The life and loves of Duncan Grant

From Edwardian Britain to the 1970s, Duncan Grant lived a colourful existence. Biographer Frances Spalding reveals the secrets of his extraordinary life
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The Independent Culture
When Duncan Grant celebrated his birthday on 21 January, 1914, his mother told him he was 28. "I thought I was 29," he told Maynard Keynes. "So I have a whole year to spare!"

Though his mother was in fact wrong and he right, Duncan Grant eludes conventional time-keeping. Even the date of his death was incorrectly given in his Times obituary. When Wildenstein's gave him a retrospective in 1964, he began inscribing dates on some of his pre-1914 paintings and drawings, often with wild inaccuracy and using a Biro. His immense delight in art and literature meant that, imaginatively, he was the inhabitant of many periods: allusions to the Old Masters intermittently surface in his art; in his letters he occasionally resorted to 18th-century spelling; and his gentle, courteous speech sometimes betrayed his love of Jane Austen's novels.

His fresh and original perspective on life charmed many. "Duncan passed through," Virginia Woolf wrote in 1919, "a strange shaggy interlude, but always and inevitably harmonious." Many years later, when he became a kind of Universal Aunt to Violet Hammersley, an elderly widow who disliked travelling alone, he found himself transported to Lismore Castle in Ireland, or to Chatsworth, where, despite the cigarette ash on his clothes, he inspired affection in his host and hostess, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who thought him "impishly benign".

But where does he fit in the Pantheon of art, given the immense span of time that his career covers? He began soberly enough in the Edwardian period, painting low-toned portraits with subtlety and skill. Then suddenly the French post-Impressionists were shown in London, in two exhibitions organised by Roger Fry in 1910 and 1912, and Duncan Grant's style was blown apart. Broken brushwork and heightened, often unrealistic colour, became part of his highly inventive, adventurous manner, in which he often made use of witty distortion. Flowers droop extravagantly; limbs swell and taper, not according to correct anatomy but in response to some rhythmic organisation.

He reverted in the 1920s to more traditional subject matter and styles, yet remained for two decades one of England's most celebrated painters. Kenneth Clark linked his name with Matthew Smith, as artists who "created their own world through the joy of the senses". But a change of climate in the post-1945 period left him out of fashion. In an era troubled by the atrocities uncovered by the concentration camps and the implications of the atom bomb, there was scant demand for his art, which seemed, while rationing continued, suspiciously pleasurable and therefore light-weight. Though a revival of interest began in the 1960s, many were astonished in 1974, when the Observer colour supplement offered its readers two of Grant's lithographs in a limited edition. The accompanying photograph, taken by Lucinda Lambton, showed that Duncan Grant, an artist associated with a vanished era, was still very much alive and still working.

But despite the great range and lively variety of his work, he is most immediately associated with Bloomsbury, a gathering of friends, among them Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf, who were collectively named after the area of London where they first held regular meetings. All were, it is said (not entirely inaccurately), in love with Duncan Grant. Among these Cambridge-educated intellectuals, this diffident, good- looking painter held his own ground. Lytton Strachey was the first to become besotted with Grant. "His mind," Strachey exclaimed, "... the audacity, the strength, the amazing subtlety ... he never once offended my sense of the good and true and suitable by a single word." It helped, of course, that Grant had read G E Moore's Principia Ethica, the book which, when it was first published in 1903, removed an accumulation of accepted views. Moore inspired his readers to choose more carefully life's ingredients. "The best ideal we can construct," Moore wrote, "will be that state of things which contains the greatest number of things having positive values and which contains nothing evil or indifferent."

In old age, Duncan Grant told one of his young friends that G E Moore's Principia Ethica remained "the source of all my moral philosophy - which possibly does not amount to much". From Moore he took the core belief that judgement should lie, not with any external authority, but with the individual ("It all depends on oneself," Grant explained). As a result, he never attempted to impose moral standards on others and he accepted people as they were, without wishing or desiring them to be different in any way. His kindness, compassion and creativity proved attractive to many. He was rarely without a lover and never short of friends.

Paradoxically, the most significant relationship in this homosexual's life was with a woman. Initially he shared with Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf's sister) his interest in artistic innovation. No sooner had they become intimate than Grant fell heavily in love with the young David Garnett and all three lived together, first in Suffolk and then Sussex, where both men, as conscientious objectors, became farmhands until the First World War ended. It was a fraught period, owing to wartime conditions, tense emotions and bouts of jealousy. Yet it produced Angelica, Vanessa Bell's daughter by Duncan Grant, as well as the lasting realisation, on Vanessa's part, that if she was to remain in partnership with Duncan she had to allow him freedom to pursue his affairs with various men. He did so, keeping her informed about matters of the heart, and doing so with delicacy but without deceit.

A similar agility informs his art. He never hesitates to engage in large- scale projects, producing murals for a polytechnic dining-room, an ocean liner, a Sussex church, a chapel in Lincoln Cathedral and towards the end of his career, a double portrait of Gilbert and George. But he also willingly turned his hand to the smallest of tasks, such as decorations for Christmas cards, tiles or cushion covers. At one moment he can be surprisingly audacious, at others, seductively intimate.

These contrasts of scale and ambition in his work make it difficult to pigeon-hole. For what Gainsborough said of Reynolds - "Damn him how various he is!" - is also true of Grant.

We are often led into his paintings by a movement across the surface of colour relationships. This movement became so fluent that in 1932 The Scotsman's art critic praised the way Duncan Grant's brush, "charged with juicy greens, browns and yellows, simply ripples over the canvas". He handled colour and line with great felicity. Even his swiftest sketch conveys something of his elan and communicates enjoyment. This association of art with pleasure links Grant with, among others, Matisse, and with Delacroix. "The first merit of a painting," reads Delacroix's journal, "is to be a feast for the eye."

The tradition to which Grant belongs cuts across cultural and chronological boundaries and remains vital and valid. Pleasure is, after all, a stimulus to living, and Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell knew the importance of those small decisions which affect the way we live. They poured a great deal of creativity into their surroundings; stencilling patterns on walls, painting unexpected motifs on furniture, door panels, even a log box; designing fabrics, ornamenting pottery and poring over seed catalogues in the winter, with next year's garden in mind. The results of their labour can be seen at Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse, where they lived. It helps explain the continuing attraction of Bloomsbury; for the art of Grant and Bell upholds a humane sensibility which, even in the age of multinationals and rapid communication systems, continues to alter and invigorate the world around usn

'Duncan Grant' by Francis Spalding is published by Chatto and Windus

Charleston in Sussex is open to the public Weds to Sun, 2pm-6pm, until 31 October, 11.30am-6pm during July and August