Extraordinary gift of Duncan Grant’s private drawings given to Charleston

A week before Charleston launches a crowdfunding campaign to raise the final funds needed to reopen, an extraordinary gift of hitherto unknown drawings has been given to the charity as the current owner appeals to the public to ensure that Charleston can reopen its doors. 

Untitled drawing, c.1946-1959, Duncan Grant (1885-1978), The Charleston Trust © The Estate of Duncan Grant, licensed by DACS 2020.⁣⁣

On 2 May 1959, artist Duncan Grant gave to his friend Edward le Bas a folder marked ‘These drawings are very private.’ Inside was a collection of over four hundred erotic illustrations that express Grant’s lifelong fascination with the joy and beauty of queer sexual encounters. It was thought that Le Bas’ sister had destroyed them after he had died. They were in fact rescued and have remained in private hands ever since, a secret collection passed from lover to lover, friend to friend, for 60 years.

Prior to Coronavirus, the current owner of the works, theatre designer Norman Coates had been in discussion with Charleston about potentially returning these works to Grant’s home and studio. As the owner realised that Charleston, a place of sanctuary and acceptance to Grant, was at critical risk of insolvency, it cemented in his mind the importance of Charleston surviving, and these drawings being shared with its visitors: “I don’t want to go back in the closet again, nor do I want these drawings to go back in the closet.”

The folder marked ‘These drawings are very private’ have remained in private hands ever since, a secret collection passed from lover to lover, friend to friend, for 60 years.

Charleston is launching a crowdfunding campaign on 15 October 2020, on the eve of the 104th anniversary that Duncan Grant, his boyfriend David “Bunny” Garnett, and friend Vanessa Bell moved to Charleston. With generous donors pledging to match all donations given through the Art Fund Art Happens campaign, the charity hopes once more to be able to reopen its doors to visitors, and for them to see the house and its collection, now including this extraordinary gift of Grant’s private drawings.

Untitled drawing, c.1946-1959, Duncan Grant (1885-1978), The Charleston Trust © The Estate of Duncan Grant, licensed by DACS 2020.⁣⁣

Duncan Grant, a member of the Bloomsbury group was a prolific artist, one of the most celebrated and successful in the mid-twentieth century. Influenced by French Post-Impressionism he experimented in fine art and design. This body of work comes from the 1940s and 50s, and expresses the playful and erotic aspects of Grant’s personality. Influenced by the Greco-Roman traditions and contemporary physique magazines, the works were produced in tandem with Grant’s public art, often sharing similar formal themes and techniques.

As a gay man, Grant spent the first 82 years of his life living as a criminal. He was born in 1885, seven months before the introduction of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, better known as the Labouchère Amendment, which was rushed through parliament in August 1885 without debate. It criminalised all male homosexual sex in England regardless of any question of consent. Ten years later it would be used to convict Oscar Wilde. This state of affairs remained until 1967 when the Sexual Offences Act was passed. In his 90s Grant attended a Gay Liberation Front meeting with his young, gay friends.

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