Duncan Grant 1885-1978


Private Collection, UK
(Gift from the artist to the present owner, 1964)


1972, London, Agnews, Twentieth Century British Art, no.12
1992, Sussex, Charleston, seasonal loan
1999, London, Tate, The Art of Bloomsbury, no.38
2018, London, Piano Nobile, From Omega to Charleston: The Art of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, 1910-1934, no.11


Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson, Charleston: a Bloomsbury House and Garden, (London: Frances Lincoln, 1997), p.102-3, ill. detail
Born in Scotland, Duncan Grant spent much of his youth in India. Upon returning to Britain in 1893, he took up painting at the Westminster School of Art. He travelled regularly through Europe throughout his life after studying in Paris with Jacques-Émile Blanche. Through the years that followed he would meet Matisse and visit Picasso's studio. In London, Grant became a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, working in textiles, interior decoration, ceramics, murals, illustration and theatre design. Taking inspiration from the Old Masters as well as contemporary art, his growing success paralleled the general acceptance of modern art in Britain between the wars spearheaded by his friend Roger Fry. Grant eventually represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1926 and 1932, and his paintings have since been collected by museums across the world. He inspired great affection in those whom he met, as a compassionate, charming, gentle and humorous man. Although he was actively homosexual, his longest union was with Vanessa Bell, with whom he lived and worked for nearly half a century, both in London and in Charleston, their country home in Sussex.

This portrait is a fine example of Grant’s early experiments in a fauvist style. The sitter is David Garnett (1892-1981) – the well-known writer and publisher, son of the eminent critic, Edward Garnett, and his wife Constance, the pioneering translator of great nineteenth-century Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky, Chekov and Tolstoy. When this portrait was painted both Grant and Garnett were in the early stages of their respective careers. The work was completed during an extended 1915 stay at Eleanor House in Sussex, in the boathouse-studio in which Grant and Garnett spent several weeks, joined by Vanessa Bell in the day. Grant was, at the time, falling increasingly in love with both Bell and Garnett but was frustrated in relation to the latter due to Garnett’s prevailing heterosexuality. This may be encoded into the present work as Grant has chosen to represent a depiction of a female nude as the background to Garnett’s image. Garnett himself envied the physical relationship Grant then maintained with Vanessa Bell, yet he eventually reciprocated Grants affection while they were bound together through their shared conscientious objection to compulsory military service. Over this period, they developed one of most important relationships in both their lives, with an affair lasting about four years and a friendship until Grant’s death. This friendship was strained when, in 1942, as his second wife, Garnett married Angelica, Grant’s and Bell’s daughter born in 1918. With full biographical background it is clear this painting is an embodiment of the amorous knots for which the Bloomsbury group are now famous.

In style the present work is coruscating early display of Grant’s prodigious talent as a colourist. His palette reaches across the visible spectrum of light from fiery post-box reds and shimmering gold hues around the sitter’s head to cool blue which shifts to mauve then to earthy green in his jacket and seat. Both Bell and Grant’s work around this time is remarkable in not only its use of bright colour but also in their tendency to use this colour uncontained by rigid drawing. Here, lightly primed canvas is left bare between energetic dabs of colour. This tendency to use vacancy as a structuring tool acknowledges Grant’s awareness of Cézanne, but his bold palette is also indebted to the work of Derain and Matisse which Grant would have seen in the two Post-Impressionist shows organised by his friend Roger Fry in 1910 and 1912. Grant was amongst very few English painters around this period who were willing and able to rapidly assimilate the developments of such modern French painters. As an important example of European modernism breaking on British shores – and subsequently undergoing a process adaptation, exploration, elaboration and specialisation – this portrait of David Garnett makes a major contribution to Grant’s status as one of the cardinal exponents of modern art in Britain in the twentieth century.

N.B. Bloomsbury scholar Richard Shone has explained that Grant’s mistaken dating of the work to 1914 is a later inscription.