This excellent publication by art historian Frances Spalding is a wonderfully intimate, yet scholarly biography of the painter and designer Duncan Grant (1885-1978) a key figure of the Bloomsbury Group and an artist whose long life spanned great changes in both society and art.
Duncan Grant was born in the Scottish Highlands, but spent his early childhood in India and Burma, where his father, Major Bartle Grant, was stationed. Duncan returned to England for his schooling and, at the age of fourteen, he entered St Paul's School, where during his two years at the school he won seven prizes for art. From St Paul's he went on to Westminster School of Art and it was at this time that he lived with the Strachey family, who were relations of the Grants. This brought Duncan into contact with his Strachey cousins, notably Lytton Strachey, and thus into the orbit of the writers, artists and thinkers who formed the Bloomsbury Group. After two visits to Paris to study art, Duncan returned to London and in 1910 when he was exhibiting his pictures at the New English Art Club, Duncan became more involved with the art critic, Roger Fry, who was responsible for bringing the first and radical Post-Impressionist Art Exhibition to London which ran from November 1910 until January 1911. Duncan visited the show many times and was very impressed with the pictures exhibited which inspired him to experiment more boldly with form and with his colour palette and, in doing so, he helped break the mould of Edwardian Painting. Duncan was, however, imbued with a love of the past and, with his talent, he was able to translate many past traditions into modern forms of art. In 1911, Roger Fry invited Duncan to submit designs for home decoration and in 1913 the Omega Workshops were formed, whose members included Vanessa Bell, Nina Hamnett, Frederick Etchells and Wyndham Lewis, amongst others. Well ahead of their time, the workshop designers and painters created a variety of avant-garde objects for the home: textiles, furniture and clothing, all boldly coloured and patterned with wonderful abstract designs.
Duncan Grant was a handsome and very charming man, but he could be elusive and slightly detached and, although rather laid back in many ways, he was very focused on living his life the way he wanted. In his personal life, Duncan formed many homosexual relationships, but it was his relationship with the artist Vanessa Bell that was the most enduring, lasting for decades until her death in 1961. In 1918, after a brief period as Vanessa's lover, their daughter, Angelica, was born, which further bound him to Vanessa as did the wonderful home, Charleston Farmhouse, which Vanessa created as a haven for herself and Duncan.
Frances Spalding has researched her subject meticulously and this is a very knowledgeable biography which probably brings us as close to the charismatic Grant as we are likely to get. As an art historian, Spalding gives the reader an invaluable and scholarly assessment of Duncan Grant's achievements but she combines this with a hugely enjoyable, absorbing and vibrant narrative of the life of an unusual and intriguing man. Highly recommended.
This was a very good book and one of the few about Duncan Grant. I wanted to know more about him as I am a guide at Lincoln Cathedral and he decorated one of the side chapels. He was a very interesting character and I learned a great deal from this book about his life within the Bloomsbury set. I would certainly recommend it for someone with a particular interest in this artist and his world.