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Books: The Bells! The Bells!

DUNCAN GRANT by Frances Spalding, Chatto pounds 20
Frances Spalding is an art historian and a biographer of the central Bloomsbury figures Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell, as well as of Stevie Smith and John Minton, whose intense guttering talents roosted alone. She is a careful and informed writer who has an affinity with the visual.

Duncan Grant was a character, according to those who knew him, who lit up and lightened the lives of most who met him. As Richard Shone said of him, "Wit and clarity saved him from sweetness"; the remark is applicable to his work and his nature. Grant was the life companion of the painter Vanessa Bell, the sister and great balancing, rivalrous love of Virginia Woolf.

His life was long (1885-1978). He painted from the life Maynard Keynes and Gilbert and George. He knew many of the most influential, to put it at its coldest, people of his time. His skill as an artist probably suffered at the height of his success from over-praise by Clive Bell, Vanessa's husband. This perhaps guilty compensation by a cuckolded but emphatically unfaithful husband may have had the effect of occluding the attention paid to Grant's work in his last years and since his death. Things are evening out now, with Grant's work in many serious collections. From the best work comes something that was evidently deep in his character: an informative, unscholarly innocence. His decorative work, that may be seen at its most concentrated at Charleston Farm House in Sussex, shows a hospitability and entertainingness of nature that do not exhaust the observer as do many jeux d'esprit.

Why is it then that this long book - over 500 pages - sadly fails to invite its subject into its pages, unless he is speaking for himself? There are several difficulties. Perhaps Frances Spalding has spent too much time with them all. Her tone as she tells what are to enthusiasts the old stories, of Ottoline and Lytton and Carrington and Maynard and Lydia, is reiterative, consistently written from without. This cannot be how Frances Spalding herself feels about these people with whose lives she has spent so much of her own. Passages in this book play to the distaste that is never that far from consideration of Bloomsbury. It is not that the subjects deserve or would want special pleading. Virginia Woolf, in particular, took good care to spike her own acceptability in life and by posterity. The meta-Bloomsbury, of footlers evading service in war and fussing about servants and love affairs, is laid out here. There is a fatal want of either irony or - it seems - understanding. The reasons behind this are obscure.

Was Frances Spalding bored? Has she done too much research? Did she decide, as she reasonably might have, that Duncan Grant, who left a slew of papers, was happier making marks in colour and line than in words, and that his pellucid and happy nature was unconveyable save by a kind of biographer's impasto that has in the event muddied things?

Does she, as I intermittently feared, lack a linguistic ear, most especially for the rhythms of camp? Again and again, as Duncan Grant's vermiculate private life unwinds, his biographer makes him somehow preposterous. All sex is preposterous, perhaps, and it's difficult to write about, especially when it remains, as homosexuality was for most of Duncan Grant's life, illegal and so wreathed with euphemism and an increasingly dated "naughtiness".

Stanley Spencer wrote of Duncan Grant, after an exhibition in 1934 at the Lefevre Gallery, the catalogue prefaced by Kenneth Clarke, "as surely as Epstein is the greatest sculptor this country possesses, so surely in my opinion is Duncan Grant the greatest painter." At Duncan Grant's memorial service, in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, Kenneth Clarke - "rather insensitively, given the occasion and his audience" as Frances Spalding says - tried to separate Grant from the ethos of Bloomsbury, "whose critical sense was somewhat overdeveloped". It's a curious phrase from one of the century's best-developed critical intelligences. Perhaps he was alluding to the indulgence of gossip and not to over-discriminating aesthetic judgement. One senses a caginess.

Duncan Grant is a subject worthy of biography, not only on account of his life's interweaving with those scrutinised contemporaries. Uncommonly generous, a teacher and inspirer in his work and in himself, a man who thrived in the company of others as may artists do not, his work conducts a beguiling conversation with the history of European art and with modernism. He painted in his youth continually from old masters and he hated "Guernica".

The shape of his life, too, is of considerable chastening interest. While his pornographic imagination was homosexual, he lived in loving harmony with Vanessa Bell, who bore him the daughter he failed openly to acknowledge, Angelica Bell, who has written her own pained autobiography, Deceived with Kindness. Her story is a bitter one and leaches long and miserable through this biography. The perspective of a life that would have offered a challenge to a writer of fiction has gone apparently unlistened to in Frances Spalding's unprismatic book, in which the colours seem to have been laid down with too little chromatic distinction though drawn from a rainbow life. After Cezanne, after all, Duncan Grant most loved Bonnard.

The heroines of the book are many, headed by Vanessa Bell and her long- standing cook and housekeeper, Grace Germany. And Duncan Grant's own mother and aunts. My preferred new piece of information is that Grant liked to watch, on the telly bought for him by the painter Lindy Dufferin, "Dr Finlay's Casebook".