January 21, 1885 – Duncan Grant
The Bloomsbury Group was an English bunch that spent a lot of time drinking, taking drugs and speaking to each other about aesthetics, criticism, feminism, pacifism, sexuality, and apparently, economics. I have done plenty of posts about their little club. A member of that noted literary and artist circle was the fabulous painter Duncan Grant.
In 1905 this group of writers, artists and intellectuals began to meet at the London home of the artist Vanessa Bell and her writer sister Virginia Woolf. The group’s meetings continued for the next 30 years.
The artists and intellectuals who were part of the group lived and worked in Bloomsbury in central London. This is a district of garden squares surrounded by elegant town houses.
The writers part of the group met on Thursdays for drinks and conversation at the Bell home at 46 Gordon Square. It was started by Bell’s brother Thoby Stephen. Members of the group included writer Lytton Strachey, art critic Clive Bell, publisher Leonard Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes, publisher David Garnett, and Grant.
The Bloomsbury Group are known for their unconventional personalities and lifestyles more than for their art. They came from wealthy backgrounds, which had given them social advantages and self-confidence. They were all linked by a spirit of rebellion against what they saw as the unnecessary conventions, restraints and double standards of the generation before. They wanted freedom to develop their own ideas and lifestyles. They were politically liberal. They also had liberal ideas about sex, which meant there were often complicated relationships and affairs between the various members of the Bloomsbury circle.
Grant had a hot romance with Keynes, but for much of their time together Grant was involved with Lytton Strachey. When Strachey found out about Grant and Keynes, it brought this bitchy reaction:
“Oh heaven! Heaven! The thought recoils, and I find myself shrieking and raving. Keynes was reeking of that semen.”
Keynes also managed to squeeze in some special time with Strachey. You really need a graph to keep track of the romances in that circle. Dorothy Parker quipped that the Bloomsbury Group had:
“….lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles“.
Grant accomplished much more than the male nudes for which he is now best remembered. He also had a career in interior design and costume and stage set design for the theatre. When he was 28 years old, along with fellow Bloomsbury figure Fry, Grant founded the Omega Workshops, which changed the course of applied art and design in Britain. Grant made major contributions to pottery and textile design.
One of his greatest commissions, however, was never came to fruition. Hired to decorate the interiors of the great ocean liner, Queen Mary, he submitted his designs and was paid for his work. No explanation as to why his designs were not used was ever given, but it was understood that his work was too modern for tastes of the era.
Grant grew up an only child in Scotland, Burma and India, where his father served in the British military. His English nanny encouraged his painting and took delight in his childhood designs for wedding dresses. Young Duncan was influenced by the spectacle of the weekly regimental ceremonies and parades that took place in the numerous cities in India where his family was stationed at the close of the 19th century. They enjoyed a life of privilege, strictly maintaining their British customs while living on the Subcontinent.
At nine, Grant returned to Britain to attend boarding school. He won awards for art, but he was otherwise a poor student. Disappointing his parents, he chose to attend the Westminster School of Art (London). After that, he never stopped pursuing a career as an artist. Grant studied in Paris in 1906, and later at the Slade School of Art. He moved to London in 1909 and became a regular member of the Bloomsbury Group.
A handsome, charming person, Grant’s many lovers included Adrian Stephen, Keynes, Garnett, and his cousin Strachey. He was queer throughout his life, yet somehow he became the father of Vanessa Bell’s daughter Angelica Bell (and Virginia Woolf’s niece) and lived for many years at Charleston Farm with the Bell family.
Later an accomplished artist, Angelica grew up believing that Clive Bell was her father; she used his surname and his behavior toward her never indicated otherwise. Angelica had affairs with two of Grant’s lovers, Russian painter George Bergen and Garnett, whom she married, unaware that her husband had been her father’s lover. Garnett and Angelica Bell had four daughters, including Amaryllis Garnett. Grant’s love and respect for Bell, however, kept him with her until her death in 1961. They all continued to live together for more than 40 years. It makes one dizzy trying to keep track of it all.
In 1967, Amaryllis Garnett joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and had an affair with playwright Harold Pinter, who made sure she was in his film The Go-Between (1971). Her life was difficult; she lived the high life while having no income at all. She decided to move to Morocco with a boyfriend, causing Grant to complain: “Surely she ought to get a job and get on with her profession!” In 1973, at 29 years old, suffering from deep depression, she drowned in the Thames. Probably a suicide, but it might have been an accident. She left behind a diary, which remains unpublished.
In 1994, Angelica Garnett donated more than 8000 sketches and drawings by Grant to The Charleston Trust. Some of Grant’s major works hang in London’s Tate Gallery and National Portrait Gallery.
David Garnett ended up living alone in France, still writing and fucking away. He died in 1981.
In Grant’s later years, his lover was poet Paul Roche (1916–2007), whom he had known since the mid-1940s. He took care of him and Grant maintained his accustomed way of life at Charleston. When Grant had been commissioned to decorate the Russell Chantry in Lincoln Cathedral in the late 1950s, Grant used Roche, youthful, blond and handsome, as the model for the face and body of Christ. The murals have recently been restored and the chantry reopened. Grant and Roche’s romance was strong and lasted even during Roche’s marriage and the five children he had by the late 1950s. Roche was made co-heir of Grant’s estate, and Grant took his last breath at Roche’s home in 1978.