When Duncan Grant moved to Charleston at the height of the First World War, in 1916, he was already regarded as one of Britain's leading contemporary artists.
When Duncan Grant moved to Charleston at the height of the First World War, in 1916, he was already regarded as one of Britain’s leading contemporary artists. He had trained as a painter in Paris, France, studying for a time under the artist Simon Bussy. He was inspired by his contemporaries working in Europe, and the colourful, abstract works by artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. He had been introduced to their work by fellow artist and art critic, Roger Fry who had organised an exhibition of their work in London and had coined the term ‘Post-Impressionism’.
Grant and Fry co-founded their design enterprise, the Omega Workshops, with fellow artist Vanessa Bell in 1913. Grant was a prolific artist who experimented with textiles, ceramics, murals, illustration and theatre design. With the Omega Workshops, they wanted to bring the Post-Impressionist style into the home – to make art a part of everyday life.
‘[he] may be the long looked for British genius.’
– Vanessa Bell on Duncan Grant. A letter, 1912
The writer Lytton Strachey was Grant’s cousin and they were also lovers for a time. He had studied at Cambridge with other members of the Bloomsbury group such as Clive Bell and Thoby Stephen – the brother of Vanessa Bell. It was through him that Grant was introduced to the group. As a fellow artist, Vanessa Bell admired Grant’s painting skills and, in a letter from 1912, she described him as ‘the long looked for British genius.’ Although Bell was married, the pair became lovers shortly before moving to Charleston together with Bell’s two young sons and Grant’s lover, the writer David Garnett. It was a different interpretation of domesticity, but one that was accommodated at Charleston.
Grant was born the same year as The labouchere Amendment was passed by parliament, criminalising all sex between men regardless of consent. The law wasn’t revisited again until 1967, by which time Grant was in his 80s. For the greater part of his lifetime, a fundamental part of his identity remained illegal and exposed him to prosecution. Nevertheless Grant had a number of relationships with men throughout his life, including the artist Stephen Tomlin, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and Adrian Stephen – Vanessa Bell’s brother.
The most important relationship of his life was with Vanessa Bell. They lived and worked side by side from 1914 until she died in 1961. Although the sexual element of their relationship didn’t endure, a lifelong platonic friendship prevailed. They had a daughter together, Angelica, who was born on Christmas Day at Charleston in 1918.