Duncan Grant (1885-1978)
The present work was painted in the 1930s, when Grant was at his most successful. Following the brief darkening of his palette following the Great War, Grant’s work regained its previous brightness and intensity...
This bold still life was painted in 1937 by the prominent artist of the Bloomsbury Group, Duncan Grant. Attractive in its bright and vibrant colouring, the painting reflects both Grant’s debt to the Cubists and the Fauves of the early twentieth-century and, in its subject matter, the interest of Grant and fellow members of the Bloomsbury Group in crafts and textiles.
Raised in part in India and Burma, Grant was exposed from an early age to a wide array of influences. Particularly formative was his exposure to his cousins, the Strachey family. Multi-talented and precocious, the Strachey children – one of whom, Lytton, was later to become a central member of the Bloomsbury Group – introduced Grant to the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and their successors. Grant was later to recall how as a child he would pray to become as great a painter as the Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones. Having abandoned his conventional studies, Grant enrolled at Westminster School of Art. His imagination fired by his studies, he then journeyed to Europe, travelling in Italy from 1902-3 and subsequently studying for a year at La Palette in Paris. These were experiences that Grant was never to forget. Aside from his profound admiration for artists of the Italian Renaissance, such as Piero della Francesca, the abiding influence of these years on Grant’s subsequent output can be seen in his use of colour. In Paris his several visits to the studios both of Matisse and Picasso radically altered Grant’s method of painting, causing his palette to brighten and the forms that he depicted to flatten.
Grant’s new style of painting was first to manifest itself in the works that he submitted to the 1910 exhibition of Post-Impressionist artworks that was organised by critic, Roger Fry. This cemented Grant’s status as one of the central figures of the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals and cultural figures. Grant, who like many of the Group’s members led a Bohemian existence, conducted relationships – both heterosexual and homosexual – with several fellow members of the Bloomsbury set, including Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes – whose rooms at Cambridge Grant decorated – and fellow artist, Vanessa Bell, with whom Grant pursued an unconventional but intimate and long-lasting relationship. With Bell, Grant worked in the Omega Workshops that were established by Fry in 1913 and whose aim was to incorporate Post-Impressionist developments in painting to the decorative arts.
The present work was painted in the 1930s, when Grant was at his most successful. Following the brief darkening of his palette following the Great War, Grant’s work regained its previous brightness and intensity. Such were the decorative qualities of Grant’s work that he was commissioned to paint the décor for the newly-commissioned Cunard liner, the Queen Mary, in 1935. However, Grant’s designs proved too sophisticated for the tastes of those who had commissioned him and he was dropped amidst scandal. Painted two years after this fiasco, The Italian Handkerchief pays testament to the refined qualities that elevate Grant’s work above the merely decorative. During the Second World War, Grant served as a war artist, but by the 1960s his production had slowed following the death of Vanessa Bell. Nonetheless, the still life at hand bears witness to Grant’s pivotal role as a pioneer of Continental modernism in England in the early twentieth-century.