Duncan Grant 1885-1978

Provenance

Leonard and Virginia Woolf
By decent, Private Collection, UK 

Exhibitions

2018, London, Piano Nobile, From Omega to Charleston: The Art of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, 1910-1934, ex cat.

Literature

Judith Collins, The Omega Workshops 1913-1919: Decorative Arts of Bloomsbury, exh. Crafts Council, (London: 1983) p. 21 ill.
Monk's House: East Sussex, (London: The National Trust, 1987) p.8 ill. 
Virginia Woolf and Monks House, (London: The National Trust, 1998) p.9 ill.
Christopher Reed, Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture and Domesticity, (London: Yale University Press, 2004) p.228 ill.
[all references refer to the completed embroidered fire screen at Monk's House]

While settled at Charleston between the wars Duncan Grant naturally maintained a close friendship with Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. The Woolf’s country home, Monk’s House, was situated just a few miles west of Charleston and regular visits took place; tea would be held, late night discussions of art and aesthetics would bubble over, garden parties in the Sussex sun would flow through either of the houses’ lush gardens. The inhabitants of Charleston and Monks House were further bound together by their shared interior decoration. Woolf had commissioned an entire scheme from her sister and Grant which included monogrammed ‘VW’ chairs in the Omega Workshops style, a tiled table and hearth, upholstery and curtain fabrics, colourful lamps, and a painted gramophone cabinet. A remarkable fire screen was also commissioned, to be completed in cross-stitched needlepoint.

The present work is the painted panel from which this fire screen design was taken. It shows a still life, floral drapery, and a distant seascape and corresponds to the completed fabric fire screen which still sits in Monk’s House today. Grant and Bell would regularly take great care over such design work, treating them as works in their own right with fully developing the composition and detail beyond what was strictly necessary when transferring to a tapestry-like object. To realise these designs in coloured wools, Grant relied heavily on his mother, Ethel, who, although not his sole collaborator in this regard, was the most prolific and professional, able to complete complex, detailed design on a substantial scale. Ethel kept a ledger, now in the Tate Archive, detailing some of her work in which she notes ‘Screen with Vase & Seascape (Mrs Woolf […] D Grant’.

Grant’s choice of design, with its bright colours and carefree execution, is typical of his work in the late twenties. A palette of light, airy tones evokes the freshness of the sea breeze gently agitating the drapes which frame the view. The flat mimetic board of the picture seems to open up into an imagined space and the table on which the still life is arranged presses forward out of its fictive space, as if to convince the viewer it exists as a real, tangible object. Such a preoccupation with recessional perspective was common to both Bell and Grant’s work after the First World War. It signals their renewed interest in classicism and renaissance fresco or panel painting following trips to the continent once hostilities had ended. The books arranged on the table may well represent Woolf’s first and most recent novels. The Voyage Out (1915) (under its Vanessa Bell-designed dust cover) was bound in green fabric and Mrs Dalloway (1925) in orange. Grant’s choice of a small sailing boat moving off into the distance as a principal motif may also be a reference to Woolf’s soon to be or recently published masterpiece, To The Lighthouse (1927) in which a journey across a bay to the eponymous landmark forms a prominent feature of the plot.

Bloomsbury is known for the concatenated creativity of its members. Lovers were shared like paintbrushes, theories were broken and consumed like communal bread, domestic spaces flush with visitors overlapped with characters and places conjured through one’s imagination. Despite this, it is rare that an object embodies the intimately connected creative lives of the groups central figures as completely as this design for Woolf’s fire screen. It documents both the literary and the visual culture of Bloomsbury during arguably the most important decade in British modernism. The circumstances of its creation are truly unique. The quality of its execution is exemplary. The joyful attitude to life and art it represented when it was first made remains undiluted today.

Biography

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.