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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Head of the table

A playful and intriguing work of decorative art is now on permanent public display in England. And it’s got a Jane Austen angle!


I am speaking of the beautiful Famous Ladies Dinner Service, a collection of fifty plates that the art historian Kenneth Clark commissioned in 1932 from the painters Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, and Duncan Grant, Bell’s lover and creative partner.


Bell and Grant, luminaries of the artistically experimental, politically radical, and sexually unconventional Bloomsbury Group, took blank white Wedgewood plates and adorned them with portraits of dozens of women, both real and mythological, dating from antiquity to the twentieth century. It’s Judy Chicago, four decades earlier.


When Clark’s family owned the plates, people actually ate off them, but by the 1980s, they had been sold at auction, and for three decades, their whereabouts remained a mystery. In 2017, a London art gallery put the set up for sale, and a year later, it was acquired by the most appropriate possible place: Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse where Bell and Grant lived and worked, which is now a museum and exhibition space.


The Famous Ladies—now going by the more PC title of “Famous Women”--were exhibited at Charleston in 2018-19. It’s unclear to me whether the set has been on view in the years since, but either way, it is now permanently on display there.

The Famous Women Dinner Service

The portraits’ subjects fall into four categories—queens; beauties/muses/courtesans; actors/dancers; and writers—with twelve plates in each category. (Two additional plates feature portraits of Bell and Grant, the only man in the collection.) And yes—among the twelve writers is our very own Jane Austen (second from left in the third row, sandwiched between George Eliot and Elizabeth I), in a pose that looks to be inspired by the famous frontispiece of James Edward Austen-Leigh's 1869 Memoir of Jane Austen. A 2017 catalog of the Famous Women notes that Woolf had written critical essays about many of the writers whom Bell and Grant chose to portray, including Austen.


“In the Famous Women Dinner Service, women are invited to sit at the head of the table,” Charleston’s website explains. “Their lives, achievements and accomplishments become the focal point of the conversation.” 


Charleston has long been on my bucket list of British sights, and here’s one more reason to go.

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