The Charleston Attic

Month: February, 2016

Lyric Charm and Quiet Wit

The Angelica Garnett Gift never fails to surprise with its traces of Charlestonian foreign travel. Amongst a scattered geography of postcards, sketchbooks and letter paper, we have followed Bell and Grant from the winding backstreets of St. Tropez to sites of classical antiquity in Greece. This week the tokens of travel are a pair of vibrant landscapes from Duncan Grant’s 1975 visit to Tangier.


Tangier 1

CHA/P/2594. Duncan Grant, Recto. Tangier Landscape. Oil pastel on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

At 91 Grant remained a keen traveller, so on 17th October 1975 he took a late flight from Heathrow to Tangier with companion Paul Roche. Grant planned on passing a tranquil few weeks painting at El Farah, the home of friend Rex Nan Kivell, a former hotel three miles outside of Tangier with which Grant was by now familiar, having stayed twice before in the late sixties. Due to Grant’s reduced mobility, the pair slept downstairs in a room with magnificent views of the town, surrounding countryside, and distant glimpses of the sea. Yet Grant delighted most in his immediate environs, as Paul Roche recalls:

‘He was enchanted by the cacti, the hibiscus, the bananas and the heavily scented long ivory funnels of datura.’

However, disaster soon struck: as a result of damp and cold evenings in El Farah, Grant soon contracted pneumonia. A brief and pleasant holiday became a lengthy mission to stabilise Grant’s health, with he and Roche finally leaving on his full recovery seven months later.

Once the worst of Grant’s illness had passed, Roche recalls idyllic days of drawing and dining, paying visits to the local artistic elite (such as Paul Bowles and Marguerite McBey) alongside hours devoted to their creative projects. Remembering Grant’s aesthetic during this period, Roche remarks:

‘Unable to command the solidarity of a portrait or a still-life anymore, Duncan had let loose his lyric charm and quiet wit.’

These Tangier landscapes are certainly instances of such ‘lyric charm’, rendering local flora and fauna in astonishingly bright blues and purples, executed with an abstraction closer to the experiments of his youth. Like many of the pieces from his time in Tangier, one can imagine these works completed at the large circular table of Grant’s make-shift studio, with Roche reading on an adjacent divan, or cycling into town to purchase their lunch.

tangier 2

CHA/P/2595. Duncan Grant, Recto. Tangier Landscape. Oil pastel on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Their preservation in the gift is itself a stroke of luck. Thanks to months of roaring hot fires (in a desperate attempt to buoy Grant’s strength) El Farah’s sumptuous interiors were almost entirely ruined by smoke, soot and ash. This is not to mention Grant’s rather puckish approach to the villa’s soft furnishing. While a  tablecloth cut into fanciful patterns could be easily concealed, Grant’s other transgressions were more obvious: the grey velvet upholstery of an armchair was refashioned into a  dashing Post-Impressionist design, if somewhat frustratingly for Kivell with the use of a black permanent marker. As a result, Roche was eager to offer Grant’s works as recompense; yet Kivell was sympathetic to the pair’s plight, gratefully receiving only a small watercolour of an orange.

The remaining pieces we can only assume returned home with Grant and Roche, after a long internment in the ad-hoc home they created out in Morocco.

The Process of Abstraction

In many of the sketches by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in the Angelica Garnett Gift one can see the tangible ephemera of everyday life abstracting. Still life scenes become shapes and darts over the course of a sketchbook. Subjects are reworked and refined as outlines of their former selves. People disappear, represented instead by the shapes of their clothing and surroundings. In these works we see the artists’ processes of abstraction, using the contours of landscapes and the shaping of the figure to create significant forms.

Lily Pond Duncan Grant Art Gallery of South Australia

Duncan Grant Lily-Pond design. Photograph © Art Gallery of South Australia.

Bell and Grant experimented with abstract art in the 1910s both in their individual work and in their designs for the Omega Workshops. Grant’s Omega design Lily-Pond used in the Lily-Pond Table that can be seen in Maynard Keynes’s bedroom at Charleston is a notable example. This piece, like many of the sketch works in the Angelica Garnett Gift, though abstract is still recognisably representational. The dark depths of the pond are the bottomless backdrop to the drama of golden scaled fish rippling the lily pads and creating dancing reflections of light. Similarly an abstract landscape sketch by Duncan Grant that we have found in the Gift (see below) replicates the motion of the natural world. Wind moves in a spiralling motion above cliffs and wavy lines rise from the ground and along the edge of a cave. Fish also swim in a pool of water in this sketch, but now they are all facing the same direction, copies of themselves. Indeed, the forms in the sketch are more graphic, more geometric, than those in Lily-Pond. The bold lines of the sketch both capture the mood of this perhaps imaginary landscape whilst refining its representation into abstraction.


CHA/P/2318 Recto. Duncan grant, drawing, abstract landscape study, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Vanessa Bell was also interested in the abstraction of the natural world. Her lesser known painting Landscape, painted on the back of another of her works Window, Still Life, uses the colours and shapes of nature to communicate the feeling of being in a landscape, rather than what it may actually look like. It is as if the fleshy coloured shape of a figure mid-way down the painting is swimming through this landscape, which could be both lily pond and shaded canopy in the same moment. Lines and blocks of colours are also used to insinuate the fall and refraction of light upon the natural scene. This painting is particularly interesting due to its being on the back of another work Window, Still Life from 1912-13. Indeed, the canvas of Landscape was cut down to fit the size of Window, Still Life meaning Landscape must pre-date it and that it was an early experiment into abstraction for Vanessa Bell.

(c) Henrietta Garnett; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Landscape by Vanessa Bell. Photograph © The Cheltenham Trust.

Works like these would develop in Vanessa Bell’s work culminating in 1914 when she created one of the first completely non-representational abstract paintings made by a British artist. This pioneering Abstract Painting developed alongside other paintings which used geometric shapes, such as her portrait of Mary Hutchinson in 1915 and her 1915 self portrait. In these paintings the abstract shapes and colours relate to the colours used to demark the sitter. It is thus possible to read these backgrounds as abstract representations of the portraits themselves.


Mrs St John Hutchinson by Vanessa Bell, 1915. Photograph © Tate.

At the same time Duncan Grant created his Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound (1914) which was a design for a long piece of abstract work which would be hung over mechanical spools rotating the design enabling it to be viewed sequentially through the aperture of a box as it passed. He also intended it to be set to music, specifically a slow movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Although this project was never realised this and Bell’s works in abstraction assert their importance to the development of abstract art in the 1910s in England.


CHA/P/2399 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Indeed, the Angelica Garnett Gift is a rich resource for considering their approach to abstraction. When Bell painted her groundbreaking abstract canvas she had, as Richard Shone notes, “seen hardly no non-figurative work by other artists”. This suggests that Bell, influenced by the visual vocabularies of Post-Impressionism brought to England by Roger Fry in 1910, developed her works into abstraction on her own terms. Indeed, the gift gives us glimpses of abstraction in action. A Vanessa Bell sketchbook which includes various studies of fans also contains a sketch in which two well dressed ladies are reduced to the shapes of their fans and feathered hats themselves, standing before a table abstractedly set with a glass of wine and a bowl of fruit for lunch. Furthermore, a page of sketches by Duncan Grant focusing on the female form is also dotted with decorative motifs that mimic the curvature of the female body.


CHA/P/606/42. Vanessa Bell, drawing, decorative motifs, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Although abstraction seems to have been key to both artists’ oeuvres in their artistic development and their continuing process of design for works of art and decorative commissions, Quentin Bell later recalled how Vanessa Bell felt that purely abstract work enacted a loss of the subject matter that she craved. Despite moving away from abstract aesthetics in painting the Angelica Garnett Gift is revealing the continuing importance of abstraction as a method of thinking through composition and design in the works of both Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.


CHA/P/2487 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, abstract design, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.


“The Maternal Paradox: The Private Portraiture of Vanessa Bell”

Samantha Wilson, previous Curatorial Intern in the Attic, can be seen here reading her paper “The Maternal Paradox: The Private Portraiture of Vanessa Bell” at the Understanding British Portraits Annual Seminar held at the National Portrait Gallery in November last year. Read our synopsis of her argument here.

Vanessa Bell’s Bathers

Pierre Bonnard’s bathers – the plural is perhaps misleading, for most of his soaking or somnolent nudes were his obliging wife Marthe – lean, lie, or wilt within their enclosed, mistily realised domestic interiors, but rarely do they rise – inelegant, immodest, uneroticised – in the manner of this recently discovered Vanessa Bell nude.

bathing scene

CHA/P/2439. Vanessa Bell. Bathing Scene. Recto. 49cm x 41cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The wide lilac trimmed bathtub – notably not the narrow, murky green of the tub at Charleston – provides a backdrop for Bell’s awkwardly limbed emerging nude. One arm clutches her side, the other – and our eyes follows her downcast face in its direction – is angled for leverage of her knee. Attentive to the body’s mechanics, Bell is equally sensitive to how the body is experienced in a particular mood, how emotions are embodied. Dappled in unfleshly greens and aquamarine, her ratios radically mismatched (no accident of perspective could generate such an attenuated upper arm, so large a foot) Bell here cedes the figurative to feeling. Size is consistent with effort, suggestive of and responsive to the sensation of weight. The unusual sheens of her skin could, in turn, allude to the estrangement from one’s body elicited by these private rituals. One must temporarily regard one’s body as an object, a vessel – and a fragile one, at that – requiring cleaning, care, and attention.

Anatomy, for Bell, is a means of expression, not an opportunity to strive for representational accuracy; the bather’s surroundings are likewise impressionistic, unconcerned with strict verisimilitude. A hazy geometry of burnt orange, white and periwinkle blue suggest a curtain withdrawn to a pane of glass: rays of sunlight thin to a milky iridescence; pear-shaped daubs of paint smudge into the suggestion of steam. A fastidiously detailed toilette – the mirrors, brushes, and towels littering many of Bonnard’s scenes, not to mention the similar set-pieces of Edgar Degas – is set aside. A sense of privacy trespassed, of intimacy easily if unwillingly ceded – of an omnipotent, virile beholder, in short – lent the conventional bathing scene a fair amount of its appeal. Yet prying becomes almost an impossibility here, as nothing in Bell’s interior is especially familiar; all is avowedly and self-reflexively painted. Abandoning the more prurient forces underpinning the genre, then, Bell’s is a study rather of colour reduced to its optical minutiae, of paint responsive to divergent and shifting materialities.

The Bath 1925 by Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947

Pierre Bonnard, The Bath, 1925. oil on canvas. 86cm x 120.5cm. Photograph © Tate

Bathing scenes had long held a complicated erotic appeal: voyeuristic pleasures aside, these images served to both amplify and assuage anxieties over the cleanliness (or indeed the essential, irrevocable dirtiness) of the female body. Bonnard’s bathing scenes are often praised for their depictions of marital intimacy, nevertheless they remain – however gentle or loving his gaze – reiterations of masculine agency and feminine passivity so prevalent in the Western European art historical canon. Bonnard’s 1925 painting of his wife is typical, imagining her submerged to her chin, swamped by white porcelain, the lifeless nymph of his homely arcadia. Here a shimmering jaundiced blue, Bonnard’s later “Nude in the Bath” (1940) fully dissolves the female body into the bathwater. Tired tropes associating women with the elemental, fluid, and uncontrollable are deployed without compunction; for there are ways of concealing ideology by making claims about perception. Faux-naive in consistency and colour, the circular floor tiling and cross-hatched panelling allude to the visual vocabulary of Post-Impressionism; the bather’s porous and permeable body is, in this light, merely a formal consideration, an expression of fleeting tonal relations, nothing more.

pb bath 2

Pierre Bonnard, Nu Dans La Baignoire, 1940. watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper. 28cm x 32.1cm. Photograph © Christie’s.

Bell’s appropriation of the traditional scene is not without its own quiet, queer eroticism, but seems more keenly responsive to the subjectivity of the bather, and certainly less willing to essentialise in the name of aesthetics. Her gestures radiate a vulnerability – the hand on hip feels protective, and is disproportionately sized as if to bolster or shield – but are balanced against something more defiant, wilful. Note the hunched shoulder, the elbow aslant, the legs splayed. Held aloft and glossed by a sheen of white, the foot reaches beyond the bathwater and – toes touching the scribbled, unfinished outer edge of the tub – the picture plane itself. The bather is at once delicate and robust, sensual but self-commanding, with Bell’s eye trained less to the body’s allure, and more to its tension and mass, its muscle and movement.

Of course, this canvas was not Bell’s sole foray into bathing scenes, and more than likely represents a later work – the absence of dating entails a certain embrace of obscurity – to her 1917 masterpiece “The Tub”.  Originally intended for the Garden Room at Charleston (but never hung) this strikingly large work depicts a woman undressed, playing absently with her plaited hair, her bath skewed to face the viewer, agape like an astonished mouth. Generic similarities are accentuated by the broadly anti-illusionistic style the works share, most noticeable in their spare, vibrantly hued environments. Even the bathers are encountered as echoes. Neither preen nor perform for the painter; both look away, without vanity or shame, their thoughts elsewhere. Yet a uniquely acute sense of unease pervades “The Tub”: every element – from the drooping floral arrangement to the deep purple pillar – is tersely separate, static.

The Tub 1917 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961

Vanessa Bell, The Tub, 1917. oil (?) and gouache on canvas. 167cm ×108.3cm. Photograph © Tate.

Frances Spalding has read the painting as charged with the emotional turmoil of Bell’s complex early life at Charleston, the three wilting flowers an allusion to the painful, ongoing ménage-a-trois between Bell, Grant and Garnett. However tempting, such biographical readings belie Bell’s awareness of the canon, and her especially fraught relationship with its androcentric history. “The Tub” could thus be better understood as invoking the bathing scene only to admit a profound discomfort, to concede the paralysis and emotional aridity of a genre so freighted with epistemic violence. By the time of her later painting, one can only assume Bell felt the hostile genre had been neutralised, reconciled, and able, finally, to capture an animated, agential vision of female subjectivity.


“New honours come upon him, like our strange garments”

When in Shakespeare’s Macbeth the tragic hero is named Thane of Cawdor in Act 1, his fellow general Banquo comments on how the position adorns him like a novel new outfit, not yet worn in: “New honours come upon him, / Like our strange garments cleave not to their mould, / But with the aid of use”. He posits that only with time will Macbeth wear his position better. Costume features as a trope within the play and here signifies both identity and pretence. Thus the costume of Macbeth was already layered with conceptual meaning before Duncan Grant embarked on his Modernist designs for Harley Granville-Barker’s production, planned for 1912. We have recently been working on Grant’s sketchbook for these designs, found in the Angelica Garnett Gift. Indeed, although they were never used in their original form, the sketches reveal Grant’s working design process and gives us a glimpse of the production that could have been.

Duncan Grant’s designs (images below) include a costume for a witch, whose billowing crosshatched mantle gives the character a portentous presence, a simplistic dress for Lady Macbeth’s entrance, and Lords wearing robes made from Omega fabrics. There is also a page of notes that details Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s costume changes over the course of the play. Lady Macbeth, for example, is first seen in a yellow/orange dress but her costume changes in mood so that by the Fifth Act she is wearing a grey crepe nightgown with dark blue cashmere wrapper spotted with dull Indian red. The dark Indian red spots that decorate her wrap mirror the blood that she struggles to wash away from her conscience in her line “out, damned spot”, revealing how Grant’s costume is both highly experimental whilst being sensitive to Shakespeare’s original script. These designs were a precursor to his costumes created for Copeau’s Twelth Night in 1914. In this production the costumes by Grant shone against a minimalist set where painted fabrics and Omega patterns such as Mechtilde were shown to their full advantage.

When this sketchbook was originally unearthed from the Angelica Garnett Gift, mould was found growing on the cover and some of the inside pages. Our paper conservator has worked on the sketchbook to remove the mould incrustations from the surfaces of the paper and covers, treating the object so as to destroy the mould spores. The cover was in such condition that the strawboard boards that supported the sketchbook covers were completely removed. The cover fabric itself has been preserved and is now catalogued into the collection with the separate sketchbook pages.


CHA/P/2584/6. Duncan Grant, Macbeth Sketchbook, costume design for Witch, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


CHA/P/2484/28. Duncan Grant, Macbeth Sketchbook, costume design for Lady Macbeth, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


CHA/ P/2484/50. Duncan Grant, Macbeth Sketchbook, costume design for a Lord, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


CHA/ P/2484/50. Macbeth Sketchbook, notes on costume designs for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


Our Heritage Lottery Fund Public Programmes and Learning Intern is currently putting together a workshop that will engage volunteers from a local community costume resource to recreate some of the costumes from this sketchbook later this year.

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