1st Birthday Blog Post: Duncan Grant’s Murals for Lincoln Cathedral

by charlestonattic

This post marks one year of The Charleston Attic blog. We have had an incredible time so far uncovering unusual and exciting items up in the Attic Studio here at Charleston. Thank you to all of our readers who have joined the journey! Here’s to another successful year…

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Charleston in the spring. Photographs © Penelope Fewster

Spring has well and truly sprung at Charleston; the garden is full of blooms, the new season’s visitors are exploring the house and the sun has been shining for days on end. There are new arrivals too; lambs and calves have been spotted in the fields surrounding the house and, for a few days last week, a brood of ducklings could be seen enjoying the pool in Duncan Grant’s Folly.

In almost perfect harmony, the Angelica Garnett Gift has been similarly full of new life over the past few weeks. In the archive boxes in the Attic Studio we have uncovered endless dog-eared drawings and yellowing newspaper clippings of farm animals, made or collected by Duncan Grant. From detailed sketches capturing the likeness of a cow’s head and the fluffiness of tiny chicks, to hasty records of sheep being sheared by strong farm-hands and grainy photographs of shepherds with their flocks, this extensive collection of imagery provides an evocative snapshot of rural life at Charleston when Bell and Grant lived at the house.

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Drawings of sheep and a folder of sketches in the Angelica Garnett Gift. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

As discussed briefly in previous posts here and here, many of these drawings and clippings were created and used by Grant for his mural commission in the St. Blaise Chapel at Lincoln Cathedral, completed in 1958. A theme of sheep and wool is at the centre of the scheme, which includes depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd, St. Blaise; the chapel’s namesake and patron saint of wool combers, sheep shearers, and ships being loaded with bales of wool in 15th century Lincoln. The city had been at the centre of Britain’s medieval wool trade, therefore this combination of local history and industry with spiritual examples was considered a suitable subject for a new mural commission by the Dean and Chapter of the cathedral. As one of Britain’s foremost artists and mural painters at the time, Grant was invited to undertake the job.

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Studies of sheep shearing and wool by Duncan Grant in the Angelica Garnett Gift. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

After the theme had been agreed and commission confirmed in 1954, Grant set to work on the designs in his studio at Charleston. In addition to drawing animals and farm labourers from life in the fields surrounding the house, Grant also used his friends and family to model for the figures in the scheme. It is thought that Vanessa Bell and Angelica Garnett are included as medieval women, however it is Grant’s friend Paul Roche who is so obviously captured as Christ the Good Shepherd, and used as a model for the sheep shearers and muscular workers loading the ship with wool. Roche recalled having to pose for Grant in uncomfortable positions and with all manner of cushions and blankets slung over his shoulders in place of a lamb. A number of the resulting studies have been found in the Gift, including some with annotations by Grant denoting their intended use.


 Studies for the murals by Duncan Grant. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

Despite the aesthetic success of Grant’s scheme with its bright colours and expressive figures, it was not popular with many of the congregation or clergy, and from the 1960s until the 1990s it remained hidden when the chapel was closed to visitors and used as a store room. Even when the cathedral’s first guide book was published in 1977, which included glossy colour plates of its interior, Grant’s mural scheme was excluded entirely. The artist died the following year. Although in recent years the chapel has been restored to its original purpose and Grant’s murals have undergone conservation, they are still not widely publicised and are only mentioned briefly on the history page of the cathedral’s website: ‘Later generations added the wonderful carved screen, the 14th century misericords, the Wren Library and the Duncan Grant frescoes.’

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St. Blaise Chapel murals by Duncan Grant. Image sourced here.

The reasons behind the murals’ demotion into obscurity during these years remain unclear, however a number of scholars have argued that the realism and physicality of the figures – confirmed by the recognisable portraits of Grant’s own friends, family and lovers in the guise of historical and religious figures – was what led to their unpopularity. His depiction of Roche as a young, muscular, and clean-shaven Christ was particularly challenging and at odds with established representations.

Like other members of the Bloomsbury group, Grant was not a religious man and therefore his intentions for the scene can be seen to have been motivated by artistic rather than spiritual interest. In his own notes about the project, Grant admitted,

‘I am sorry to say that I am very ignorant of the iconography of Christian art, and the fact that I chose to represent Christ as a youth was due to the whole spirit of the subject, chosen to combine scenes of everyday life in the sheep country with the issue of the Good Shepherd.’

As we know that Grant studied the people and animals around his Sussex home for the scheme, his conception of ‘everyday life’ can be seen to be that lived at Charleston; an experimental, bohemian existence that was at odds with what many, especially conservative members of the congregation, would have considered ‘normal’. With an explosion of public interest in the Bloomsbury group’s controversial lifestyle following the publication of Michael Holdroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey in the late 1960s, perhaps the world depicted on the walls of the chapel suddenly became too intimate and suggestive, and therefore a source of embarrassment for the Church authorities. About this we can only speculate.

Without an inkling of their later fate, Grant, Vanessa Bell, Quentin Bell and his four year old son, Julian, watched the finished murals depart Charleston for Lincoln by lorry in August 1956. Quentin’s wife, Anne Olivier Bell, captured the scene in this wonderful black and white photograph below, which accompanies a remarkably similar image of the Angelica Garnett Gift returning by lorry to Charleston in 2008. Nestled amongst all manner of paintings, sketchbooks and boxes of loose works were these fascinating preparatory drawings of animals and farm labourers; snapshots of rural Sussex life and documents of one of Grant’s most intriguing – and controversial – commissions.


Left: The murals departing Charleston for Lincoln Cathedral in 1956. Photograph © Anne Olivier Bell. Right: The Angelica Garnett Gift arriving at Charleston in 2008. Photograph © The Charleston Trust