Lytton Strachey by Duncan Grant, c. 1913

The Dining Room: Lytton Strachey was the cousin of Duncan Grant. Born in 1880, he was the 11th of thirteen children, and five years senior to Grant. Strachey found overnight fame for his magnum opus, Eminent Victorians (1918), a collection of biographies of Victorian heroes, written in a radically new style combining psychological insight with irony and wit.

Lytton Strachey by Duncan Grant, c.1913. Photo © Penelope Fewster

Lytton Strachey by Duncan Grant, c.1913. Photo © Penelope Fewster

Before finding fame Strachey had become firmly entwined in the Bloomsbury group, and it is through the Stracheys that Duncan Grant was first introduced to this group of extraordinary friends. In the company of his Bloomsbury friends Strachey was openly gay, and had a passionate love affair with John Maynard Keynes. However, outside of his circle, Strachey’s sexuality was not widely known about and was not published until the biographies of Michael Holroyd in the late 1960s.

Lytton was the first of Grant’s many male lovers. Lytton wrote of the intensity of his love to Maynard Keynes in 1905 ‘… I’ve managed, since I saw you last, to catch a glimpse of Heaven. Incredible, quite – yet so it’s happened. I want to go into the wilderness of the world, and preach an infinitude of sermons on one text – “Embrace one another.” It seems to me the grand solution. Oh dear, dear, dear, how wild, how violent, and how supreme are the things of this earth! – I am cloudy, I fear almost sentimental. But I’ll write again. Oh yes, it’s Duncan.[1]

This exuberant painting exemplifies the transformation in Grant’s style in the early 1910s in the wake of Post-Impressionism. A vibrant palette and broad, visible brush strokes in colour blocks express Strachey’s renowned idiosyncrasies. Joyous and humorous, the work could be a caricature. Compare the 1913 work with Grant’s painting Lytton Strachey. Verso: Crime and Punishment c. 1909, just four years earlier, and we see how the later work encapsulates an enormous turning point in the development of the artist.

The colourful work betrays a challenging time for the lives of those in the Bloomsbury group. It was painted in September 1913 at Asheham House, home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. As Michael Holroyd describes, ‘in blinding fauviste sunlight, Duncan, Roger [Fry] and Vanessa had simultaneously painted Lytton’s portrait.’[2] However, the reason for this visit was to support the Woolfs in the wake of Virginia’s suicide attempt earlier that month. Strachey had proposed to Virginia Woolf in 1909 and following this failure had suggested to Leonard Woolf that he might propose. While it took some time to come to being, Strachey may be credited with initiating the relationship, and remained lifelong friends with both Leonard and Virginia.

Strachey never married, but participated in a lifelong open relationship with the artist Dora Carrington, who in turn married Ralph Partridge, with whom Strachey was involved sexually. Strachey led a life of poor health and died aged 51 of cancer.

[1]Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey, The New Biography, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995, p. 115.

[2]ibid, p. 293.

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