Duncan Grant 1885-1978


With Agnew's, London
Michael B. Harman, 1940
Private Collection, by descent


1923, London, Independent Gallery, Duncan Grant: Recent Paintings, June 1923, cat. no. 24
1959, London, Tate Gallery, Duncan Grant: A Retrospective Exhibition, 12 May - 20 June 1959, cat. no. 51 (as Man at a Table)
1969, Cambridge, Arts Council Gallery; Newcastle, Laing Art Gallery; and Hull, University of Hull, Portraits by Duncan Grant, 8 - 29 Nov. 1969; 6 Dec. 1969 - 4 Jan. 1970; and 10 Jan. - 1 Feb. 1970, cat. no. 30
Angus Davidson at Charleston was painted in the spare bedroom at Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse near Firle which Grant and Vanessa Bell made their home from 1916. The painting’s informality is characteristic of Grant’s practice, in which the making of fine and decorative arts grew organically from household surroundings. At Charleston, art was not mystifying or elevated but, rather, an integrated part of the daily routine, and Angus Davidson at Charleston seems to capture the relaxed morning routine. The sitter’s feet are casually crossed beneath the table as he writes a letter, for example – a detail which suggests a spontaneous, unstaged quality.

The work was painted in a period of high confidence and artistic freedom for Grant. In keeping with the informal setting and composition, the work was executed in his recently established mature style of flowing, high key brushwork. The table at which Davidson sits provided a particular focus for the artist’s brilliant colourism, with the table top painted in pastel hues of blue and pink and the edge and sides rendered in a dazzling, unmodulated tone of vermilion. Grant used a wet-in-wet technique, working rapidly all over the canvas to construct a thin layer of stylish, loosely handled paint. His fluid mark-making and the evident pace at which paint was applied suggest his technical surety at this time.

The bravura handling of paint is further apparent from Grant’s system for depicting light and shade. Rather than represent the figure with a system of finely graded tonal modelling, he represents light and shade using bold contrasts. Adapting the style of broken brushwork from his post-impressionist period of the early 1910s, the mid-tones – those colours which sit between shadow and highlight – have been eliminated. For example, Davidson’s face has been constructed from singular brushstrokes of contrasting skin tones, where each stroke of umber, tan, ochre and cream is unmixed, standing out in contrast to each neighbouring hue. The effect is one of bold, painterly patterning.

Before Grant met Angus Davidson in 1922, he first became acquainted with Angus’s brother Donald. Spending time together in London in September 1921, Grant was infatuated with him for a brief period before Donald travelled to the United States. Grant quickly became infatuated with Angus too, however, switching his affections from Donald and telling Angus that ‘he thought he loved him in a way more than he had ever loved anyone before’. Though the attraction faded, Grant and Davidson remained close friends, with Angus visiting Charleston on a regular basis each summer.

Davidson was widely thought to be a charming young man. Other artists found him an amenable sitter, including another gay painter, Cedric Morris, who painted a head-and-shoulders portrait of him (1928–29, Government Art Collection), and Grant’s partner Vanessa Bell, who painted Angus Davidson at the Piano, Charleston (c. 1922, Private Collection). In Frances Spalding’s description, Davidson was ‘a tall, handsome, magnificent figure of a man who inwardly wanted to be a tiny little woman’. After failing to get work first at the National Gallery and then at Agnew’s, he occasionally contributed reviews for the Nation & Athenaeum, and he went on to translate many works by the Italian writers Alberto Moravia and Mario Praz. He also authored a biography of Edward Lear – Edward Lear: Landscape Painter and Nonsense Poet – which was published by John Murray in 1938.