Ballet and the Bloomsbury Group

by charlestonattic

When photographing small works on paper in the Gift, we came across this biro sketch on cardboard made by Duncan Grant. Depicting a dancer en pointe in an elaborate costume, the drawing is surrounded by annotations detailing the colours and fabrics to be used. ‘White fur cap & gold stripes,’ ‘winy purple & dark purple stripes,’ ‘red velvet’; this would have been a flamboyant and unusual ensemble. The significance of this small sketch is two-fold: firstly, it provides a glimpse into the progressive world of modernist dance and theatre in Britain in the early twentieth century. Secondly, it offers a primary resource to consider Grant’s own costume designs for both professional productions and later theatricals held in the garden at Charleston. While the sketch is undated and therefore unable to be linked to a particular production without further research, it offers an intriguing insight into the artist’s practice and influences.

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CHA/P/1231/R. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

In 1909, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes took London by storm. The company’s ground-breaking performances showcased collaborations between the world’s leading dancers, choreographers, composers and designers, and delivered a spectacular blow to a British audience familiar with the delicate and refined classics. Along with other members of his circle, Grant became a frequent visitor to Diaghilev’s productions, which he had first seen in 1909 with his friend Lady Ottoline Morrell.

While it has been argued that some critics have exaggerated and misunderstood the productions’ impact on Grant, the artist was clearly inspired by these magnificent performances with their modernist stage sets and avant-garde costumes. According to Bloomsbury scholar Simon Watney, ‘There was little that Grant could have learnt technically as a painter from the productions.’ Instead, ‘It was the revelation of the potential of the theatre for modern design that inspired him, like so many others.[1]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACHA/PH/2. Photograph. Nijinsky in the Siamese Dance from ‘Les Orientales,’ 1911, by Druet. 26.5 x 43.6 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

At Lady Ottoline’s wartime parties during the winter of 1914-15, an atmosphere of ‘pure hedonism’ reigned, influenced by the success of the Ballets Russes. Guests would dress up in unusual costumes and dance wildly until the early hours. The hostess recalled one party when, ‘Duncan Grant was almost fierce, but full of humour and grace, as he bounded about like a Russian ballet dancer, or wound in and out in some intricate dance with Vanessa Bell or Bunny Garnett, who looked really fierce and barbaric in bright oranges and reds, a gay-coloured handkerchief on his head.[2] This spirit of freedom was upheld at Charleston, where a variety of productions were staged in the garden throughout the years, with sets and costumes designed and made by Grant and others.

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Left: Duncan Grant dressed as a Spanish dancer in the garden at Charleston c. 1935. Right: CHA/P/453. Costume, Duncan Grant, three part, life size, jointed, painted, card costume, circa 1935, gouache on card, 116 x 65 cm. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

The artist worked on a number of professional stage productions, for which he designed both sets and costumes in his expressive and experimental style. Jacques Copeau commissioned Grant to create costumes for his 1914 production of La Nuit des Rois, an adaptation from Twelfth Night by Theodore Lascaris. The production had a very simple stage dressing; devised both to reduce costs and to offer a modernist aesthetic. ‘I imagine surroundings in every respect unobtrusive,’ Copeau explained, ‘all the amusement of form and colour being produced by the costumes and the gestures of the actors.’[3] The production was well received, and became Copeau’s most frequently produced classic play.[4] While Grant went on to design costumes for another of Copeau’s productions following his earlier success, their collaboration was prematurely stopped by war. However, he did continue to design stage sets in the 1920s, and collaborated with Vanessa Bell on a production of High Yellow, a ballet set to modern jazz music.

The influence of dance and theatricality was not limited to Grant’s stage commissions, but permeated his other works with their freedom of line and playful use of colour. As discussed in a previous post about the influence of the circus on Grant’s work, the physicality of dancers similarly captured his imagination, and influenced his painting style and subject matter equally in unrelated paintings and drawings.

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CHA/P/166. Drawing, Duncan Grant, “Two Nymphs”, circa 1925, pastel and pencil on paper, framed, glazed, 35.5 x 26 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

[1] Simon Watney, The Art of Duncan Grant (London, 1990) p. 35

[2] Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant (London, 1998) p.162

[3] Spalding, p.146

[4] Ibid., p. 145

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