A Little Bistro

by charlestonattic

The Charlestonians spent many winters in the South of France in retreat from the blustery darkness that has recently taken hold of the fields surrounding Charleston. In October 1922 Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and the children Julian, Quentin and (Vanessa and Duncan’s natural daughter) Angelica Bell made the journey to St Tropez accompanied by Grace Germany (nee Higgins) “the angel of Charleston” and their nanny Nellie Brittain. They were to spend the winter at La Maison Blanche. These festive seasons abroad were well documented by Grace Germany in her diaries. She records one particularly merry Christmas day spent in St Tropez:

“the weather was quite nice but very cold. Great excitement with Julian, Quentin and Angelica examining their presents. The boys gave me an elephant and some chocolates. Mr Grant a bottle of scent. Louise being away, Mrs Bell, Madame Santucci and myself cleaned out the kitchen and scullery. We had a Plum pudding and mince pies, roast pork, preserved fruits, dates, figs and oranges, also wine for luncheon. M. Landau came for tea, they had a Xmas tree and Xmas cake and we had one. After we had a firework display.”


CHA/P/2416/11. Duncan Grant, Sketchbook. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

In keeping with these seasonal trips to France, the South of France has made an appearance in the wintry attic. We have recently discovered a sketchbook that accompanied Duncan Grant on a visit to the South of France. Filled with sketches of café scenes, beachside bathers, and a cat in a bowl, it is, however, this sketch of two old ladies eating dinner (above) that has caught our eye. Pressed against this page, untouched since it was placed there, we found a receipt for the meal Grant seems to have ordered at the café he describes in both word and image in this picture. We imagine him, tired and hungry after a long city trek searching for a good dinner, flinging himself into a bistro chair and sketching the two French ladies whose image, chatting over lemon sole, had persuaded him to dine at this “little bistro” named Chez Marcel on the receipt. Perhaps, after eating, he placed his knife and fork across his plate and scrawled down this recollection of his day thus far, framing his sketch with a story:

“Sometimes perfect things happen. As for instance at Cagnes-Sur-Mer I looked in vain I explored backstreets and hidden churches built of concrete over bridges over unexpected dikes. I look for café to eat. Like false lures, the dead alive cheap and nauseating came my way until I saw a Brasserie. There it only sold coffee and beer. But opposite something very inoffensive met my eye, a little bistro and two very old French ladies outside eating lemon sole and lemon.” (Duncan Grant, Sketchbook, CHA/P/2416/11).


CHA/E/233 Recto. Restaurant receipt from Chez Marcel, Cagnes-Sur-Mer. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Here we see Grant trailing the streets of Cagnes with his sketchbook, led first by artistic observation and then by his stomach. He embodies the image of the flaneur, the “painter of modern life”, a concept discussed in our previous blog post Friendship and the Flaneur. Indeed, Cagnes-sur-Mer, nestled in the radiant light of the South of France, inspired a generation of artists including Andre Derain, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Paul Cezanne who featured in Roger Fry’s 1910 Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries. Originally an artisan fishing village, this suburb of Nice on the Cote d’Azur provided these artists with inspiration in the form of deep blue seas frothing onto rounded pebbles, medieval buildings winding up to the top of the castle hill and narrow streets named after flowers.

Duncan Grant visited Cagnes in 1937 shortly after visiting Paris with Vanessa and Quentin Bell where they saw Pablo Picasso who was working on his painting Guernica. This post follows Grant from this meeting, detailed in our recent blog on The Spanish Civil war, on his solo travels south to the coast whilst Vanessa Bell returned to England. During his time in Cagnes Grant visited Renoir’s house, which is the Renoir Museum today, and called on Eddy Sackville-West who was staying at Aldous Huxley’s villa nearby. Duncan himself was also visited by Jean Campbell who invited him to stay at Fontcreuse.

France was, as Jans Ondaatje Rolls writes in her The Bloomsbury Cookbook, “always the chief source of foreign inspiration for Bloomsbury – whether in food or art”. In this recently discovered sketch the two are perfectly combined and satisfied in one. We see Duncan Grant searching for and finding the perfect moment, the perfect scene to sketch, the perfect meal to enjoy. From the 1920s Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant spent longer periods of time in France with the staff from Charleston. In 1921 they spent the autumn and winter in St Tropez in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean bay. Later in the 1920s and into the 1930s they spent year on year in Cassis, leasing La Bergere, a stone cottage surrounded by vineyard and dubbed “Charleston in France” by Leonard Woolf’s biographer Victoria Glendinning. These locations had as much an effect on the artists’ paintings as the cooks’ dinners. Elise Anghilanti, the cook at La Bergere from 1928, taught Grace Germany many French recipes which she could reproduce back in the kitchen at Charleston.

If this sketch is from Grant’s 1937 trip to Cagnes it provides us with a rare glimpse into his thoughts and moods years later. Frances Spalding notes how on this visit he returned to La Bergere which was now let to another family and regretted that they had not spent more time there. However, his is also a somewhat unromantic view of the town of Cagnes. The scene he conjures is dotted with concrete buildings and “nauseating” cheap eateries. Perhaps this is shaped by a well-worn familiarity with the region. And yet, at the end of his narrative he finds his perfect moment, swept up again in the romance of the region. He finds himself enchanted by a little bistro: the perfect place for dinner, coffee and a glass of wine.