Dinner Service.
From what I have read to date, it seems Chicago did not know about Bell’s plates when she created The Dinner Party. In fact, Bell and Grant’s plates were never publicly displayed and virtually forgotten and considered lost until rediscovered in 2017.
“Like The Dinner Party that would follow so many decades later, The Famous Women Dinner Service took a stab at rectifying that gap [female representation] in the history books. Grant and Bell carefully researched each woman, basing most of their paintings on existing photographs and portraits. Inspired by the lively gatherings of the intellectuals of the Bloomsbury Group, the piece imagined a dinner party bringing together iconic women across history”(https://news.artnet.com/art-world/vanessa-bell-duncan-grant-famous-women-dinner-service-1254239).
This is remarkably similar to Chicago’s intention 40 years later who explains that “the context of a dinner party was intended to commemorate the unacknowledged contributions of women to Western civilization while simultaneously alluding to and protesting their oppression through the metaphor of places set upon and thus “contained” by the table”(Chicago 130).
Read NWW’s piece on Nasty Woman Artist Vanessa Bell. Nasty Woman Artist Vanessa Bell: Life as Artform
It is absolutely fascinating to consider that two separate nasty women artists in two separate generations had the same idea: to recognize, bring forth and honor their erased and ignored foremothers by painting them onto plates. It speaks to the relationship between women and food, meals, dinnerware and table settings. It is a testament to the long-standing tradition of women being the ones who traditionally prepare and serve meals including preparing and hosting dinner parties. Through the history of women in the patriarchy, this is one of the spaces where women have had some autonomy and been able to exert their power, affect some level of influence and agency. Women have used the “dinner table” to conduct more than social engagements, even if that is all it ever looked like.
Chicago decided each woman represented in The Dinner Party needed to have her own plate to put them all on equal footing. She believed that the motif of a table was perfect “to point out the ways in which women’s achievements—like the endless meals they had prepared throughout history—had been ‘consumed’ rather than acknowledged and honored”(Chicago 128).
Read our piece on Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party: Feminist Artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party: Celebrating Women Across Time
We also know that the Stephen women, Vanessa and Virginia (Woolf), came from a long line of women who entertained and improved their own social standing through the parties they gave. Indeed one of Virginia Woolf’s most famous novels is about a dinner party put on by the now infamous Mrs Dalloway.
The Famous Women Dinner Service was found in 2017 completely intact and subsequently acquired by the Charleston Trust—a museum in honor of the Bloomsbury Group housed in a home shared by Grant and Bell for most of their lives.
“In The Famous Women Dinner Service, women are invited to sit at the head of the table, so to speak. Their lives, achievements and accomplishments become the focal point of the conversation.
A closer look at the list of women whom Bell and Grant chose to include reveals their profound understanding of the importance of female histories and stories which are often untold, suppressed, or erased completely”(https://www.charleston.org.uk/stories/the-famous-women-dinner-service/).
“The set belongs to the broader context of the quest which Bell shared with her younger sister, Virginia Woolf, to fashion appropriate ways to commemorate women’s histories. Many of the authors commemorated in the set were women that Woolf had written essays about, including Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Emily Barrett Browning, Dorothy Osborne, Sappho, Madame de Staël, Sarah Churchill, Ellen Terry, and Christina Rossetti. Whilst Woolf wrote famous polemics about the absence of women from history and literature, and produced commercially and critically experimental biographies of family, friends, and women she identified as creative forebears in the form of Orlando, Flush, Freshwater, and Famous Men and Fair Women, Bell’s practice weaves together multiple generations of the women of her own family with canonical and religious imagery”(http://britishartstudies.ac.uk/issues/issue-index/issue-7/famous-women).
The above link leads to a wonderful article about the collection and provides images of all 50 plates.
Below is a list of all the women on the plates: (Duncan Grant is the only man on the 50 plates which is because he is one of the creators but it also may be a nod to his queer identity.)
The Famous Women Dinner Service—Featuring:
Duncan Grant & Vanessa Bell
Women of Letters:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Mme de Staël
Catherine the Great
Christina of Sweden
Mary Queen of Scots
The Queen of Sheba
Mdme La Princesse De Metternich
Helen of Troy
Dancers and Actresses
Vanessa Bell and Judy Chicago are Nasty Women Artists connected through time.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Cascone, Sarah. “Decades Before Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party,’ Virginia Woolf’s Sister Made a Set of Dinner Plates Celebrating 50 Historic Women.” Artnet, March 29, 2018. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/vanessa-bell-duncan-grant-famous-women-dinner-service-1254239
Chicago, Judy. The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago. Thames and Hudson, 2021.
Grindley, Jennifer. “The Famous Women Dinner Service.” Charleston.org. March 4, 2021. https://www.charleston.org.uk/stories/the-famous-women-dinner-service/
Leaper, Hana. “The Famous Women Dinner Service: A Critical Introduction and Catalogue.” British Art Studies. Issue 7. https://doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-07/hleaper
Spalding, Frances. Vanessa Bell: Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist. Tauris Parke, London. 1983.