Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Duncan Grant

Paul Roche Reclining, 1945, Duncan Grant, one of the few non-nude images of Grant's favorite model and caregiver during the artist's final years.
Sell-portrait with Turban,
ca. 1909, Duncan Grant 
In writing biographical pieces, I don't normally dwell on an artist's sexual orientation. Sometimes, I don't even mention it. Very often, if it's a factor at all in that artists work, it's usually a relatively minor one. Depending upon the era in which the artist lived, his or her lifestyle may well have been quite secretive, or at least a poorly kept secret. Writers and art historians are still debating the possible homosexuality of artists such as Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and several others. The impact of an artist's gender preference down through the history of art has ranged from quite minimal in the case of Leonardo Da Vinci, to quite noticeable in the work of Michelangelo. The English Post-impressionist painter, Duncan Grant, falls into this latter category. Without reading a word of his biography or even having ever heard of the man before, one doesn't have to see much of his work for an assumption to be made--Duncan Grant was gay.

Bathing, 1911, Duncan Grant
(one of his few nude groupings not involving male genitalia).
Garden Path in Spring, 1945, Duncan Grant.
How does one identify a gay (male) artist by his work? The most obvious clue is in the content. If the male figure comprises more than a third of the artist's lifetime output, especially if most of those figures are nude, the artist almost surely has a male gender preference. Homoeroticism or outright pornographic male images among the artist's work tend to clench the determination. Both are present in Grant's extensive art archives. Of course, male gender preferences fall over a spectrum from what we might call a "tendency" on one end of the scale to "flamboyancy," on the opposite end. Naturally, the same is true of artists and their work. I suppose that's probably true of heterosexual artists as well, although one seldom hears of a "flamboyant" heterosexual.

Tower Bridge, 1933, Duncan Grant--
a raw essence on the outer bounds of Impressionism.
Henrietta Playing the Cello, 1958,
Duncan Grant
Duncan Grant's subject matter was not predominantly male figures (nude or otherwise). He sometimes painted Impressionist landscapes and what can only be termed Post-impressionist portraits. His Tower Bridge (above), painted in 1933, as well as his Garden Path in Spring (above, left) from 1945 are indicative of his landscape talents. His work also contains a smattering of still-life paintings. Grant's portraits would seem to be his strongest suit, his subjects usually comprised of individuals from a body of friends making up what's come to be know as the Bloomsbury Group. This group of a dozen or so liberal free-thinkers, poets, writers, artists, and the like (named for the Bloomsbury section of London where they met) was never an organization, never had a leader, never produced any manifestos or rattled the London art world in any real sense. They were merely friends (and indeed, lovers) who enjoyed one another's company and supported one another (sometimes literally). They were important not for what they did together but for who they were, names such as Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Leonard Woolf, Leonora Carrington, Bertram Russell, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett, Roger Fry, Desmond MacCarthy and Arthur Waley.

John Maynard Keynes, 1908, Duncan Grant.
Virginia Woolf once described Duncan Grant as being "a queer, faun-like figure, hitching his clothes up, blinking his eyes, stumbling oddly over the long words in his sentences." He became a regular visitor to her Bloomsbury home. "How he lived I do not know. He was penniless." Although his paintings were selling during much of the era before WW I, Duncan Grant lived on his personality. It's said that everyone who knew him loved him. In a good many cases that love was far from platonic. Grant's list of lovers reads almost the same as his lengthy list of friends. The economist, John Maynard Keynes (left, before he was famous or controversial) considered him the one love of his life.

Vanessa Bell, 1942
Duncan Grant
On Christmas Day, 1918, Vanessa Bell became (perhaps almost by accident) the mother of Grant's daughter, Angelica, though the child didn't find out Grant was her father until she was an adult, when she married writer, David Garnett, who had once been one of her father's lovers. She had grown up believing her mother's husband, Clive Bell, to be her father. Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell (right) lived together for some forty years, often entertaining over extended weekends Vanessa's husband (Clive) and his mistress. The British can be so broadminded sometimes.

Angelica Playing the Violin, 1934,
Duncan Grant (her father)
Duncan Grant's big break as an artist came in 1935 when the Cunard Steamship Line chose him and some thirty other prominent British artists to provide the art and d├ęcor for their new transatlantic liner the RMS Queen Mary. He worked over a year in designing fabrics, carpets, curtains, and panels to decorate the First Class Main Lounge. Unfortunately, he blew it. Once all his work was designed and installed, the directors of the company, on a walk-through inspection, saw it and hated it. They ordered it ripped out and replaced. Grant was paid in full, nonetheless, but never did find out why he'd failed so completely.

Angelica Garnett, 1940, Duncan Grant
In the years that followed, having sat out two wars as a conscientious objector and partner in a fruit farm, Duncan Grant met the handsome model, Paul Roche (top) whom he drew and painted (usually nude) many times over the course of the next thirty years. Strangely, given Grant's retinue of past lovers, he and Roche were probably not involved sexually. Grant was born in 1885, Roche in 1916, making for some thirty years difference in their ages, though they could certainly be considered lovers in any other sense. Duncan Grant died of bronchial pneumonia at the home of Paul Roche in 1978. He was 93.

Duncan Grant and Paul Roche, early 1970s



  1. I detest the homophobia in your writing.

  2. I just reread what I wrote specifically looking for anything homophobic. I thought my coverage was fair and even-handed. If I were homophobic (which I'm not) I would not have chosen to write about Duncan Grant in the first place. I presented the facts of his life and the manner in which those facts were reflected in his work. I made no value judgements. Of course the written word is always open to interpretation by the reader (the Bible is an excellent example). If you interpret what I've written as detestable, that's your right and privilege. But rest assured that any homophobic element was totally unintentional on my part.