The Charleston Doll’s House: “A home for whoever you want to be.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This well-known aphorism can be easily applied to Lot Kessels’ Charleston Doll’s House, a miniaturised rendering of the historic East-Sussex home associated with the Bloomsbury Group (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Lot Kessels, Charleston Doll’s House (profile of all rooms), 2019.

Charleston house was the domestic and creative project of the group’s artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant from 1916 until their respective deaths in 1961 and 1978. Famous for being the gathering place of Bloomsbury in these years, Charleston has become associated with the middle-class-bohemian frivolity of its feminine, pacifist and queer members; a place where homosexuality was welcomed and, in contradiction to more masculine ‘modernisms’ in the early-twentieth century, Arts and Crafts continued to be combined in their own version of the late-nineteenth-century movement. Stemming from the Omega workshops before World War One, Charleston showcases Bell and Grant’s lifelong collaborations of domestic craft and decoration. This domestic space has only been considered for its queer possibilities rather recently, accessed via the door opened by Christopher Reed in his critique of modernism’s scholarship which had suppressed the domestic due to its associations with the ‘lower’ status of ‘effeminate’ craft.[1] It is therefore significant that Kessels interacts with Charleston house through the crafty creation of her Doll’s House today, continuing Bell and Grant’s domestic endeavours in miniature. The meticulous detail and pastiche of Kessels’ project is evident (Figs. 2-3): there are mini hand-painted replicas of paintings, easels, walls, curtains, books, ceramics, furniture, doors, and room dividers; all in striking resemblance to their originals. Some of this miniature furniture was hand-crafted, while other parts were pieces that Kessels found from children’s toys in her attic, or cut by her son-in-law to her own design. Mini-paintbrushes were made from toothpicks and her dogs’ hair, and the sofa in the garden room was upholstered with fabric from the former-shirts of her husband. All of this sits within cardboard walls, made with this material so that she could cut them easily. Indeed, Kessels’ idea was to create as much of the Doll’s House herself for two main reasons: first, so that it was “less costly;” and second, so that she could “make it as I see it and want it.”

Figure 2. Lot Kessels, Miniature objects for the Charleston Doll’s House (including copies of Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach and Mrs St John Hutchinson), 2019.
Figure 3. Lot Kessels, Charleston Doll’s House (the study bookshelf through the window), 2019.

The Doll’s House is “as idiosyncratic as is Charleston,” claims Kessels, using her own domestic and familial objects within the miniature space. This inter-domestic project is a particularly maternal act, carefully positioning Bloomsbury members (made from printing photographs onto padded fabric; see fig. 4) with associated objects in relevant rooms. Kessels’ desire was to create a familial narrative of Charleston for people who “don’t know the story of its inhabitants yet.” But essentially, her main aim was to also reflect the ethos and values of “Charlestonians:” to reflect “it’s warmth, domesticity;” to create a “home for whoever you want to be”. Her project therefore points to ways in which marginalised or ‘othered’ subjects can find refuge in the domestic space, remedied by craft-making and the decorative. Presented in the form of a Doll’s House, this conjoins the realms of motherhood and childhood; and for me, this speaks to the “odd lingerings” of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s concept of a queer subject’s experience of “growing sideways,” combining the adult domain of home-making with a child’s domain of play.[2] The idea of Charleston being a home for everybody is not only found in these facets of the Doll’s House, but also in the fact that it is small and mobile. As a ‘transportable Charleston,’ Kessel’s craft project speaks to a desire to make the Bloomsbury home more accessible, especially considering the home’s rather remote geographical location in the South Downs: “I felt an urge,” says Kessels, “to come even more close to the house and its inhabitants by making the house in miniature.” Currently on display in Amsterdam, there is clearly a desire for Bloomsbury’s ethos to be felt and extended elsewhere.

Figure 4. Lot Kessels, Charleston Doll’s House (the figure of Virginia Woolf seen in the library), 2019.

As asserted by American scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, looking back and making cultural objects your own can also be a queer reparative act.[3] For Kessels, this can be found in her response to my question of what made her interested in Charleston and the Bloomsbury set to begin with: “A feeling of belonging. A recognition of being different. I’ve always been somewhat different than most. Always outspoken in tastes, dressing, way of living, being creative in all I do.” Her project may therefore point to the queerer aspects of maternal experience, and the way in which this can be expressed through domestic craft.

For more information on the artist and the Charleston Doll’s House project, go to the artist’s Instagram page: lotkessels. The Doll’s House is currently being displayed on the sixth floor of the OBA library in Amsterdam until March 27th 2020.

Words: Jonathan King (he/him)

About the Author

Jon is currently a second year PhD candidate in Art History at the University of York. His research, currently entitled “‘A bit frivolous?’ Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and the Charleston Camp” aims to reinvigorate our understanding of these Bloomsbury artists by exploring their collaborative work outside of the group’s literary canon, considering class, queerness, and the concept of a camp modernist aesthetic. Between March and June 2020, Jon will be embarking on an AHRC-funded research trip to the Yale Center for British Art, where he will be using their archives to examine specific collaborations of Bell and Grant.

[1] Reed, Christopher (ed.). Not at Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996); also see: Reed, Christopher. Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004); and Clarke, Darren. “Duncan Grant and Charleston’s Queer Arcadia.” In Queer Bloomsbury, edited by Brenda Helt and Madelyn Detloff, (Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2016): 152-171.

[2] Stockton, Kathryn Bond. “Growing Sideways, or Versions of the Queer Child,” Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children, edited by Stephen Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); and also: Stockton’s The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Duke University Press, 2009).

[3] Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Performativity, Pedagogy, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003): 123-51.