Duncan Grant 1885-1978

Provenance

Private Collection, UK, 1970
(Aquired directly from the artist)

Exhibitions

1971, Cambridge, Clare College, Modern British Pictures from Local Collections
1975, London, Gallery Edward Harvane, A Homage to Duncan Grant, (13)
1984-85, Dallas, Texas and London, Meadows Museum, The Charleston Artists, (39), London only
2018, London, Piano Nobile, From Omega to Charleston: The Work of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, 1910-1934, ex. cat.

Literature

Richard Shone, Bloomsbury Portraits (London: Phaidon, 1993), pl. 97
Born in Scotland, Duncan Grant spent much of his youth in India. He took up painting at the Westminster School of Art in 1893 before travelling regularly through Europe, studying in Paris with Jacques-Émile Blanche. During the following years he would become friends with Matisse and Picasso making regular visits to their studios. 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, a project spearheaded by his friend, the art critic and connoisseur, 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, who was the mother of his child and with whom he lived and worked for nearly half a century, both in London and in Charleston, their country home in Sussex.

This exuberant still life was painted in the early weeks of the First World War (declared on 4th August 1914) at Asheham House, Sussex. Asheham was rented for several years by Virginia Woolf. During her absence in 1914, owing to a prolonged mental breakdown, Vanessa Bell made good use of her sister’s secluded Regency house in the Sussex Downs. Bell’s relationship with Duncan Grant was developing quickly during this period and they began to paint alongside one another, sharing still lives as well as sitters for portraits (fig.1). It was an exceptionally important period for both artists when many of their principal masterworks were produced.

Many visitors to Asheham sat for their portraits. This ritual induction resulted in now iconic paintings of Lytton Strachey who sat to Grant, Bell and Roger Fry on the terrace in front of the house, bordered by a high flint wall. This same wall forms the restless background the present work. The bamboo table and its objects, including a very British teapot (in spite of Grant’s title, written on the back of the work) cider bottle, oil lamp, fruit, tray, cups and a white napkin appear to be barely held in place, shifting and jostling for position within the picture. Following his recent exposure to Cézanne’s still lifes and manipulation of spatial depth, Grant’s table is shown at an impossible angle tilted up towards the viewer. Meticulously constructed from short dabs of paint and gem-like juxtapositions of colour, he evidently became engrossed in the arrangement and painted at least two further versions, one of which includes one of the artist’s earliest uses of collage. This deeply involved thinking around the subject in differing media results in a virtuosic handling of form which rejects rigid representationalism. As a riotous celebration of peace, the dignity of the daily substance and texture of life emanates from the painting, while war, and the political aggression from which Grant was profoundly estranged, become a distant and tragic waste.

Bell’s directly political collage 'Still Life (Triple Alliance)' of the same year features a similar bottle and lamp (fig.2) and it is likely they shared their still life apparatus. A further pair of works, 'The Mantelpiece' and 'Still Life on Corner of the Mantelpiece' by Grant and Bell respectively (figs. 3 & 4), also, like 'The Coffee Table', feature a delicately rendered pale vacancy in the centre of the composition. In concert, this group of still lifes document Bell and Grant’s early development of the post-impressionist style for which they have become famous. The present work is one of few from this important era remaining in private hands. Unlike so many of their contemporaries who still held fast to nineteenth century attitudes to form, colour, and representational structure, Bell and Grant explored their subjects with confidence and near-total disregard for the conventions of traditional painting, leading British culture into the modern age.