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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

All the famous ladies

More than eighty years ago, a famous art historian commissioned two famous painters (one of them related to an even more famous writer) to paint him a china dinner service. They obliged, creating a set of fifty plates bearing the likenesses of famous women – including Jane Austen.

And now the fifty Famous Ladies plates – commissioned by Kenneth Clark and painted in 1932-33 by Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, and her lover and artistic partner Duncan Grant -- are for sale from a London art gallery, for a mere £1.3 million (nearly $1.7 million).

Clark and his wife must have thrown huge dinner parties: The Famous Ladies are only a part of the full 140-piece dinner service that Bell and Grant painted on plain white Wedgewood china. Some preliminary sketches for the work are owned by Charleston, the East Sussex farmhouse where Grant and Bell lived, and where members of the Bloomsbury Group often visited.

The Ladies are divided into four subsets: twelve noted beauties, including Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn and an anonymous “Miss 1933”; twelve actresses, including Greta Garbo, Lily Langtry, Adelina Patti, Anna Pavlova and Sarah Siddons; twelve queens, including the Biblical Queen of Sheba, the Native American Pocahontas, the seventeenth-century Swedish Queen Christina, the medieval English Princess Mathilda, and Queen Mary, grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II; and twelve writers, including Sappho, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf (natch) -- and our very own Austen. (Two additional plates feature likenesses of Bell and Grant. No, Grant was not a Famous Lady, but I guess he gave himself a pass.)

Judging from the photos available online, the plates are striking and original, and the inclusion of Austen is just another piece of evidence proving that Jane-love didn’t begin with Colin Firth. (For engrossing and sometimes bizarre stories about early Janeites, I recommend the newly published The Making of Jane Austen, by Arizona State scholar Devoney Looser, one of the people profiled in Among the Janeites.)

Alas, I can’t find the Austen plate in any of the online illustrations, but if someone else has better luck, please post a link below! Virginia Woolf is a perceptive critic of Austen; I’d love to see how Vanessa Bell envisioned our author.

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