VISITORS to Charleston for “Duncan Grant 1920” will be following in a long line of distinguished callers to the Bloomsbury artist’s Sussex home, including the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, who commissioned the artists to create frescoes for Berwick Church near by.
A foreshadowing of the frescoes undertaken in 1941 is exhibited in Flower Piece, painted at the end of the First World War, with its bold floral motif, and use of marbling around the edge, and modelling of the central vase and blooms, to give the illusion of an alcove.
Grant had spent the First World War farm-labouring as a conscientious objector. “Duncan Grant 1920” is a recreation of his first solo show, when the public got to see a wide variety of his work under one roof. As only the original price list from the Bond Street show remained, the curator, Darren Clarke, had to track down works now scattered throughout the UK, Europe, and the United States, matching them with what was on display in 1920. Price was a useful way of identifying size, 30 gns. indicating an oil painting and 10 gns. signalling a watercolour.
© CHARLESTONDuncan Grant outside the garden room, 1933-35
Seeing Grant’s work in the context of Charleston, where he moved with his lovers Vanessa Bell and David Garnett in 1916, adds to the enjoyment and appreciation. Interior shows the farmhouse’s dining room, depicting Bell painting a still-life and Garnett translating Dostoevsky. There are two sources of light from two windows, and the carpet’s swirly dark-pink pattern resembles Matisse. The rendering of surfaces, especially in the bowls, the shell, and the jar, show the influence of 18th-century still life.
Reviewed as an English artist “whom Europe may have to take seriously”, Grant shows the influence of Post-Impressionism and modernists. The tumbledown buildings in The Farmyard are a Pointillist mass of dots of colour, building up to a solid whole.
The Portrait of Dr Marie Moralt, the doctor who cared for the artist’s newborn daughter Angelica, echoes German Expressionism, as the figure fills the frame and leans toward the viewer. The doctor’s hands are clasped in a distorted shape, and her face and torso are amplified by a deep, dark fur collar and sombre hat.
One of Grant’s most recognisable works, Venus and Adonis, has the goddess of love as a powerful and physical being, who dominates the canvas with her oversized and almost tubular pink body, its limbs outlined and delineated by green shadows. While the colouring again pays tribute to Matisse, the solidity of her body echoes Picasso’s classical phase.
© estate of duncan grant. Photo TateDuncan Grant, Venus and Adonis, c.1919, on loan from the Tate Collection
Grant’s 32 paintings represent a new type of war painting, in which soldiers are replaced with flowers, and battlefields become farm buildings and fields of crops, and creativity triumphs over destruction. And for all of Charleston’s complicated personal relationships, the household’s devotion to creativity and activity, and disregard for stifling rules, continues to feel life-affirming a century later.
“Duncan Grant 1920” runs at Charleston, Firle, Lewes, East Sussex, until 13 March 2022. Phone 01323 811626. www.charleston.org.uk