(Blog-post) Celebrating LGBT History Month with Duncan Grant and the Bloomsbury Group

LGBT History Month was established in 2004 to help us understand the importance and context of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. It presents a valuable opportunity to celebrate historical figures who explored their sexuality against a backdrop of prejudice and persecution. As custodians of a modern art collection, it prompts us to shine a spotlight on artists who took great steps forward, both in regards to their creativity, and the ways they challenged limiting societal norms. This blog-post celebrates an artist who was at the heart of a creative community which pioneered an open-minded attitude toward sexual identity.

The Bloomsbury Group was established in 1905, with the aim of providing an atmosphere for intellectual discussion and creativity. The group is also celebrated for its progressive standing on  relationships that were considered “unconventional”, at a time when homosexuality was criminalised and viewed as a pathological illness.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed in 1885, and would stay in place for 82 years. The law made homosexual sex illegal in England, creating an atmosphere of ignorance, fear and shame that had a detrimental impact for gay men. The Bloomsbury Group worked to detach themselves from strict Victorian morals, creating a bubble of boundless bohemian love.

Duncan Grant (1885-1978) was introduced to the group shortly after it was founded. A talented, good looking and charismatic figure, Grant had numerous affairs with men, including notable Bloomsbury members Lytton Strachey and David Garnett. He also had a special relationship with Vanessa Bell, with whom he lived, worked and had a child.  For the Bloomsbury Group, relationships were often free from barriers and definition. The constraints of authority were resisted, and sexual identities of all kinds were accepted.

Creativity flourished within the context of this close-knit and convention-challenging community. The likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster wrote some of the most iconic fictional works of the Twentieth Century. Meanwhile, visual artists embraced fresh new visual languages, and broke down time-honoured barriers between high art and craft.

Key members of the Bloomsbury Group are represented in Swindon’s art collection. It includes paintings by Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, and a bust of Virginia Woolf by Stephen Tomlin. Two striking pieces by Duncan Grant demonstrate his fresh and modern approach to painting.

‘Seated Model’ (c.1915-16) was painted at 46 Gordon Square (the original home of the Bloomsbury Group) and depicts a female model gazing out of a window. The portrait shows Grant’s flair for handling paint in a free and fluid manner, and his talent for using colour to suggest light and form. A striking stroke of mauve paint suggests the shadows and contours of the sitter’s face, and reflects the colour of her clothes. Meanwhile, soft yellows and oranges within her skin and clothing are repeated in elements of her surroundings, evoking a warm and diffused light.

Duncan Grant, ‘Seated Model’, c.1915-16, Oil on board, 57.1 x 40cm

This approach to painting, which placed emphasis on the formal qualities, was reasonably new to Britain. However, cutting-edge European artists had been exploring the impact of elements such as line, colour, shape, space, rhythm and design on painting for a while. It is likely that Grant would have seen such work during his travels to Europe with economist and Bloomsbury associate Maynard Keynes. Bloomsbury visionary and art critic Roger Fry also played an important role, with his influential exhibitions of work by French artists at the Grafton Galleries in London. Manet and the Post-Impressionists (1910) shocked and appalled British audiences, but had a profound impact on the forward-thinking Bloomsbury artists.

The other painting from Swindon’s collection was made some years later, and demonstrates a different style from ‘Seated Model’. ‘Standing Woman’ is one of several paintings by Grant from the 1920s and ‘30s depicting draped female figures, though it is more simplistic and swiftly painted than many of the others. It is impressive to see that he has depicted a figure of such solidity and monumentality through an incredibly economic handling of paint. This can be identified in the way Grant has used a few rough strokes of grey to represent shadow, and simple black lines to suggest the shape of the body beneath the drapery.

Duncan Grant, ‘Standing Woman’, 1930, Oil on board, 48 x 24cm

‘Standing Woman’ demonstrates Grant’s natural flair for painting, and it is also likely that this was a preparatory painting for a decorative work. Though the famous Omega Workshops (established by Roger Fry in 1913 and run by Grant and Bell until 1919) were no longer in production, the Bloomsbury artists continued to adorn their living spaces with paintings, and create beautiful designs for fabrics and furniture. This indicates another element to the Bloomsbury’s boundary-breaking attitudes: that of the dismantling of the traditional distinction between “high art” and craft (or “low art”). For the Bloomsbury artists, life and art were inseparable.

It is safe to say that the Bloomsbury Group were progressive in a number of ways; in terms of the way they lived, the modern style they embraced and the radical overturning of artistic hierarchies. Though they were a small and secluded cohort, they took huge strides away from the confines of bourgeois culture and Victorian morality, and toward freedom of creativity and sexual identity.

Blog-post by Katie (Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

For more information on the Bloomsbury Group, visit The Charleston Trust.

For more information about artworks from the Bloomsbury Group in Swindon’s collection, watch Episode 13 of Art Snaps.

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