Duncan Grant & St. Paul’s

by charlestonattic

CHA-P-590-5 St Pauls
CHA/P/590/5. Sketchbook, Duncan Grant, c. 1956, assorted sketches, pencil and pen on paper, bound in card with spiral wire binding. 13.8 cm x 23.8 cm. © The Charleston Trust

‘It is commonplace, but we cannot help repeating it, that St. Paul’s dominates London. It swells like a great grey bubble from a distance; it looms over us, huge and menacing, as we approach.’[1]

Virginia Woolf, Abbeys and Cathedrals.

Virginia Woolf’s interest in St. Paul’s Cathedral was shared by Duncan Grant who made numerous studies of the monument throughout his life. Appearing as early as 1893 in a colourful study made when the artist was only eight years old,[2] the building continued to feature in Grant’s oeuvre both as the visual focus for a composition, such as in his painting St Paul’s, 1934, and as a distant – yet no less potent – element in works such as St Paul’s, c. 1933-4.

In the drawing above, from a sketchbook in the Angelica Garnett Gift created around 1936, Wren’s iconic dome takes centre stage, the attention given to detailing the building over its surroundings demonstrative of Grant’s particular fascination with the subject. In another sketchbook, a ‘to-do’ list has been hastily scribbled by the artist, the first item being ‘Finish St. Paul’s’. As the date of this sketchbook is unknown, the note could refer to any one of his works on the subject.

CHA-P-607-17_c St Pauls list
CHA/P/607/17. Sketchbook, Duncan Grant, date unknown, figures, interiors, lists and other writings, pencil on paper, bound in brown card with cloth spine. 19.6 cm x 12.6 cm. Photo © The Charleston Trust

As it was not spiritual sentiment which drew Grant to St. Paul’s as a subject – he and other members of the Bloomsbury group were not religiously inclined – it was the building’s impressive design and dominant position in London’s skyline which instead impressed him. Bloomsbury scholar Richard Shone has noted how Grant was a great admirer of Christopher Wren’s architecture and in particular that of St. Paul’s, thereby explaining why it so regularly appeared in his paintings of the city, either as focus for the work or as a prominent background feature.[3]

‘Something of the splendour of St. Paul’s lies simply in its vast size, in its colourless serenity. Mind and body seem both to widen in this enclosure, to expand under this huge canopy where the light is neither daylight nor lamplight, but an ambiguous element something between the two.’[4]

Virginia Woolf, Abbeys and Cathedrals.

St Paul’s cathedral in London during the Blitz. © IWM (HU 36220A)

The building’s solidity and permanence was particularly celebrated following the Second World War when photographs of its dome puncturing the smoke filled sky became iconic symbols of the country’s resilience and determination in the face of conflict. During the Blitz, the City of London was targeted by German bombers who caused such widespread destruction that one contemporary reporter dubbed it, ‘the second Great Fire of London’.[5] While the cathedral itself was hit by 28 bombs, it miraculously survived, and as a result, dramatic views of the building were opened up from amongst its decimated surroundings.

In a letter to Duncan Grant, Sir Kenneth Clark offered to commission a painting of the cathedral within its revised landscape as a War Artists Advisory Committee work:

‘I know you have painted St Paul’s a great many times but I hope you will not mind painting it once more because I don’t think it has ever looked more beautiful than it does rising out of this sort of Pompeii in the foreground and the Pompeii has all the elements of colour which I think you enjoy painting.’[6]


The resulting painting, St. Paul’s 1941, now in the Imperial War Museum’s collection, visually translates Clark’s description of the building to be rising up out of the ruined city. Painted from the basement of a bombed building nearby, Grant has employed an exaggerated perspective to ensure the cathedral’s dome towers above its ruined surroundings; as Woolf wrote, it looms over us, huge and menacing. This impression of strength and dominance is further heightened by the dome’s cross piercing the top of the picture plane; simultaneously pushing beyond the frame’s boundaries and visually supporting the composition upon its pointed tip. As Grant’s biographer Frances Spalding writes, the painting, ‘celebrates in dense, rich colour Wren’s magnificent classical rhetoric.’[7]

St Paul's 1941
St Paul’s 1941, Duncan Grant, 1941, oil on canvas. Imperial War Museum, London. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1844)

‘Here it is again, looming over us, mountainous, immense, greyer, colder, quieter than before. And directly we enter we undergo that pause and expansion and release from hurry and effort which it is in the bower of St. Paul’s, more than any other building in the world, to bestow.’[8]

Virginia Woolf, Abbeys and Cathedrals.

Having been a significant subject in the artist’s works, it was fitting that following his death in May 1978, a memorial service for Duncan Grant was held at St. Paul’s; a place that had inspired him throughout his life.


[1] Virginia Woolf, ‘Abbeys and Cathedrals’, The London Scene (The Hogarth Press, London, 1975) p.30

[2] Simon Watney, The Art of Duncan Grant (John Murray Ltd., London, 1990) p.17

[3] Christie’s Auction House catalogue entry (accessed 10/11/14)

[4] Woolf, p.31

[5] ‘How St Paul’s Cathedral survived the Blitz’, BBC Magazine (accessed 10/11/2014)

[6] ‘Art and War’ exhibition, Canadian War Museum (accessed 10/11/2014)

[7] Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant (Chatto & Windus, London, 1997) p.380

[8] Woolf, p.31