The Charleston Attic

Category: Sexuality

New Faces at Charleston visit Tate Britain’s Queer British Art

Bathing 1911 by Duncan Grant 1885-1978Duncan Grant, Bathing, 1911. Oil paint on canvas. Photograph © Tate.

We have just joined Charleston as interns to finish cataloguing the Angelica Garnett Gift of paintings and drawings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

By way of introduction, we visited Tate Britain’s exhibition Queer British Art: 1861-1967 which runs until 1 October.  The exhibition ‘explores connections between art and a wide range of sexualities and gender identities’ during the century before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.[1]

Diana says ‘On entering the exhibition the initial impression is of a conventional Victorian display of classical sculpture and paintings in a somewhat gloomy setting.  Then as my eyes adjusted I could see that the curators have selected the artworks with an eye to a queer aesthetic.  The muscular male nude ‘The Sluggard’ (1885) by the highly successful Lord Leighton, contrasts with the delicate drawings of Simeon Solomon, whose life ended in poverty after a criminal prosecution.  For me, the exhibits raised the question of what could and could not be shown in public.  By-and-large, the focus is on what was displayed during the artists’ lifetimes.’

‘Leaving the dark Victorian galleries, it came as something of a relief to enter a much lighter room focusing on ‘Bloomsbury and Beyond’.  Duncan Grant’s ‘Bathing’ (1911) dominates this room and is accompanied by Grant’s private drawings from the Angelica Garnett Gift which were lent by Charleston.  Grant’s work is complemented by portraits of people linked to the Bloomsbury Group, such as Paul Roche, which look out boldly into the room.  In these pictures, straightforward contemporary settings replace the classical allusions which had made earlier works acceptable to the public.

‘The scope for different identities is examined in the next room on ‘Defying Convention’.  A highlight here is Laura Knight’s wryly-titled ‘Self Portrait’ (1913) where the artist shows herself fully clothed and painting a female nude, prompting the audience to consider whose sexuality is on display.’

Vanessa adds ‘Something that struck me in the exhibition was the attention given to clothing, the dressed and undressed body, and the influence this had in signifying or subverting ideas of queerness.  Symbolising the importance of clothing in the exhibition was Roger Fry’s portrait ‘Edward Carpenter’ (1894).  Painted with a proud stance Carpenter’s long dark coat is referred to as a ‘very anarchist overcoat’.  His coat is no longer merely a thing to keep him dry, it is a thing that represents his socialist ideas, reflecting his activism for the rights of homosexuality.’

‘A personal highlight from the exhibition was William Strang’s ‘Lady with a Red Hat’ (1918).  In this portrait Vita Sackville-West wears an incredible red hat and is posed rather elegantly.  We learn of her dismissal of modern conventions as she often wears men’s clothing and has a male persona named ‘Julian’.  This portrait acts as a binary into Sackville-West’s life.  On the one hand she is shown as a fashionable woman of the time, on the other we see how she hides her male persona behind the very clothes she wears, subverting the perception of the viewer away from the ‘Julian’ and hinting at her complex sexuality.

‘Charles Buchel’s portrait of lesbian writer ‘Radclyffe Hall’ (1918) further suggests how dress can reflect identity.  Encapsulating women’s fashionable clothing of this period, Hall wears a skirt and jacket.  Predominantly worn by men, the addition of a cravat to her ensemble blurs the boundaries between what women and men should and should not wear embodying and embracing ideas of gender fluidity.  In addition, room 3 specifically looks at theatre and performance.  The performative nature of fashion and clothing is evident here.  We see ‘Soldiers in Skirts’ poster from 1945 and several 1920s photographs taken by Cecil Beaton where both men and women are dressed in women’s clothing and heavily made-up, often making it difficult to distinguish between male and female subjects.’

Queer British Art: 1861-1967 highlights the importance of fashion in queer art. Whether alleviating oppressions, dressing up, highlighting gender fluidity or questioning convention.’

‘We both really enjoyed the exhibition and it was ideal for giving us the wider context to life at Charleston.’

This is an exciting time for Charleston which has lent works by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place, London, which runs until 23 April 2017, and to the Vanessa Bell: 1879-1961 solo exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is on until 4 June 2017.  Later this summer, Clare Barlow will be speaking at Charleston’s A Gay Outing – further details will be announced on  Charleston’s website.

Diana Wilkins and Vanessa Jones

 

[1] Tate Britain, ‘Queer British Art: 1861-1967’, Tate Britain (London), 2017

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Queer Heritage at Charleston

Lives and loves at Charleston have always aroused interest. The Bloomsbury group famously ‘loved in triangles’ often swapping friends for lovers and then back again, though part of its history that garners less space in its extensive writing is Bloomsbury’s queer heritage.

Virginia Woolf, although married to Leonard Woolf, had a relationship with English poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West.  A writer who wrote openly about queer relationships within in her novels, Woolf has been retrospectively labelled one of the most influential queer authors of the early 20th century. Woolf’s Orlando (1928) is a story about a young man who wakes up to find himself in a woman’s body and features two married women who embark on a long and romantic affair.  Orlando is believed to include five queer characters and discusses thoughtfully and importantly, sexual and gender ‘nonconformity’.

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 CHA/P/2655 Recto. Duncan Grant, study of a male nude seated, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Duncan Grant had sexual relationships with Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Arthur Hobhouse, David Garnett and Adrian Stephen (though this is certainly not an exhaustive list). His sexuality informs much of his art, often portraying strong male nudes, many post-coital and occasionally erotic in nature. These images are beautiful evidences of his sexual and aesthetic desires.

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 CHA/P/2656 Recto. Duncan Grant, study of a male nude lying on back, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Grant’s appreciation of the male (and female) form is evident in his work, much of his artistic oeuvre is absorbed in the human body and its movement. His creative production was one of the ways Grant expressed his identity at a time when established assumptions about gender and sexuality were both discriminatory and dangerous. Consequently, Grant is to be featured in a ‘Queer British Art’ exhibition at the Tate Britain in 2017, marking the 50 year anniversary of the decriminalization of male homosexuality in England. The queer heritage of Bloomsbury is also celebrated at Charleston, whether it be through guided tours, new research, or special events. LGBTQ narratives at Charleston specifically relating to Grant are not made to define his work, but to contextualize it. Many of his sketches and paintings show significant intimacy and interpretations of these works would be impossible in ignorance of the artist’s sexuality.

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CHA/P/2666 Recto. Duncan Grant, study of two male nudes, pen on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Museums roles have been fundamentally changing in recent years, and now much of their value is centered as agents of social change. Museums can, in many ways, contribute to a less prejudiced society; in providing context for contemporary issues they can share a narrative of the world and the past which is more inclusive of all citizens. Finally awarding a visible history to groups that have been for generations consistently marginalized, can go some way to promote and begin a process of healing.

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CHA/P/2671 Recto. Duncan Grant, study of a male nude standing, pen on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Charleston both acknowledges and celebrates its queer heritage; within house tours this information is inseparable from the history of the place and its occupants.  In 2010 a podcast was created exploring aspects of Duncan Grant’s life as a gay man. Previously unpublished interviews with Duncan Grant from 1969, together with new recordings by gay men who visited the house in the 1960s and 1970s, investigated the history of the house at this time as well as Charleston’s place within a wider queer history. In the summer of every year Charleston holds a ‘Gay Outing’ in conjunction with Brighton pride; a popular event which holds talks, film screenings, panel discussions and tours, all with LGBTQ focus.

On Duncan Grant’s Male Nudes

 

In 1910, at the age of twenty-five, Duncan Grant’s career began to take off. His work was beginning to be recognized, having been shown more widely, and the period of 1908-11 is viewed as being one of rapid productivity for Grant as an artist. ‘He was always very productive,’ Douglas Blair Turnbaugh wrote, ‘[Though] at this time…in his early twenties, his creative genius was beginning to be recognized, and he was considered a leading contributor to the Post-Impressionist movement in England…he had [already] a thorough understanding of French and Italian schools of the past, and highly developed technical skills.’

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Duncan Grant, from various photographs taken by the artist in preparation for his studies, George Leigh Mallory, 1912, 46 Gordon Sqaure, Photographs © Estate of Duncan Grant

 

Richard Shone cites ‘[Grant’s] early portraits of his friends and… relations [as] encapsulate[ing] the sound technical accomplishment [that]he had achieved by his early twenties.’ In 1908, after returning from Paris where he had studied classical painting in the Louvre, Grant was residing at 21 Fitzroy Square in London. It was here that he seriously began painting portraits. As Blair Turnbaugh observed; ‘He took a studio near Belsize Park Gardens and began a series of brilliant portraits of everybody within his reach, including…new friends, and many relatives ….’ In his studio on the first floor, Grant invited friends and family to pose for his painting and drawings to save the expense of hiring professional models. He liked to photograph his models, and ‘These photographs were references for some of Duncan’s erotic drawings and paintings’, as erotic photography was back then illegal and utmost discretion was essential.

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Duncan Grant, preparatory photographs, Vanessa Bell and Molly MacCarthy, 1913, taken in the artists’ studio at 46 Gordon Square, Photographs © Estate of Duncan Grant

 

Grant also posed naked himself for photographs to be taken in his studio. Between 1909 and 1911, he produced of succession ‘youthful’ self-portraits that, in characteristic face-on, close-up style, were ‘intimate and direct’, as identified by Shone. In choosing to portray himself unabashedly, his apparent ease could be seen as a reflection of the intense pleasure he was experiencing in his personal life.

 

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Duncan Grant, Study For Composition (Self-Portrait In Turban) (1910), oil paint on canvas. Photograph © National Gallery

 

Grant and John Maynard Keynes were lovers during the early years of Grant’s initial critical acclaim, and they remained so until about 1910. Happily, this relatively brief romantic period of theirs did not deter their friendship, which prevailed until Keynes’ death. Grant’s biographer Frances Spalding thought it telling of Grant and Keynes’ relationship that, ‘…when he reminisced about th[eir] affair, Duncan gave his close friend Paul Roche the impression that Keynes ‘was closer than anyone except perhaps Vanessa [Bell], and even closer than her in some respects…in the uncluttered recognition one male can have for another.’

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Duncan Grant, Portrait of John Maynard Keynes (1917-18), oil paint on canvas. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

Indeed; ‘The significance of Maynard for Duncan went very deep and in old age…Before the end of [that] June [of 1914] he had fallen in love with Maynard and experienced an immediacy of rapport greater than he had ever known.’ This relationship would no doubt have heightened Grant’s sense of creativity s as he became more confident with his sexuality. As Spalding put it, ‘Maynard…liberated Duncan through his own attraction to the genuine and that which was without pretence.’ It helped greatly that Keynes himself had been in a liberal environment when he was a student, ‘[at] Kings College Cambridge [where] homosexuality ha[d] become…rampant.’ in the early 1900s.

Years later, when Roche sat as a model for Grant, Roche observed how he worked, and saw that in his style, Grant had what he saw as a ‘determination not to please [aesthetically] except by telling the truth, and telling the truth through the intransigent beauty of paint,’ Perhaps an element of the openness that Keynes had shared with Grant had found itself within Grant’s portraiture style as he captured his chosen sitters.

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Duncan Grant, Paul Roche with leg raised; date unknown, charcoal and gouache. Photograph © Christies 2015

 

In the summer of 1910, Grant and Keynes holidayed together in Greece and Turkey, and took delight in photographing each other naked against the backdrop of the aged classical landscape. Christopher Reed saw the activity of picture-taking as Keynes’ and Grants’ way of ‘enacting the links they perceived between ancient and modern homoeroticism.’, and this was therefore a kind of an affirmation of sexuality; ‘…free of the repressive structures of [their] own culture[s].’

For Grant, it would have brought into clearer focus through the lens in his mind, the image of the classical male nude; ‘out of doors,.’ Bathing (1911) captures Grant’s idealised version of the male nude, aptly classicized in following of his preferred artistic style. The work was praised; namely, The Spectator remarked that, ‘…the figure scrambling into the boat in the background is a noble piece of draughtsmanship…[the work] gives an extraordinary impression of the joys of lean athletic life.’ Grant hired a model which he photographed in his studio in preparation for the work, allowing him the freedom as well as the accuracy to produce the life-size panorama that came to be so successful.

 

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Duncan Grant, Bathing (1911), oil paint on canvas, Photograph © Tate.

Duncan Grant’s relationships with his models have been much looked at and written about, as they are interesting and complex; they were an integral part of his work and life. Though he made studies of men and women alike; ‘Integral to his creative process…attractive men were as vital a source for Duncan ‘s creative imagination as women were for Picasso’s.”, and he drew his lovers.

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CHA/P/2630 Duncan Grant, study of female nude, charcoal on paper, Photograph © The Charleston Trust

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CHA/P/2629 Duncan Grant, study of female nude, charcoal on paper, Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

The sitters depicted in these sketches of his that we have unearthed this week as part of the Angelica Garnett Gift are less familiar to us. Grant used numerous models in his work throughout his lifetime; some who were paid, though many were family, friends, close or acquaintances.

The two sketches of the female nudes are drawn with their heads turned away from us; their bodies twisted slightly away from the way they are facing, a pose subtly characteristic of Grant’s nudes. These two females were paid models who sat for Grant in about 1930. As a more established artist, Grant would have been able to afford to do this more than he had done so in his early career. The two sketches of the male nudes, both signed and dated, are of friends of their artist. Their inscriptions; ‘Mark, Charleston, 4th June ‘70’, and, ‘EC Farah, ‘65’, refer to the model, date and the place they were done. (Charleston, in the case of the 1970 drawing), as stylistically, we can attribute the works to Grant although he did not sign them.

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CHA/P/2629 Duncan Grant, study of male nude, charcoal on paper, (1970), Photograph © The Charleston Trust

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CHA/P/2634 Duncan Grant, study of male nude, charcoal on paper, (1965), Photograph © The Charleston Trust

From the relaxed way they hold themselves, as well as the intimate perspectives from which they are drawn, there is the sense that all of the sitters felt comfortable exposing themselves to Grant for the sake of his art, as was often the case. The sense of truth expressed in the body laid bare is heightened when it is expressed by creative means, and Duncan Grant made no secret in asserting his creativity.

 

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