Painting Plymouth: Duncan Grant and the British Navy

by charlestonattic

Today is the anniversary of VE Day, marking seventy years since the end of World War II in Europe. This momentous occasion will be commemorated with events all over the United Kingdom. The Angelica Garnett Gift has recently unearthed a number of sketches featuring naval officers in Plymouth, and today seemed the perfect time to share these works by Duncan Grant. These drawings offer insight into Grant’s occupation during the war and also allow an opportunity to reflect on Charleston and what VE Day meant to its residents.



Top: CHA/P/1398, Duncan Grant, Figure Studies, ink pen on paper, 1940, 25.9 cm x 17.8 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust. Bottom: CHA/P/1011, Duncan Grant, An Officer and a Sailor, pencil on paper, 1940, 39.6 cm x 29cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Grant had been approached by the War Artists Advisory Committee in March 1940 and following discussion he agreed to travel to Plymouth and work on producing naval studies. In return for his commitment Grant would receive a wage of one pound a day plus travelling expenses and worked under the condition that he would submit all sketches and finished works for censorship. He lived and worked in Plymouth for two weeks and whilst there met with John Nash, who was working as an official war artist. Nash warned Grant that ‘spy mania’ was rife in the docklands and that it would be impossible to paint in that area without constant interruption. Following Nash’s advice Grant chose to depict sailors undertaking gunnery lessons in the naval barracks, and it is the sketches of these observations that we have found as part of the Angelica Garnett Gift. Other preliminary sketches and the final finished work depicting Grant’s time recording the working lives of sailors in Plymouth are in the collections at the Imperial War Museum.


CHA/P/1014, Duncan Grant, Two Military Figures, 1940, pencil and Biro pen on paper, 29 cm x 39.4 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Despite the devastation that was heaped upon the area during the Blitz, Grant was grateful for his experiences of naval life. In a letter to Jane Bussy, written in June 1940, Vanessa Bell describes how he returned;

‘with a great respect for their immense efficiency and charm and had most interesting stories of high and low life in Plymouth.’

Bell was an avid letter writer during the war and in the Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell, edited by Regina Marler, we see her describe the daily difficulties or war, being unable to travel and seek the company of friends, growing awareness of death and how ‘untidy’ the world was becoming. A letter dated March 12th 1945 to her daughter Angelica gives an account of ‘V week’ and how members of Bloomsbury and the local community chose to commemorate the occasion;

‘We have had a very quiet V[ictory] week except for Maynard’s entertainments… we enjoyed open windows and lights streaming out, and fireworks in the distance and even, we thought the lights of London – and bonfires everywhere…Finally we went home and turned on all our outdoor lights and the garden was simply fairy land – with nightingales- yes, we were sure of it – singing loudly. we walked about on the lawn and did our best to realise we were at peace’


Photograph of VE Day Celebrations in London, 8th May 1945. © Rootsweb Ancestry