The 1940 Venice Biennale – ‘I think you’re really getting too famous’

by charlestonattic


CHA-E-159. Invitation sent to Duncan Grant for the 1940 Venice Biennale. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

In 1939 Duncan Grant was invited with five other artists – Frank Dobson, Glyn Philpot, Frances Hodgkins, Alfred Munnings and Edward Wadsworth – to represent Britain at the 1940 Venice Biennale, the invite for which we have recently unearthed in the Angelica Garnett Gift. First held on April 30th, 1895 to celebrate the silver anniversary of King Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy, the Venice Biennale remains to this day one of the leading exhibitions of contemporary art in the world. In addition to Bloomsbury group member Clive Bell, the Selection Committee for Britain’s 1940 entry consisted of Sir Lionel Faudel-Phillips, Campbell Dogson, Lawrence Haward, Sir Eric Maclagan, Herbert Read, the Earl of Sandwich, and Alfred Longden.

CHA-E-159-A_Cropped logoDetail of CHA-E-159

Having been allocated his own room at the show, Grant planned a retrospective display and began sifting through photographs of his early works for selection, many of which were previously unknown to his daughter, Angelica Garnett, and excited her greatly. In a letter to David ‘Bunny’ Garnett she marvelled at the diverse range evident in Grant’s oeuvre: ‘experimenting and always fresh and sincerely gone through.’

Four months after this invitation was received, however, the British Council withdrew from the show. Two days after Nazi invasion of Poland on the 1st September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany, commencing a long and bloody conflict that would last until the 14th August, 1945. Although the British Council’s official reason for withdrawal was that it could not risk sending some £30000 worth of art abroad in wartime circumstances (grounds also used by the French to defend their own withdrawal from the Biennale), growing anxiety regarding Italy’s fascist politics can be seen as the real motivation behind this decision, and later confirmed with the country declaring war on both Britain and France on the 10th June, 1940.

BC catalogue

British Council exhibition catalogue. Image sourced here

In place of the Venice display, the British selection was instead exhibited in London at Hertford House which had been reopened especially by the Trustees of the Wallace Collection. The foreword of the British Council’s catalogue for the show describes the circumstances of the exhibition, and includes pertinent references to the political climate of Europe at the time:

These [works] should have left the country two or three weeks ago, and should today (May 17th) be hanging in that fine British pavilion in the public gardens of Venice. Dis aliter visum: the agitated state of our unhappy continent made the sending impossible. Wherefore, what we had hoped to show our Italian friends is here presented to the British Public.

Thus, every other year, is displayed a sample of what each country is producing and what its public admires; and thus, though it is improbable that anyone will like all that he is shown, he must be hard to please who likes nothing. Should one result of such an exhibition be a small increase in the spirit of toleration, the exhibition will not have been held in vain.

One cannot help but speculate whether this reference to ‘the spirit of toleration’ refers solely to modern art and its viewing public, or whether it hints also to the wider social and political concerns of war-torn Europe at this time of unrest.

Clive Bell was responsible for hanging the Hertford House show, however his curatorial decisions horrified Vanessa Bell, and she set about changing the display as tactfully as possible so not to offend her husband. Vanessa recounted the event in a letter to Angelica on May 11th, 1940, in which she also mentions her great friend, Roger Fry who had died six years previously. Bell’s letter captures both the dilemma she faced when entering Grant’s room, and illustrates how she sorely missed Fry’s influence and guiding hand in such matters:

We arrived at Hertford House and found all his paintings already hung and Clive and an underling on the spot. My first feeling was one of horror. The paintings were so badly hung that one could see nothing. The question was how to undo practically everything, with tact. But if the show was to do any sort of justice to Duncan it had to be done somehow, so we began making small changes. Luckily Clive hadn’t really any feelings and realised we had more experience in such matters and the underling who was at first horrified became reconciled and in the end we changed it all and it looked lovely. I think of writing a book upon hanging, with illustrations. Very few people know anything about it and yet there are quite a lot of rules one can follow. I wish Roger had done it.

The Tub c.1913 Duncan Grant 1885-1978 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1965

Duncan Grant’s The Tub, painted around 1913, was one of the works exhibited in the Hertford House show. Photograph © Tate, London, 2015, sourced here.

Whether due to Vanessa’s intervention or not, Grant’s works were well received by the press, and he was also said to ‘dominate’ the ‘Nine Painters at the Lefevre’ exhibition and had a solo show of forty-one drawings and sketches at the Calman Gallery in 42 St James’s Place. Celebrating the artist’s recent successes, one critic called it ‘Grant’s Week’, prompting Vanessa to protest dryly, ‘I think you’re really getting too famous.’ Despite his celebrity status, Grant learnt about much of his success second hand, as, at the request of the War Artist’s Advisory Committee, he had left Charleston to paint the sailors at Plymouth. You can read more about Grant’s Plymouth commission here.

Like the invitation to the 1922 Redfern Gallery Summer Salon, discussed in another blog post here, this object in the Angelica Garnett Gift documents a fascinating moment in both Grant’s artistic career and the wider art world during a time of political and social unease in Europe.



Photographing works in the Angelica Garnett Gift up in the Attic Studio at Charleston. Image © The Charleston Trust

This post celebrates the end of processing the large box of loose works on paper that we started in January, the last picture in the box being a sketch of a sleeping cat (shown above). We hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about our finds. We are now cataloguing larger works, including numerous paintings and colour studies, so stay tuned for more updates from the Charleston Attic….