Gillian Beer

Endogamous Nesting

Duncan Grant

By Frances Spalding

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This is a mysterious book. Its mystery is suggested in the plainness of its title, Duncan Grant. At the end of more than four hundred pages thronged with people, love affairs, painting, travel and reminiscence surrounding Duncan Grant, he remains a vague figure. Perhaps that is a proper portrait. To his friends and lovers, Grant was infinitely engaging: ‘this darling strange creature so like an animal and so full of charm’ as Bunny Garnett wrote. Few seem to have resisted that charm; although D H Lawrence, with bluster, did so. In previous accounts of Bloomsbury, Grant is always present and admired, yet never quite in focus. Frances Spalding gathers an array of unpublished material – notably David Garnett’s diaries and a mass of Grant’s papers, including letters from a vast range of correspondents. She has discussed him with many of his later friends and admirers, and sets down their accounts with a cautious refusal to interpret that sometimes acts as adverse judgement.

The life that Spalding recounts with dispassionate sympathy touches so many intersections of a web that it cannot fail to fascinate the reader. As the account accumulates, it rouses and sates curiosity. The effect becomes like ah overfilled engagement diary where you long to spy a free afternoon. It sometimes seems impossible that Grant ever had a half-day clear, what with strenuous lovemaking and concentrated work. He was loved by many men and women, young and old. He fell violently and repeatedly in love with men, and kept many of his lovers as friends through a long life. And – the one thing many readers will know in advance – he was profoundly loved by Vanessa Bell and returned that love, though in a different kind. ‘I often wonder how you come to be so infinitely preferable to anyone else in the world’. she wrote to him. After her death in 1960 he felt, despite fraught friendships, fundamentally alone.

In the earlier part of this century Duncan Grant seemed to many in the art world to be a genius – the awaited English genius. He was certainly a painter whose freedom drew on and developed Post-impressionism. He was also the only English Impressionist to exhibit with the Vorticists. Warmly coloured spaces and repeats organise visual experience-in his and murals. He – wrote much later of Vanessa’s work: ‘It is extraordinary how much of a painter can continue to exist in his pictures.’ In the recent exhibition ‘British Painting”: 1910-14’ at the Barbican, Grant’s work of that period seems open and reassuring, especially alongside that of painters like Etchell. The lines and colours in Grant’s work are frank. His life, in contrast, drove others to form strange loops around him: his lover Bunny Garnett decided, perhaps whimsically, to marry Duncan’s daughter when he first encountered her at twenty-four hours old. He did so as soon as she was a young woman. She, in turn, moved him Bunny Garnett to another of Duncan’s great passions, George Bergen. Vanessa Bell was drawn to Duncan’s warmth after a love affair with his friend and critic, Roger Fry. Her marriage to Clive Bell continued. The enduring relationships between members of the circle suggest endogamous nesting, each in each in each. Perhaps the claustrophobic continuity is misleading. Not all of Duncan’s friends were Bloomsbury. Not all of them are mentioned in this biography. Sylvia Townsend Warner, for example, recalls a visit from Duncan when he came to supper and they ate ‘stewed game’. When he left, she began writing again the instant the door shut behind him. This blithe, uncomplicated encounter could have alleviated the oppressive record in Spalding’s biography of too much emotion indulged.

Emotions in Spalding’s detailed chronicle seem to rely on a great deal of recounting between friends – Lytton Strachey describes the progress of his love affair with Grant to Maynard Keynes, and, later, vice versa, and after that contrariwise. A curious effect of all this intimate detail is a denial of intimacy. A busy friend, or a fading lover, always ornaments the encounter. Yet one dismaying reticence was sustained among them. Who was Angelica’s father? The child of Vanessa and Duncan was never told of her parentage until she was a young woman, and all discussion of it was excluded from the family for much longer than that. (David Cecil made the mistake of asking after Angelica’s daughter as Duncan’s grandchild and felt he had made a faux pas.) Some knew, of course, and many supposed, that Duncan, not Clive, was the father. It seems that she did not, and elsewhere she has written well about her experience. In the context of Duncan’s life this could be read as an example of the evasiveness which is the obverse of his spontaneity. It is hard to set much store by the generous explanation that Clive wanted her to receive the same settlement from his family as did his other children, particularly since (from a slightly later reference) that settlement seems not to have come through. Such motives doubtless played their part. So might social stigma. But it is probably truer that Vanessa and Duncan liked this one intimate silence to remain. In a milieu so full of gossip their reticence has a frisson of the erotic, the binding secret.

In 1930 Virginia Woolf thought she might one day write Duncan Grant’s life. She did not know all that Spalding knows, and her appearances are rare in this biography. Thanks to Spalding’s extraordinary industry we now know more than Woolf could have guessed. But Woolf could both swipe and distil. She knew the difficulties of evoking a life, but perhaps (as she wrote) she could have pointed to ‘that tone, that relation, in the vanishing pages, as Mr Roger Fry points with his wand at a line or a colour in the picture displayed before him’.

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