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Duncan Grant and Queer Bloomsbury

Canvas issue 14 by Simon Watney

This article is based on part of a talk given at Charleston on 4 August 2005 as part of Brighton Lesbian & Gay Pride Week. Simon Watney was a co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front group in Brighton in 1970, and is the author of The Art of Duncan Grant, John Murray, 1990 and 1999.


Alvin Langdon Coburn, Duncan Grant,
photogravure, c.1912

Duncan Grant, Tony Assirati, oil on canvas, c.1930. Private collection.

Duncan Grant, Ideal Head, charcoal drawing, c.1919. Private collection.

Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, drawing,
c.1925. Private collection.

Duncan Grant, Angus Davidson, drawing,
1923. Private collection.

Duncan Grant, John and Iain, charcoal drawing, 1950s. Private collection.

Writing at Charleston in a small Rowney drawing book in 1960 at the age of 75, Duncan Grant clearly recalled his childhood days in India when he was only six years old: ‘I think in the Himalayas being dressed for a party I suppose in black satin knee breeches, lace ruffs and white wig, and sitting dangling a silver-handled cane a strong feeling overcame me which I can only describe as an aristocratic feeling, suggested I suppose by my get up [ . . . ]. At this time of course, no sense of poverty had entered my life. We had many native servants. I had an English nurse. I was devoted to my mother and liked the company of the army officers, friends of my father. With this sense of security and background, it was easy to loll and to dream of power, and to believe that to observe life was the way to live’. It was an inner self-confidence that he would need to draw on in later life.

Duncan Grant was born six months before the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, better known as the Labouchère amendment, which was rushed through parliament in August 1885 without debate, criminalizing all male homosexual sex in England regardless of any question of consent. Used in 1895 to convict Oscar Wilde, it remained in place for 82 years. It would be difficult to exaggerate its impact, not only on homosexuals, but on British society as a whole, where sexual bigotry was given full license in ways which were to blight the lives of generations of British gay men. Part and parcel of the aggressive sexual hypocrisy of late Victorian England, it sat alongside the rigorously enforced censorship laws and the legalised second-class citizenship of women.

Dubbed ‘the blackmailer’s charter’, it is simply not possible to discuss the life of any British gay man in the twentieth century without some kind of reference to its effects. These ranged from the gross realities of imprisonment and suicide to the less measurable but no less material siege-mentality of stress, shame and duplicity, rooted in the constant fear of exposure that it encouraged, together with the wider social context of sexual ignorance and double standards it sustained. Sanctioning violence and hatred, it represented the most frankly sordid aspect of the long British legacy of Puritanism. Its long-term fall-out may be felt to this day, not least in the sneering attitude of many British critics towards Bloomsbury as a whole, and to Grant in particular. Indeed, queer-bashing Bloomsbury remains a legitimate national pastime, as many of the reviews of the 1999 Art Of Bloomsbury exhibition at Tate Britain plainly reveal.

Unsurprisingly, this punitive sharpening in the 1880s of the prejudice of
centuries further encouraged a long-established urban subculture of secrecy and dissimulation. At the same time the press, and bigots of all persuasions, latched onto any evidence of homosexuality as irrefutable proof of the supposed threat of degeneracy from which the self-righteous legal moralists of Victorian Britain sought to protect the nation. Of course no one could predict how resourceful individuals might respond to such a climate of permanent ‘moral panic’, but it could hardly be ignored. As Neil Bartlett has noted with characteristic insight, the uniquely isolated gay men of the late nineteenth century, lacking any possibility of a shared public voice, ‘wanted to believe that they had existed before. They searched for proofs of their own existence, ransacking their libraries with a scholarly enthusiasm for Classical or Renaissance culture, reciting the names of their ancestors, proving their own existence.’ 1

Whatever else the Aesthetic Movement was about, this was always one powerful aspect of its subtle, life-affirming cultural values. Aestheticism was the nearest thing most late-Victorian and Edwardian homosexuals had to a recognisable social identity. Its style was assumed by almost everyone opposed to the harsh and hypocritical moral climate of the times, and it was surely one of the most important factors shared by the members of Bloomsbury long before they came together as a group of friends, regardless of sexuality. In one way or another they all came to Picasso and Proust via Plato and Walter Pater.

The youngest and also the longest-lived of ‘Old Bloomsbury’, Duncan Grant grew up in the long shadow of the trials of Oscar Wilde and survived to witness the emergence of the modern gay movement in the early 1970s. A series of photographs of him taken around 1912 by another slightly older childhood prodigy, the American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, do not require much by way of explanation. They show a startlingly handsome young man whose beauty appealed to women and men alike. What they do not show is a dandy, and his appearance is decidedly un-fin-de-siècle. A host of anecdotes concerning his lifelong lack of concern about his clothes and personal appearance reveal something of his personal reaction to the homosexual style of Wildean aestheticism. This tells us something important about him, and about Bloomsbury in general, which was distinctly not dandyish[NB], by contrast to the slightly later Sitwell circle, and all those others who reprised the sensibility and postures of the 1890s in the grim wake of the First World War, as so tellingly and self-revealingly described by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited.

Very early on Grant had considered the artist Maxwell Armfield too mannered – ‘a being that really belonged in the Ricketts and Shannon age’, (Memoir of Paris) – thus defining himself as a new and different type of homosexual. According to Virginia Woolf he disliked homosexual society ‘when it’s self-conscious, as at Raymond’s’, referring to the critic Raymond Mortimer and his friends. He much preferred E.M. Forster’s policeman boyfriend Harry Daley to Forster himself. With no inherited model for how homosexuality might be openly lived, his early sexual adventures in London, Paris and Florence suggest much about his personal confidence, quite distinct from the tortured queer martyrology one associates with later British artists such as Christopher Wood or John Minton, or Colquoun and McBryde. In retrospect one of the most striking aspects of the early twentieth- century international modernist avant-garde was its seemingly relentless heterosexuality. Indeed, one can only compare Grant’s position to that of the contemporary American artists Charles Demuth (1883–1935) and Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), the latter a much darker character whose European connections between 1912 and 1915 were primarily with Berlin.

None of this explains Grant’s prodigious creative gifts or his great personal charm, but it goes some way to help us understand how he responded to the limited personal choices available in his private life. It also helps explain how easily he fitted into rationalist Bloomsbury, and throws light on his disconcerting modernity. As he wrote in a letter to his then lover Maynard Keynes Letter from Stromness in the Orkneys in 1908: ‘You cannot imagine how much I want to scream sometimes here for want of being able to say something that I mean. It’s not only that one’s a sodomite [but?] that one has to hide one’s whole philosophy of life; one’s feelings even for inanimate things I feel would shock some people. Here I am surrounded by them, not a soul to speak to . . . it’s so damnable to think that they can only think me a harmless sort of lunatic or a dangerous criminal whom they wouldn’t associate with at any price.’ 2

Whilst he and his cousin Lytton Strachey and both the Keynes brothers all ended up living with heterosexual women, they did so in very different ways, and on very different terms, and I should like to end with a few words concerning his relationship with Vanessa Bell, which changing social mores continue to make seem only the more remarkable, lasting as it did for more than half a century. They stayed together out of deep mutual love and loyalty, and it is simply wrong to dismiss their relationship out of hand as if it somehow lacked its own validity and authority. When all is said and done, they were much the most important people in one another’s lives. She was often jealous, and he doubtless felt guilty, but this hardly exhausts the depth of their feelings for one another. In any case, do we know of any lifelong relationship in which jealousy and guilt do not at some time sooner or later raise their heads? There are certainly ugly double standards at work in the repeated negative assessments of their relationship, including a peculiarly unattractive vein of feminist prejudice, which is not entirely unlike similarly belittling and dismissive judgments of the marriage between Leonard and Virginia Woolf, as if he had somehow been her gaoler. Such judgements are both unfair and untrue.

Even such a normally sensitive critic as Hermione Lee seems to me to succumb on this particular point, greatly exaggerating Grant’s supposed ‘promiscuity’, with a striking unwillingness or inability to consider the relationship from his point of view as well as from Vanessa’s.3 They doubtless both made sacrifices for the sake of the relationship, but only hers seem to be widely recognised or accepted. Besides, Vanessa could not have tolerated so resolutely masculine a presence as Leonard Woolf at the centre of her life, and Duncan was nonetheless her equivalent of a rock. It does not require much by way of human sympathy to appreciate that the familiar Delphic image of Vanessa – placid, implacable, silent – amounts to an identity always close to symptomatic depression. Perhaps she always unconsciously opposed her father’s values? One certainly senses that ordinary analytic self-reflection was beyond her, but again this is hardly unusual, let alone culpable.

Singularly free of sexual shame, stunningly sexy, modest and charming, it is hardly surprising that Grant had many relationships with men, which in retrospect appear strikingly like the model of serial monogamy sought by most young people today, regardless of gender or sexuality. Throughout his long life he was periodically attracted by and was vulnerable to heterosexual and bisexual Narcissists including David Garnett, George Bergen, and others, and he suffered considerable anguish as a result, but again in this he was hardly unusual or in any sense blameworthy. He had numerous affairs involving varying degrees of sexual and emotional passion with men such as Angus Davidson, Eddie Sackville-West and the glamorous, dangerous Peter Morris in the 1920s. He also had sex over many years with younger black models including Jack Moore, Charles Boyle and Pat Nelson, whom he met in about 1940 and helped for many years after a nervous breakdown following his experience as a prisoner-of-war, until his death in 1963.

He remained lifelong friends with his gay prep school contemporary Leigh Farnell and others such as the artist Eardly Knollys. For many years after the war he regularly visited a young working-class gay couple in south London, and his drawings of John and Iain (I do not know their surnames) are among the most eloquently erotic expressions of his own gentle, romantic sexuality. Equally telling was his long friendship with ‘H’, who worked in the drapery department at the now defunct Jones Brothers’ department store on the Holloway Road. ‘H’ had been the boyfriend of sculptor Stephen Tomlin (who eventually married Barbara Bagenall), and when he and Tomlin had visited Lytton Strachey at Ham Spray in the 1930s ‘H’ had been obliged to sleep downstairs with the servants. Retired and unwell, Duncan helped him financially right up to his death in the late 1960s, after which the sister with whom he had lived unceremoniously burned all his papers, including numerous drawings by Tomlin, Duncan and other artists. Such is the world we are now hopefully fast leaving behind us, and the story of ‘H’ – as much in its way as that of Duncan Grant – reminds us, again in the words of Neil Bartlett, that: ‘a gay culture is something to be struggled for, not dreamt or bought. At this point, our rewriting of history becomes a truly dangerous activity.’ 4

1 Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde, 1988, pp.226-7
2 Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant: A Biography, London, 1997, p.70
3 Virginia Woolf, London, 1996, chapter 30
4 Bartlett, op. cit., p.229

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