The utmost for the highest – Memories of Duncan Grant

Canvas Issue 22 by Simon Watney

Angelica Garnett was interviewed by Simon Watney at Charleston on 26 May 2008. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Simon Watney: For the dwindling band of us who actually remember Duncan and life at Charleston it’s hardly credible that it’s thirty years since he died. I want to start at the beginning. Did Duncan speak much about his childhood?

Angelica Garnett: No, very little. I knew he was born in Rothiemurchus on the Spey, but a few months after that he was taken to Burma; his family were Anglo-Indian. I know he had an ayah whom he adored. And he was sent back to England when he was about seven – because of the climate, I think.

SW: What did being Scottish mean to Duncan?

AG: He was proud of being Scottish, certainly, but I think it was rather a fantasy because he very rarely went back to Scotland. But he was proud of it … it figured in his own mind, but he didn’t speak in a Scottish voice…

SW: Did his mother speak in a Scots accent?

AG: No, she didn’t – she was much more … well, Clive used to call her the Memsahib, but that was unfair – she was very beautiful, and she must have had some artistic impulses. She used to come to Charleston with a great bag of embroidery wools and sit by the stove and do the embroideries which Duncan used to design, and consult Duncan about the colours of wool to choose. I was fond of her. She was also musical – she played the piano and we used to play duets together. But I never knew Bartle, his father, who died when I was about five. I think Duncan had quite a happy childhood, but he was an only boy and had all the loneliness of being an only boy, and perhaps that was why he took to painting.

SW: His mother was a great beauty, and Duncan was extremely handsome as a young man; do you think he was aware of his good looks and the impact they had on people?

AG: Yes, I think he was aware of them, but he was never vain. He could forget about them in the normal course of things.

SW: He and Vanessa must have made the most striking pair, side by side as young people; in the photographs they both look so beautiful as a pair … but apart from his looks, what do you think made Duncan so attractive to Vanessa as an artist?

AG: I think it was the wit of his paintings, the gaiety of them that she liked.

SW: They complemented each other rather well. Did they complement each other as artists, as well as people?

AG: Yes I think they did … the odd thing was how they painted the same subject together in the studio, and something quite different would come out. Of course, Vanessa thought Duncan was a genius, she could never listen to any criticism of Duncan, she was completely non-objective about him. And I think that was a pity, really. From his point of view … And he was the same with her, too.

SW: What sort of words would they use about paintings they liked, as terms of approval?

AG: I think their criticism was always rather superficial, you know, and it was never psychological. It was always, well, That blue would be better if it was darker, or That line would be better in another place.

SW: Well, perhaps that’s the best way to talk about painting, from the inside… The house has just acquired a marvellous painting of Maynard Keynes. Do you remember him?

AG: I remember Maynard well. When I was small and we were living at 46 Gordon Square he would come upstairs and shower bathsalts into the water when I was in the bath. He was charming and young and slim then, and I suppose he and Duncan were very close at that time. I remember Lydia very well, too.

SW: I was going to ask, how did Duncan get on with Lydia?

AG: Very well, they liked each other. They just talked together and laughed – they were just good friends. He knew something about her dancing, and could talk to her about her dancing, whereas Vanessa knew nothing about dancing and was rather bored by Lydia anyway. It was Vanessa who pushed her into the background, a pity really.

SW: But Duncan kept up a strong friendship with her – did she used to come over to Charleston often?

AG: Oh yes, and Maynard too.

SW: I want to focus more on Duncan now, and think more about the life in this household as you were all growing up – how did Duncan get on with your two brothers?

AG: They all got on very well. Everybody adored Duncan, that’s all I can say, because he never asked too much, in fact if he was free to paint he didn’t mind what happened. He wasn’t at all possessive …

SW: In Deceived with Kindness you said that Julian more than anybody else at Charleston could see Duncan and Vanessa’s strengths and personalities – his recognition of Duncan’s passivity, for example …

AG: I don’t remember about that, but Duncan was completely free. He just listened, in fact, he didn’t say very much.

SW: How much do you think Duncan was aware of Vanessa’s dependence on him as a painter?

AG: Well, was she dependent on him? I suppose she was … she certainly admired him, but I don’t think she thought she was dependent on him as a painter.

SW: I only ask because if one looks at Vanessa’s still lives from between the wars one sees paintings that are full of radiant confidence and beauty, but one reads so often that she was crippled with doubt about her own work.

AG: But all painters are, so I don’t think that’s so remarkable.

SW: Did Duncan ever express doubts about his work?

AG: Yes, he did; for years there was a huge painting in the studio of tumblers and he couldn’t get it right at all, he was very depressed about it. And I must confess that when he died I burnt it!

SW: It was a spectacularly unsuccessful painting, wasn’t it, and I seem to remember always covered with a drape…What was Duncan’s taste in music?

AG: Well he adored Mozart more than anything else and would pick out bits of Figaro or Magic Flute on the piano in the Dining Room. But he never had any training – he just played by ear. But he was musical, both his parents were, his father had an orchestra in India and would play all kinds of things. And I’ve inherited that musicality too.

SW: Did you ever go to concerts with Duncan?

AG: Yes, though I don’t remember particular occasions, but I know that he went to see Wozzeck with Marjory Strachey, and he enjoyed it. But he enjoyed everything, always. He was very lacking in criticism. And that was true of painting, too. He just loved painting so much and he would be very uncritical of people’s efforts, and when young people came to the house he would encourage them to sit down and paint, and everyone had a lovely time.

SW: Some artists are immensely intellectual and others are wholly sensual, and Duncan seems one of them. Was that the most important bond with Vanessa? That he recognised in her a similar personality and passion?

AG: Well, she certainly had a great deal of sensuality in her painting, though not exactly of the same kind – but that was the point at which they met.

SW: Was he ever able to talk to other painters with the same freedom that he talked to Vanessa about his work? Did he guide you when you were a student?

AG: Not really, no, but he was always kind about what one was doing. But he wasn’t very good at educating one, he couldn’t help one a great deal.

SW: Did you go to galleries with him when you were young?

AG: Well I used to go to the National Gallery with him on Thursdays, the copying day, and I did part of a Piero della Francesca and he and Vanessa were painting in another part of the gallery, and we’d have a lovely morning and go to a pub for lunch. I had to come up from the country from school to do this. It was fun.

SW: What were Duncan’s greatest strengths as an artist?

AG: Well, what do you think?

SW: That he lived in history, that he had a sense of being in a great tradition, not in a pompous way, but like the water that he drank. He was a European painter and understood all aspects of European art, and was unjudgemental. Do you think it ever damaged him, being so catholic in his tastes?

AG: Yes, he was like that. As long as he had a palette and turpentine and could paint, he was happy.

SW: In some of the books on Bloomsbury Duncan is represented as someone almost childlike, in a rather negative way. And yet it is precisely his being childlike that was his charm.

AG: I think it is true that he was childlike, in life anyway, but not in his painting … I think some of the paintings he did in his childhood – of his nurse for instance – I found some in a cupboard, there was a continuity between them and what he did later on – you could see the kind of painter he was going to be.

SW: Are there any British painters one could begin to compare Duncan to?

AG: No, I think there are some one could compare to him, but I think he was independent himself.

SW: And European painters?

AG: Well he admired painters like Cezanne and Matisse, and particularly Picasso. But he didn’t know him well enough, he didn’t have a relationship with him. John Richardson seems to suggest that Picasso didn’t think much of Duncan at all, but if they’d been able to do some painting together then Picasso would have seen the point of Duncan. I always thought he admired Matisse the more, but I was wrong. He was fascinated by Picasso and couldn’t understand what made Picasso do what he did…

SW: I agree entirely how much he admired Picasso, but he sometimes said there was almost a sense of rivalry with Picasso – they were both such complete and spontaneous artists.

AG: I don’t agree that he felt like a rival –

SW: I just meant in the sense that he might have felt overwhelmed by Picasso. I was wondering also how might we characterise Duncan’s personality? Everyone says he was so charming, and we all know charm is the most fragile of human characteristics. How shall we describe Duncan now?

AG: Yes it is hard. I think he was very unconscious of his own charm, very open to other ideas, very easily amused, and just generally speaking very sympathetic.

SW: I ask because the implicit suggestion is that charm can be used as a weapon, or a defence, but he never seemed to use his charm aggressively.

AG: No not at all, he was the least aggressive person you can think of.

SW: What do you suppose Duncan’s view of himself might have been? Did it change, or was it consistent?

AG: I find that very difficult to answer. I think he just lived up to a certain idea of what he ought to be, and left it at that. He thought he must be honest, must be kind to people, but not much more than that.

SW: If he had weaknesses, what were they?

AG: I’m sure he had weaknesses but I don’t think they amounted to very much really. Because he always admitted to having weaknesses and never aspired to any strengths, so I suppose we forgot about them.

SW: As a girl you weren’t aware that Duncan was your father and he didn’t play the role of the conventional father, the paterfamilias, the model of fatherhood he presented must have been a generous one.

AG: Oh he was generous all right, but he had no authority, he couldn’t lay down the law or tell me what to do and when or how. He was very sympathetic and charming. He wasn’t a helpful father figure, though.

SW: Who do you think Duncan turned to for that in his own life?

AG: I don’t know; his own father may have laid down the law rather too much. But I don’t know enough about his father.

SW: And what do you think Duncan would think of Charleston today?

AG: Oh I think he would enjoy Charleston today; I think he would be all in favour of it being what it is.

SW: Can you summarise his importance in the twenty-first century in English culture and to English painters and designers?

AG: Yes, well you can do that! Because you’re much better on his painting than I am.

SW: I can only really echo what you said, that he was an encourager, one of the most encouraging people I have ever met. I don’t think Duncan ever tried to lead other people to imitate him; he wanted them to flourish in themselves, which is rare. I think he was very free of ego.

AG: Yes, and I think he was very modest, you know. He was ambitious in the sense of the utmost for the highest, but not for personal gain in any way. The highest was to be truthful to yourself and to your own capacities. And also the actual enjoyment of putting paint on the canvas. You can see that in some of these pictures that have been lent to the house, like the little still life in the Studio – beautiful! You can see that he enjoyed putting the paint on….

He was aware of his own dependence on Vanessa. When he died he left a note saying ‘After lunch I suddenly became aware that I’m on my own, for better or worse. Exactly what I mean I can only express by using the word “deference”, which was what I always felt with Vanessa. I do not mean the suggestion of flattery which the word can have, but I always did defer to her opinions or feelings. Now, henceforth, I think I shall always defer to her opinions: I know or can guess so often what they would be. But her feelings no longer exist, so in that respect I feel I am alone. Duncan Grant.’ It’s sad.

SW: It’s sad, but it’s also very perceptive, about their relationship.

AG: Yes, certainly their relationship was extraordinary.

What's on

12 JulWorkshop
Planting a classic cottage garden

Award-winning designer Juliet Sargeant leads an inspirational day of planting design at Charleston.

01 AugMusic
CROWLINK | Shirley Collins

2021. Legendary folk singer Shirley Collins in a unique collaboration with Brian Catling and Matthew Shaw.

16 AugWorkshop
Planting and gardening on chalk

Join Juliet Sargeant to learn about all the chalk-loving plants at Charleston.

06 SepWorkshop
Painting in the Garden | Autumn

Join artist Julian Le Bas for a day’s intensive painting, and lose yourself in the atmosphere of the walled garden.

Get involved