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."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Happiness Starts Here!

Some very delightful things have been happening lately!   My daughters Heather Taylor and Megan Taylor just had this beautiful portrait done by the artist and photographer Jeana Sohn.  I love the background color, the peaceful looks on their faces, and the closeness between them as sisters that comes across in this portrait. 


Heather and her husband Alex de Cordoba are featured in the new October issue of Sunset Magazine.  The issue just came out and you can find it at the news stands.  There is an article in the magazine about their Hollywood home and their fun design aesthetic.  They recently had us over for grilled pizzas and we all sat around their new fire pit and had a fabulous dinner outside.  You can see more pictures of their home and read about it here.  You may remember that they recently got married in their backyard under their lush citrus trees --  I wrote about it here.

Ivy At The Shore Restaurant

Friendships really are the spice of life.  This week I had a night out with two of my dear friends.  We went to dinner at the beautiful Ivy at the Shore restaurant in Santa Monica to celebrate my friend's birthday.  It is such a special place for a birthday dinner, especially sitting out on their lovely patio.  Each time I go there,  I am always enchanted by the bougainvillea-draped entry to the Ivy.  In addition, the bar at this iconic Los Angeles restaurant is adorned with festive ceramic pitchers loaded with garden roses.  I am delighted each time I walk in and am greeted by this rose glory.  Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, wrote in one of her books that when she is overwhelmed with her life, her favorite restorative activity is to go out with her girlfriends for dinner and a fun cocktail.  I agree.  Life feels wonderful surrounded by good friends, the Ivy's signature crab cakes, and a beautiful glass of chardonnay!

Ice Cream Sundae for the birthday girl 


Speaking of good friends, my charming friend Susan gave me the book "Parisian Chic" as a going away present for my trip to Paris.  I am dying over this book.  I realize that I am a little late to the game, as it came out in the Spring, so I apologize if you all know about this.  But I am so inspired!  It all looks so simple,  French women really get it.  If we just follow these guidelines, perhaps we can get this Parisian look in our day to day wardrobes.  According to the book there are seven staples we must have.  The first one is the blazer, pictured below.  I am taking notes here!

The Blazer, don't you love it belted like this?

The Trench, bien sur, we knew that!

The Little Black Dress, simple and elegant

A great pair of Jeans, straight-leg are best

A great Purse, central to every Parisian's personal style

The Navy Sweater, not pictured, looks great with many things but especially white jeans

The Leather Jacket, not pictured, guaranteed to save any overly-conventional look

Everything we need to know about the effortless style that French women do so well is in this book "Parisian Chic" by Ines de la Fressange.


By the way, some new adventures are about to begin and I will be taking a little break.  Can't wait to tell you all about it!

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Heart of the Home

This is the time of year when I love being in the kitchen.  Although here in Los Angeles we do not yet have autumnal scenes such as the one above from Woodstock, Vermont, our weather is getting cooler and there is a definite nip in the air.  I think the season makes its presence felt in the kitchen, which for me is the heart of the house. My kitchen is beckoning and I have been organizing and getting ready for fall cooking and baking.

The kitchen cabinet looks very festive this time of the year

My cookbook collection is a happy sight

The kitchen table is set with autumnal colors

I always buy a few new cookbooks that feature fall recipes 


Cooking is central to this time of year.  As I go through my cookbooks I am searching for my favorite fall recipes. These are cozy dishes that make my house feel warm and welcoming, and that use seasonal ingredients.  There are two recipes that I make each fall that have become family favorites.  The first one is Roasted Fall Vegetable and Ricotta Pizza.  This recipe is from Martha Stewart.  It is perfect for a fall dinner at home.  With a fresh green salad and a glass of wine it is a perfect meal.

Roasted Fall Vegetable and Ricotta Pizza

I make this savory pizza with a whole wheat dough and two big platters of roasted vegetables.   You can substitute regular pizza dough if you like, but the whole wheat adds a special flavor.  Ricotta and mozzarella cheeses are layered in with the vegetables.  Fresh rosemary is sprinkled on top.  These are fall vegetables that include red potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, and onions. You will love this delicious pizza on a cool fall night.

Spooning the ricotta cheese on top of the roasted vegetables


My second favorite fall recipe is an impressive cake.  Cooking with pumpkin is a must at this time of year and of course there is the ubiquitous pumpkin pie, which I love.  But I also try to find other desserts  that incorporate this wonderful ingredient.

Pumpkin Spice Cake with Pumpkin Cream Cheese Frosting

One of my all time favorites is Pumpkin Spice Cake with Pumpkin Cream Cheese Frosting.  I make it every year.  This recipe was featured on the cover of "Country Living" magazine many years ago.  It is a three-layer cake with delicious pumpkin flavored cream cheese frosting.  I make the cakes the day before and frost them the day I am serving it.  It is one of the best cakes I make and people go crazy for this moist, tender and flavorful cake with its luscious frosting.  I love its homespun and rustic look.  It is always a big hit.

As the weather gets cooler and we go into nesting mode, there is a comforting feeling of warming ourselves by the stove.   Maybe that is a hark back to novels I have read where the kitchen is the warmest room in the house.  It's a nostalgic feeling but it still feels true for me.  I live in the kitchen at this time of year, from brewing coffee in the morning, to cooking dinners at night.  There is the treat of snatching cups of tea in the afternoon and dreaming over cookbooks.  My computer is on my kitchen desk surrounded by cookbooks and I do most of my work here.  When I am stressed out nothing is more therapeutic than getting in the kitchen and making a big pot of soup or baking a cake. The fragrance that wafts from the kitchen and fills the house is the essence of fall for me and it all emanates from the kitchen, the true hub and haven of my house.

Friday, September 16, 2011

"The Hour"

Is anyone else watching "The Hour," the stylish and gratifying new television show from England?  It is set in London in 1956 during the Suez crisis and is about a group of young and ambitious BBC employees who are putting on a new kind of news program.

It has been compared to "Mad Men" in its depiction of the same time period, and the era is excellently rendered through the costumes, sets, and general production style.  It is a visual feast.

In addition to being eye candy, it is like sinking into a really good book.  It is a cold war tale with espionage, blackmail, and murder.  There is so much to keep the viewer involved --  intrigue, romance, relationships, mysteries and historical events.

The heroine Bel is caught in a romantic triangle, between Freddie (above), the idealistic journalist who is in love with her, and Hector (below), the telegenic and married anchorman, with whom she begins an affair.  In this sense it feels a little like the 1987 film "Broadcast News."  But this series has so much more -- viewers get a vivid depiction of what Cold War Britain was like -  in an Alfred Hitchcock and Ian Fleming kind of way --  and also get to relive the historical events of the time.  In terms of developments in television, it was an exciting and brave new world and the series vividly captures these exciting advances.  "The Hour" is absolutely fascinating to watch, and it is making me very happy as I await the new season of "Downton Abbey" which is scheduled for January.

I just read in "The New Yorker" that the creator of the show is Abi Morgan, who also wrote the upcoming film about Margaret Thatcher, "The Iron Lady."  It stars Meryl Streep and is coming out in December.  Isn't it satisfying to be able to watch a dramatic series of such high quality on television?  I don't know what the ratings are, but I hope they are good so that we get more shows like this one!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Monday Bookshelf

There are many times that we pick up a new book by a contemporary writer and we either can't get into it or we finish it and find it mediocre and forgettable.  Right now I feel like I've discovered a treasure trove of excellent new books.  I recently finished "This Beautiful Life" by Helen Schulman. I am in the middle of "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles. And I just purchased "A Book of Secrets" by Michael Holroyd, which will be the next book I read.  All three books have at their core complicated, interesting women who don't always follow the rules.  Each book deals with different time periods and places --  the present time in New York City amongst the Internet generation, the 1930's in New York amongst the working class and the upper class, and the early twentieth-century in England amongst the avant-garde. Each of these books has the promise of a satisfying read and a journey into thought-provoking territory.

"This Beautiful Life" concerns a family of four -- mother, father, teenage son, and 7-year old daughter -- who move from a small town in upstate New York to a wealthy neighborhood in New York City.  The father has a high-profile position at a prestigious university, the mother is a retired academic;  the children enter the privileged world of private schools and the family meets an elite group of students and parents.  The teenage son gets involved in Internet scandal with a younger girl whom he has spurned.  A shocking video is made and is circulated widely on the Internet.  We watch as the lives of this family fall apart.  This books deals with very real and frightening concerns about the addiction of people, both young and old, to social media.  I found myself riveted by this poignant story of how an inadvertent act on the part of the teenage son causes this family's seemingly happy and comfortable world to spin out of control with unexpected results.  It is a powerful warning of the hazards of twenty-first century technology, unsupervised children, and girls growing up too fast.  I was fascinated by the character of the mother as she is complicated, imperfect, and fighting her own demons.

"Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles has the satisfying feel of a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I am half-way into it and I am fully engaged with the characters and the story.  We are in New York in the 1930's and the heroine Katey Kontent is a scrappy working girl who lives in a Greenwich Village boarding house with her roommate Evelyn.  One New Year's Eve they meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker from a wealthy family.  The two girls quickly enter his world of high society and their lives become intertwined with surprising results.  So far I am loving this book.  It depicts New York society in a sparkling way, the dialogue is witty and quick, reminding me at times of a Frank Capra movie, and the heroine is appealing in her independence and courage.  The banter between the characters is often funny and memorable.  This is a fun read, but with real substance and serious issues under the lovely veneer.

"A Book of Secrets" by master-biographer Michael Holroyd has as its subtitle, "Illegitimate Daughters and Absent Fathers."  Holroyd is best known as the biographer of Lytton Strachey, George Bernard Shaw, and Augustus John.  He is married to the novelist Margaret Drabble and together they are a formidable literary couple living in England.  He was knighted in 2007 and she is Dame Margaret Drabble.  In this book Holroyd weaves together the lives of several women who were on the fringes of British aristocracy and the periphery of respectable society, living in the early part of the twentieth century.  These women include Alice Keppel, mistress of the Prince of Wales; Eve Fairfax, a muse to Auguste Rodin; and Violet Trufussis, love interest of Vita Sackville-West.  They are all united by a place in Italy that they visited, the Villa Cimbrone which sits on a hill above the Italian village of Ravello.  The reviewers have loved this book, calling it a beautiful narrative told with great wit and filled with meditations on fragile human connections, the mystery of place, and the role of the biographer.  I cannot wait to read this one.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Art of the Dinner Party

The lovely Anne Zimmerman, author of the new book about M.F.K. Fisher, "An Extravagant Hunger," writes a lovely blog about food called "Poetic Appetite."  She recently wrote about giving a dinner party and it made me think about the generous and creative act of cooking for others, as well as giving a party.

Let me preface this with the fact that last night I finally had my book club discussion of "Everybody Was So Young," the luminous biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy.  Yes, I know I may be slightly obsessed with this book (how many times have I written about it here and here...oh well, thank you my patient readers) but last night when I heard ten other women as obsessed with it as I am, I felt boosted by their support and thought you might forgive me if I bring up the Murphys once again.  Our prevailing observation about the Murphys was that their generosity and support of their friends, who just happened to be some of the most famous, though struggling, artists of the time -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cold Porter, and Picasso -- was often expressed through their legendary dinner parties.  Of course they also gave them significant financial and emotional support.  But their generosity often played out in the social setting of their home which they extended to all of their friends.  They were the king and queen of hospitality, opening their home and table to their social circle.  For the Murphy's their friends and the artistic endeavors of their friends were all important.  Helping, connecting, and bringing people together was the art that these two practiced.  And this was done with no expectation of payback.  Their love of life and people and the arts was their raison d'etre.

Which brings me back to the art of the dinner party.  When a dinner party is successful isn't it about bringing together people and uniting them, at least for one night, into a cohesive whole?  Providing then with food, comfort, conversation, and conviviality?  Anne Zimmerman writes,

"When a dinner party is good, it's good.  And by good I mean clean plates, multiple wine glasses, empty bottles of wine, laughter, music, droopy eyes, missed bedtimes, and forgotten worries.
I'm talking about the kind of evenings where you want to linger, where no one wants to say goodbye..."

I always think that the best literary expression of this notion of giving a party and bringing people together as a creative act is found in "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf.  The book is about one day in the life of Clarissa Dallowy who is giving a party that evening.  As Clarissa leaves her house that morning to buy flowers for her party she thinks,

"Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street.  For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh: but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on the same...they love life.  In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses...brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June."

That passage has always given me the chills.  As well as the last line of the book. When Clarissa finally has the party, and succeeds in bringing together all the disparate players into a united whole, one of the guests -- Peter Walsh --  thinks as he gazes at the hostess,

"What is this terror? what is this ecstacy? what is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?  It is Clarissa, he said.  For there she was."

When a dinner party is successful, the guests are the recipients of the hostesses' kindness, but the hostess is also rewarded by an act of creation.  Her creation is an artistic endeavor, a metaphor for bringing people together.  The table is set, flowers are arranged, candles are glowing, food is prepared, conversation is guided, and guests are cared for. Isn't this all about a love of life and an interest in others?  If we can bring our friends, old and new, together for an evening and let them sparkle in the comfort and warmth of our home and around our dining room table, isn't this a gift? I think Clarissa Dalloway would say yes, and so would Anne Zimmerman.