Thursday, September 29, 2011

Duncan Grant and Bloomsbury

"Bathing" by Duncan Grant, 1910

The English poet Stephen Spender wrote about Duncan Grant, "I can think of no painting by him in praise of landscape or nude or flowers or still life or scene from mythology which is not also joyful and light in execution."  Who was Duncan Grant?  He was a talented British artist who painted many pictures during his lifetime (1885-1978), including "Bathing" in 1910 and "Crime and Punishment" in 1909.  His works hang in the Tate Gallery and The National Portrait Gallery in London, just to name a few places where you can find his art.

"Crime and Punishment," by Duncan Grant, 1909

He was painting in England during the same time period that Matisse, Picasso, and Cezanne were painting in Paris, the years before World War I.  He was part of the art movement in London that brought these post-impressionist artists to the attention of the English public in 1910.  His fame as an artist was greatest during the years between the two world wars.  He was co-director of the Omega Workshops, founded by Roger Fry, an enterprise that allowed artists the opportunity to design decorative arts, including furniture, fabrics, and wallpaper, and consequently earn extra income.

Design for embroidered fire screen, 1912, by Duncan Grant

He loved the artist Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, and lived with her at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, England where they produced art together for 50 years.  They also decorated the walls, mantelpieces, and furniture of the house with their distinctive designs.  And he was a member of the Bloomsbury group.  From the many stories that the various members have told, one gets the feeling that Duncan Grant was beloved by all.  

"Portrait of Vanessa Bell" by Duncan Grant, 1917-1918

Recently I was asked to write a guest post for the art blog "A Husk of Meaning."  I chose to write about Duncan Grant. I am posting it today on my blog for those of you who may not have seen it.   I hope I can shed some light on an artist whom I admire and of whom many people are unaware.

Duncan Grant, 1925

"Self-Portrait in a Mirror" by Duncan Grant, 1920

Born in 1885 in the Scottish Highlands, Duncan Grant was introduced to the friends who became known as the Bloomsbury Group through his first cousin Lytton Strachey.  Lytton was at Cambridge University and there he met a group of bright young men which included Thoby Stephen, Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, and Maynard Keynes.  These friends, along with Vanessa and Virginia Stephen (who became Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf), formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group.  Duncan quickly became a well-loved member of this group of intellectuals and artists.

"Lytton Strachey" by Duncan Grant, 1909

"Portrait of Vanessa Bell in an Armchair," by Duncan Grant, 1915

Duncan's friendship with the French painter Simon Bussy influenced him to attend art school.  He decided to study in Paris with Jacques-Emile Blanche during the years 1906-1907.  He loved France and later he and Vanessa Bell would spend part of each year at a house in Cassis.  Many of his landscapes at this time were done in Cassis and neighboring towns.  He began to be influenced by the post-impressionist painters, especially Picasso and Matisse.

"Dance" by Matisse

"Purple Robe and Anemones" by Matisse

Today we can only imagine what it must have been like to be an artist in England, or anywhere for that matter, and know what was going on in the art world in Paris in the early part of the twentieth-century.  Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and others were revolutionizing art.  It must have been a thunderbolt of revelation to artists such as Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.   For the most part the English public were unaware of the enormous developments that were happening in the arts in Paris.  Roger Fry, an art historian, critic and friend of Vanessa and Clive Bell, wanted to change that. He organized the exhibition "Manet and the Post-Impressionists" at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910.  (Roger Fry invented the term "post-impressionism.")  The show was monumental.  Many people hated it but it had a tremendous impact on artists such as Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.  Many art historians feel that this show was the beginning of modernism in the arts in England.

The paintings by Duncan Grant, pictured below, are thought to show the influence of the post-impressionist artists that he would have been seeing at the time.

"Still Life, The Mantelpiece" by Duncan Grant, 1914

"The Dancers" by Duncan Grant, 1911

"Venus and Adonis" by Duncan Grant, 1919

"The Tub" by Duncan Grant, 1913

"Interior, 46 Gordon Square" by Duncan Grant, 1914 

When Vanessa Bell bought Charleston Farm in Sussex in 1916 she moved there with her two boys. Duncan Grant joined her there.  They produced much art together over the course of 50 years, as well as decorated the house with murals, painted furniture, fabrics, rugs, and ceramics.  It has been restored and is open to the public.  To visit there is to be transported to the bohemian environment that was theirs and to understand that art was truly the heart and soul of the lives that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant lived on a daily basis.

"Interior with Duncan Grant," 1934 by Vanessa Bell
This shows Duncan Grant in his studio at Charleston

Charleston Farmhouse

Garden Room at Charleston, decorated by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant

 Garden Room at Charleston

Door of Duncan Grant's bedroom, designed and painted by Vanessa Bell

When I think of my favorite works by Duncan Grant, I consider his landscapes, his interiors, his still life paintings, his decorative work, and his works that were considered especially outstanding, such as "Bathing" and "The Dancers." Most of them express the exuberance and joy that I associate with Duncan Grant, the artist and the person.  There is a lyricism, spontaneity, and sensuousness to his work that many critics have observed.  I admire all of them.  But my favorites, the ones that I always want to see are the portraits, like this one:

"Portrait of Chattie Salaman" by Duncan Grant, 1942

The portraits live for me; they have a vivid presence, are informal and relaxed, and are often set in charming interiors which include decorative elements such as fabric, furniture, ceramics or murals which were designed by Duncan or Vanessa. The portraits often depict warm environments and also give warmth to the rooms in which they hang.  They portray so many of the people I have read about through my interest in Bloomsbury.  Duncan was engaged with that world of people and art and his portraits reflect the world of his friends.  We can picture this gentle, charming, and handsome man easily persuading his friends to sit for him.  For me the portraits are some of his most satisfying art works.

I think that Roger Fry captured the distinctive qualities of the artist's work when he wrote about Duncan in his book "Duncan Grant," published by the Hogarth Press in 1923:

"He pleases because the personality his work reveals is so spontaneous, so unconstrained, so entirely natural and unaffected.  And these happy dispositions of his nature reveal themselves in his work -- in his drawings by a singularly melodious and rhythmic line, in his painting by a corresponding fluency and elegance of handling.  His naturalness gives him his singular charm of manner.  But more than this, he has a peculiar happiness of disposition.  A certain lyrical joyousness of mood predominates in his work.  And this leads him to affect and enjoy what is beautiful in nature, and to express that delight in beauty in his work."


  1. I love how when you show art work you include a little history of the piece and artist as you do here. It is so informative and interesting. These are lovely portraits shown here, one of my favorites being Dancers. I love the rooms of the farmhouse and seeing how it was decorated. One of the reasons I love travel so much is visiting the great museums, one of my favorites is the National Portrait Gallery in London. Great post......

    The French Hutch

  2. What a tremendous post, Sunday. Oh, that all art education classes could be as informative, illustrative, well written and interesting. You really bring Duncan Grant and the Bloomsbury Group alive for me. I thank you.

  3. did you get to see any of these amazing works in person? #DollfaceOnTour

  4. I have seen most of the portraits, the ones of Lytton Strachey, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant. I believe they are all at the National Portrait Gallery in London. And of course all the rooms from Charleston Farmhouse, I have been there twice. As someone said to me recently, I could live there. It is so beautiful and rustic and homey all at the same time. It is a house with all of its surfaces covered by art work by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Even the needlepoint pillows were designed by them as well as the fabrics on the chairs and the curtains. It is such a happy place.

  5. I love learning more about this talented artist with you!! Just love the bedroom door. I wish I had had a chance to venture out and explore while I was in London with BlogTour but it was a jam packed whirlwind week of design inspiration. Perhaps next time!!