Vanessa Bell British , 1879-1961


John Lehmann by c.1932
Private Collection
Roy Miles Gallery, London
Private Collection, UK, c.1987


Richard Shone, From Omega to Charleston: The Art of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, 1910-1934, exh. cat. Piano Nobile (London: 2018), no.24
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. In the years that follow 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.

From 1931 the potter Phyllis Keyes, with a workshop in Warren Street and later in Clipstone Street, supplied Bell and Grant with many pots, jugs and vases, either thrown by her or cast from pieces they supplied. These ceramics often featured in decorative schemes completed by the two artists. Painted furniture and panels, specially designed textiles for upholstery and curtains all featured in these interiors, typically inaugurated with a celebratory social event. The Venus designs for Lady Dorothy Wellesley at Penns-in-the-Rocks and the Music Room at Lefevre Gallery from this period are prime examples. For one-off commissions, lamp bases like this one were a popular line, always including a hole near the bottom edge, through which the electric wire was threaded; a cork fitting held the bulb at the top.

This is one of Bell's earliest collaborations with Phyllis Keyes, showing a seated female nude from the front and the back in one of Bell's most calligraphically free decorations. The figure's powerful pose and strong bulky limbs invite comparison with earlier work by Bell including Woman in a Red Hat (1915), but here appears rapidly and spontaneously handled similar to many of the artists designs at her own home in Charleston. It reveals how little Bell discriminated between work produced for private clients and that which she designed for herself and her family. They fused functionality with a carefree, liberated approach descorative design. As her sister Virigina Woolf wrote in earlier years “Nessa seems to have slipped civilization off her back, and splashes about entirely nude, without shame, and enormous spirit.” This attitude is carried through the present work, with an unabashed handing of subject and form at a time when Bell's work continued to startle conservative audiences.