A Box Full of Bloomsbury – Cataloguing Loose Works on Paper from Duncan Grant’s Studio

by charlestonattic

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Items in the box before photographing and cataloguing. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

Since our return to the attic following the Christmas break we have focussed our attention on photographing and cataloguing a box of loose papers and notes in the Angelica Garnett Gift. This relatively small cardboard box contains almost one thousand items; from preparatory sketches and classical studies to newspaper clippings, notes and personal correspondence on pages of all sizes, ages and materials. Having been scooped up in a pile from Duncan Grant’s studio following his death in 1978 and stored together until they were given to the Trust in 2008, this eclectic assortment of works offers a fascinating insight into artistic practice at Charleston; the drive to create and record was not hindered by the materials available at hand. Instead, anything that would make or take a mark was employed and included in a house brimming with line, shape and colour, and kept up until the end of Grant’s life. As part of this microcosm of artistic expression that was lived in and around by the artists and their friends, it is not difficult to picture the pages from this box piled high on every surface in Grant’s studio, especially when some bear the traces of coffee rings and cigarette ash.


Duncan Grant’s Studio in the 1970s. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

From studies on cartridge and watercolour paper to sketches and notes made hastily on the backs on envelopes, household appliance instruction booklets, hotel letter paper, invoices, personal correspondence and graph paper, there is a diverse range of materials within the box. Not only do they demonstrate the drive for creative expression without privilege given to one type of paper over another, these unusual materials also offer glimpses into the artists’ private lives through personal correspondence and appointments.

Among the pieces are a 1925 letter to Duncan Grant from the editor of The Studio magazine requesting permission to include his works in an upcoming edition; the agenda for an Arts Council of Great Britain meeting held in 1946; a letter from the headmaster of a school in Reading regarding a case of German Measles from 1926; a 1950 Christmas greeting from a friend; a solicitor’s letter regarding a will from 1949; and an invoice for a new radio from 1936. All of these boast a sketch or annotation of some form; from abstract doodles and pattern designs to careful line drawings of classical nudes and landscape scenes. While dates are recorded on each item in a postmark or heading thereby giving a suggestion of provenance, we can only speculate as to whether the sketches themselves made on these papers were created at the same time or at a later date. As so little was disposed of at the house, it is likely that such scraps would have cropped up years after they were first received and used as new paper for sketching or note-taking.

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Illustrated items in the box. Clockwise from top left: CHA/P/897/R, CHA/P/665/R, CHA/P/895/V. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

The box’s contents also give evidence of the artists’ working practice, with numerous sketches, notes and newspaper clippings clearly created or saved with a particular commission or artwork in mind. For example, the box contains a number of newspaper cuttings of stories about agriculture with grainy photographs of sheep and farmers. Accompanying these are sketches of sheep and studies of agricultural workers. It is highly probable that these studies and cuttings were used by Grant for his commissioned murals in the St. Blaise Chapel in Lincoln Cathedral, painted in 1958. The finished design for Christ the Good Shepherd bears a strong resemblance to a sketch found in the box.

Blaise Good Shepherd



Top left and centre: Items from the box. Photographs © The Charleston Trust.  Top right: St. Blaise Chapel mural, Duncan Grant, c. 1958. Oil on panel, Lincoln Cathedral. Photograph © Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Cataloguing each piece offers a particular challenge with regards to authorship. Only some of the works have been signed by Grant, with none attributed with signature to Vanessa Bell. This is not surprising bearing in mind that both artists were notoriously unreliable when it came to signing their works, and also the contents of the box were originally taken from Grant’s studio. Where Grant has signed a work with his initials – and occasionally a date – these have often been made in a different media to that used for the work itself, such as in the example below, thereby suggesting that signatures were assigned some time after the drawings were created. Dr Darren Clarke, Charleston’s Curator, explored Grant’s retrospective signing of paintings in his PhD thesis, explaining that many works were signed by the artist in the 1960s at a time when his oeuvre was gaining popularity once again. By adding a signature, these artworks were instantly authenticated and commodifiable for the established art market to whom such status was – and still is – of vital importance. With regards to items in the box, the retrospective signing of sketches provokes thought about Grant’s later intentions for works that were originally conceived as studies rather than finished artworks in their own right; it is likely he intended for these too to be offered for sale.

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CHA/P/925/R. Duncan Grant, c. 1944, sketch of a chicken and duck, pencil on paper. Right: detail of the sketch showing the signature and date made in two different black pens. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

Having been haphazardly stored away without any method of cataloguing and with little care – the papers are stacked together in one large pile without any list of contents or dividers – many have not been seen or studied before now. Due to their current storage condition, their varying sizes, paper types and also the media used (some sketches have been made in charcoal which has transferred to opposing sheets), great care must be taken in removing each piece from the stack in order to photograph, measure, accession and store it within acid-free tissue wallets in a new storage box. Once the new Collections Store has been built as part of Charleston’s Centenary Project, these works will be moved from the attic to their new home where they will be kept with the other items in the Angelica Garnett Gift alongside works in Charleston’s permanent collection that are not currently on display to the public.

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Items from the box after photography and cataloguing has been completed. Photograph © The Charleston Trust