Duncan Grant’s Nude Portraits

Grant’s sexuality informed much of his art. In his portrayal of male nudes we find evidence of both his sexual and aesthetic desires.

It’s National Nude Day! A great opportunity to draw your attention to one of my all-time favourite paintings in Charleston’s collection — ‘Standing Male Nude’ (c.1935) by Duncan Grant — and have a brief look at the trajectory that nude painting took in Grant’s oeuvre.

By his early twenties, Duncan Grant was beginning to be recognised for his highly developed technical skills. Having studied the Old Masters during his stay in Paris, Grant acquired a thorough under-standing of human anatomy and, upon his return to London, he began applying this knowledge in his practice.

In 1908, he took up a studio at 21 Fitzroy Square and focused his efforts on portraiture. As Grant’s biographer Douglas Blair Turnbaugh noted, ‘[he] began a series of brilliant portraits of everybody within his reach, including new friends, and many relatives […]’. In his 1986 biography, Blair Turnbaugh includes a large number of reproductions of Grant’s early nude studies of men, as well as a nude study of himself as a young man.

In an attempt to save money by avoiding hiring professional life models, Grant asked his family and friends to pose for him — for his paintings, drawings, as well as photographs. He would use the latter as a reference for his future portraits.

Grant, too, posed naked in front of the camera. During his residence in Fitzroy Square, he produced a series of self-portraits, described by Richard Shone as ‘intimate and direct’. His choice to portray himself at ease, in an open, close-up manner, with no embarrassment or shame of his naked body is reflective of his views on nudity and intimacy.

Duncan Grants painting of a standing male nude rests on an easel in the studio at Charleston. You can see a curtain and a door in the background on the right, and a decorative work on the wall in the background on the left.

Duncan Grant’s ‘Standing Male Nude’ (c.1935) in the studio at Charleston;
photograph: Ëpha J. Roe

While Grant himself may not have felt shame because of his sexual identity, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 meant that any homosexual acts were not only viewed as shameful by British society, but also made illegal in the eyes of the law. The Act of 1885, better known as the Labouchère amendment, was passed six months after Duncan Grant was born. It criminalised all male homosexual acts, both private and public, consensual and those done without consent. For the 82 years that the legislation remained in place, it had a devastating effect not only on queer men but British society in general. It reenforced widespread bigotry and sexual hypocrisy, already prevalent in late Victorian England. Dubbed ‘the blackmailer’s charter’, the realities faced daily by gay men in Britain 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. To this day, we continue to unpack the ramifications of the Act of 1885 and its impact on the lives of generations of British gay men.

The secrecy around the subject required the absolute discretion of Grant’s sitters. With limited personal choices available in his private life, Grant’s creative output was one of the way he expressed his sexual identity. In a 1908 letter to his then lover John Maynard Keynes, Grant writes:

‘You cannot imagine how much I want to scream sometimes […] 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.’

– Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant: A Biography, London, 1997, p.70

Grant’s sexuality informed much of his art. In his portrayal of male nudes we find evidence of both his sexual and aesthetic desires. Many of his sketches are erotic in nature and show deep intimacy with the sitter. A life-long friend and companion in his later years, Paul Roche, observed that Grant captured his sitters with ‘determination not to please [aesthetically] except by telling the truth, and telling the truth through the intransigent beauty of paint’. Roche also sat as a model for Grant on many occasions.

A photograph of the studio at Charleston. A chair covered in a colourful fabric sits in front of a wooden door painted a pale blue. Above the door is a painting of a male in green pants reclining by Duncan Grant.

Duncan Grant’s ‘Paul Roche Reclining’ (c.1945) above the door in the studio at Charleston;
photograph: Lee Robbins

In the privacy of his studio, as later on at Charleston, social convention and law were left at the door. Charleston became a safe haven for Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and other, largely queer, members of the Bloomsbury group. There, in the middle of rural Sussex, they forged new ways of living. Charleston was, and continues to be, a home where love, friendship, polyamory and same-gender relationships were actively embraced. In this relaxed environment, nudity was casual and relationships were freely pursued. For Grant and other Bloomsbury artists, creativity and sexuality remained forever intertwined.

In his book, Bloomsbury Portraits, Shone describes Grant’s portraits of his friends and relations as ‘encapsulating [his] sound technical accomplishment’, but equally presenting ‘an extraordinarily solid world, comfortable and quiet, an air of scholarly reflection enveloping his figures’.

‘Standing Male Nude’ (c.1935), on display in the studio at Charleston, is an open exploration of the male nude. This bold portrait is a testament to Grant’s loyalty to the Post-Impressionist style that had inspired him in his youth and brought him into the Bloomsbury circle in the first place.

Grant was greatly inspired by the art he saw around him and on his travels. In 1909, he saw his first Picasso painting at the Parisian home of influential art collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein. He visited Henri Matisse in his studio and was inspired by the bright colours and bold simple shapes Matisse used in his paintings. Grant would go on to experiment with the new approaches that he saw Picasso and Matisse use, and his work would be forever transformed. In 1912, Roger Fry invited Grant to exhibit alongside European Post-Impressionist artists at the Second Post-Impressionist exhibition in London.

In ‘Standing Male Nude’ (c.1935), one can clearly see the Post-Impressionist influence in the use of simple flat forms, bold colour and expressive brush strokes. The naked male body is positioned against a strongly coloured background built of vibrant blues. He is holding a gestural white cloth.

Charles ‘Tony’ Asserati was a life model for this nude portrait. In fact, he was a regular sitter for Grant in the 1930s. Frances Spalding, another of Grant’s biographers, noted that Asserati ‘became the subject of some of [Grant’s] most sensual paintings’. A similar work, ‘Seated Male Nude’ (c. 1938) is now in a private collection. Grant apparently enjoyed these works and kept one for himself.

Duncan Grant’s unique portrayal of the human form has made him one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century. In his artistic investigations into the nude, particularly in ‘Standing Male Nude’ (c.1935), the depiction of the body that he has so skilfully conjured up remains as vivid as ever. When viewing Grant’s nudes, be it drawings, paintings or photographs, it is at times difficult to separate the admiration for his technical skill from the sensationalised sexual relations that he enjoyed with many of his male sitters. However, his painterly perspective appears to be non-binary and encourages the viewer to focus on the quiet, intimate naturalism of his portraiture.