‘Collaboration at Cambridge: Bloomsbury Heritage in Domestic Aesthetic’
Last week was #MuseumWeek 2016, and to celebrate, The Charleston Attic will once again be joining institutions all over the world by writing a blog post reflecting one of the themes trending on Twitter.
Thursday’s theme of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, shows the scope for discovery within the several thousand works on paper and canvas that make up the Angelica Garnett Gift.
Last week also marked our independence as the new Attic Interns as we continue with the task in hand: to photograph, catalogue and publish Grant and Bell’s works so that they may be viewed online. There is much excitement to be had in unearthing new items in the collection, and it seems like the perfect opportunity, in celebration of Charleston’s cultural heritage through the Gift, to talk about this week’s findings in relation to the theme.
We have been looking closely at two sketchbooks by Duncan Grant; dated circa 1919 and 1923 respectively. Grant, as we well know, was always drawing- his sketchbooks alone make up a large part of the Gift. The earlier sketchbook contains preparatory figurative studies for the mural that Grant and Vanessa Bell had designed for John Maynard Keynes’ rooms at Webb’s Court, King’s College, Cambridge in 1920. These were the second set of murals that John Maynard Keynes had commissioned from Grant for his Cambridge rooms; the first being in 1910. These four panels were covered some years later and the room redesigned in 1920, when a new mural was put in place.
Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Mural for John Maynard Keynes (1920), Webb’s Court, King’s College. Photograph © King’s College Archives.
Filling entire pages in the book, the figurative studies in pencil and charcoal are emphasized by the variations of shadow and shading made through the boldness of the pressed line on the faded cream paper. Looking at Grant’s sketches of these figures, his focus on certain parts of the body is apparent. His large rough outlines of hands and feet, drawn as appendages to the shapely legs and arms continuing off the pages, conveys bodily movement, as we imagine what the figures would look like as a whole.
The figures depicted on the panels are vivid; they are painted in bright colour, and are almost life-size. The poses they strike are dynamic. Although they are dominant – as painted figures they are made the focus of the space’s decoration – the poses they strike are less sexualized than the figures in the original mural by Grant, where surviving photographs show a revel of semi-nude male and female dancers cavorting in a lush vineyard, their baskets burgeoning under the weight of nature’s pleasures in the form of fresh fruit.
‘Grant’s imagery links the abundance of nature with the sensual pleasures of wine, music, and the body, so that nature is figured as sensual and sensuality is asserted as natural.’, writes Christopher Reed about the scene in the early mural in ‘Bloomsbury Rooms’. ‘These themes anticipate the subsequent half-century of Bloomsbury’s domestic iconography, and, in broadest terms, express the group’s determination to implement a domestic existence in opposition to the conventional Victorian equation of civilisation with dominion over nature and discipline over the body.’
The figures in Grant’s initial 1910 mural and in his later 1920 collaboration with Bell are classical, a decidedly Post-Impressionist aesthetic that harks back to the Renaissance. This is as much a reflection of his painterly style as it is of Bell’s, and it marks one of their earliest artistic collaborations in interiors.
Grant’s early and later designs for these murals, conveys, in Reed’s words, ‘…[a] sensual vision’ on Grant’s part, one which ‘re-imagine[s]…a domestic environment to express [a] new way…of life [through]…sexual identity.’Reed saw Grant’s decoration of Keynes’ living space as ‘sett[ing] a modern stage for a new way of life’ for Keynes, ‘the life of a young economist [at Cambridge] who was Grant’s friend and lover.’
The expression of radical ideas through creative practises was the drive behind the Bloomsbury domestic aesthetic that led to Charleston. The interiors decorated by Bell and Grant are as much a demonstration of their artistic practises as their works on canvas. Through our work with the collection, we are gaining a rich insight into the cultural heritage at Charleston.
The objects and their surroundings provide tangible evidence of a past way of life and work. This quotidian sketchbook of Duncan Grant’s is one of many, just like all of the sketchbooks Grant tucked away in the nooks and crannies in corners of the rooms at Charleston. Today is it this particular sketchbook, filled with rough studies for the mural on Keynes’ sitting room wall, that reveals traces of the early Bloomsbury domestic aesthetic.