Duncan Grant (left) with John Maynard Keynes (right)
We recently found a painting in the Angelica Garnett Gift by Duncan Grant which depicts a landscape far away from Sussex that was painted some time before Vanessa Bell, Grant and Bunny Garnett moved to Charleston; a token of the artist’s life and love a decade before his partnership with Bell at the house began.
In 1908 Grant’s romance with his cousin, Lytton Strachey, was coming to a close. With Lytton away lecturing in economics at Cambridge University, Grant grew increasingly close to Lytton’s friend, former lover, and fellow Apostle, the economist John Maynard Keynes. On discovering Grant and Keynes’ blossoming romance on his return to London, Strachey was deeply aggrieved: ‘Of all the darkly amorous crises sprinkled throughout his life,’ writes Strachey’s biographer Michael Holroyd, ‘this was perhaps the most wretched.’ Having confided in Keynes about Grant, and in Grant about Keynes, Strachey felt both humiliated and betrayed now that his two close companions had united: ‘It came as an explosive shock,’ Holroyd writes, ‘a kind of death. Like the violent eruption of an earthquake which alters every feature in the surrounding landscape, this sudden revelation destroyed in a few moments the whole structure of his last three years.’ As Grant’s biographer Frances Spalding observes,
Now [Strachey] had to realise that he had lost both idol and confidant, a double blow that must have left him horribly alone. He was also extremely sceptical about Maynard’s capacity for love and raged against him to his brother James, privately dismissing his rival as ‘a safety-bicycle with genitals’.
In spite of his personal grief, however, Strachey made a concerted effort to remain on good terms with his two friends, offering to pay Grant’s painting tuition fees and sending Keynes a parcel of books ‘to adorn his rooms at King’s’. Although seemingly warm-hearted gestures, Holroyd has suggested that Strachey’s actions were motivated by the belief that, ‘his behaviour might win him back some of the esteem which he had shed, and at the same time prompt feelings of guilt in his treacherous friends.’
Despite Lytton’s heartbreak – and the feelings of regret his gifts did provoke in the pair – Grant and Keynes continued to see one another. At the height of their romance in July of that year, Grant was invited away for the summer. ‘I have just received an invitation to go and spend some time in the Orkney Islands with a millionaire who owns Hoy,’ Grant wrote to Keynes, referring to a friend of his mother’s, Thomas Middlemore, who in 1898 had bought the island for £32000. ‘Much as I love the Orkneys,’ he declared, ‘I love you more and don’t know what to do. Do advise me.’ Keynes readily agreed to join Grant for the holiday, a trip that would be bitterly referred to by Strachey as the couple’s ‘Honeymoon’.
The Orkney Islands (Hoy bottom left)
Duncan travelled to Hoy ahead of Keynes, a mammoth twenty-seven hour journey that would take him first to Stromness, then by ferry and motorboat to Melsetter, Middlemore’s estate on Hoy. Spalding describes the journey:
The small boat tossed and dipped in a stormy sea for what seemed like three hours, but Duncan, drenched to the skin, thoroughly enjoyed himself, observing the cormorants, the seals, the spray and the colours in the islands, sea and sky. Even so, he was glad of the champagne given him on arrival.
After two days Grant had already grown tired of his fellow guests at Melsetter and eagerly awaited Keynes’ arrival. ‘Dearest’ he penned, ‘at this moment I would give my soul to the Devil if I could kiss you and be kissed.’ Deciding to leave the estate and stay elsewhere when Keynes arrived, Grant wrote to tell him that he had discovered the perfect location for their holiday, describing the village – called Rackwick – as a place, ‘Where the people are frequently mad from too frequent incest…There is no priest, no church and no policemen. Don’t you think we’d better go there at once?’
Keynes joined Grant on the island on the 18th August, 1908. Together the couple led a peaceful and orderly existence over the coming weeks. Each would spend several hours a day working; Keynes would write (he began his ‘Theory of Probability’ on Hoy) and Grant would paint (Grant started his celebrated portrait of Keynes that was purchased by the sitter’s father and later bequeathed to King’s College Cambridge, in whose collection it remains today). When the pair were not at work they would read Jane Austen aloud to one another and go for long hikes to explore the island’s glorious landscape. The painting in the Angelica Garnett Gift that inspired this blog post is a careful watercolour study of Hoy, and was quite likely to have been painted during this 1908 trip. While the work has been dated 1905 on the back in pen, it is quite possible that this date was assigned after its production, as Grant would often sign and post-date (often inaccurately) his works for sale later in life.
CHA/P/1957, Duncan Grant, painting, Hoy, c. 1908 (dated 1905), watercolour on paper, 25.7 cm x 35.7 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust
It was with much reluctance that in late October the two friends departed Hoy, Keynes travelling back to Cambridge, Grant to Rothiemurchus where he spent a few days at his family’s ancestral home, the Doune. Writing to Keynes from this remote and idyllic location, Grant admitted:
This place is so gorgeously lovely that the Orkneys have been blotted out of my visual memory…but not you.
Despite their happiness, the closeness that the couple had experienced during their summer on Hoy would not be felt to such an extent again, and in April 1909 Grant admitted to James Strachey that he was no longer in love with Keynes. Lytton Strachey, now released from the anxiety that the affair had provoked in him, commiserated with Keynes, his words filled with sympathy if also tinged slightly with relief:
Love’s the very devil. But it is Time’s fool; and my experience is that when it’s once flown finally out of the window one’s astonished to find one can get on well without it.
Detail of a photograph of John Maynard Keynes (left) and Lytton Strachey (right) by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1915 © National Portrait Gallery