Nicolson Archive reveals reference to Famous Women dinner service

  • 11 December 2017

Work on the Ben Nicolson Archive, acquired by the Centre earlier this year, has revealed an interesting connection between the collection and the current issue of British Art Studies. Nicolson’s diary entry for 17th November 1933 records an early viewing of the Famous Women dinner service, the subject of Dr Hana Leaper’s Look First feature.

Writing about a luncheon engagement with Kenneth Clark and his wife at Headington, Nicolson’s records ‘They have the most wonderful pictures. Duncan and Vanessas – esp(ecially) a pottery set with paintings of people like Mrs Browning and Empress Theodora on them, and that lovely painting of Vanessa’s of Angelica dressed as the Russian princess that M(ummy) covets’.

A detail of a notebook with handwriting in blue ink


The discovery of this reference reflects the richness of the archive and its value to researchers. Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, was nineteen years old in 1933 and studying modern history at Balliol College. His diaries record, amongst other things, a life full of engagements, meetings and conversations with some of the most privileged, creative and intellectual personalities of the day.

The reference to the Famous Women dinner service is interesting because it suggests that the set was being presented alongside other works of art belonging to the Clarks and that guests were expected to appreciate them similarly. After writing about the service, Nicolson goes on to record that the Clark’s also owned ‘two Renoirs and a tiny Raphael. All in exquisite taste’.

Further information about the archive collections held at the Paul Mellon Centre, including how to access them, can be found online here.