Duncan James Corrowr Grant (21 January 1885 – 8 May 1978) was a British painter and designer of textiles, pottery and theatre sets and costumes. He was a member of the Bloomsbury Group.
His father was Bartle Grant, a “poverty-stricken” major in the army, and much of his early childhood was spent in India and Burma. He was a grandson of Sir John Peter Grant, 12th Laird of Rothiemurchus, KCB, GCMG, sometime Lt-Governor of Bengal. Duncan was also the first cousin twice removed of John Grant, 13th Earl of Dysart (b. 1946).
Grant was born on 21 January 1885 in Rothiemurchus, Aviemore, Scotland. He attended school in England from 1894, where he was educated at Hillbrow School, a preparatory school in Rugby, and St Paul’s School, London. Grant showed little enthusiasm for studying but enjoyed art classes. He was encouraged by his art teacher and also his aunt Lady Strachey, who organised private drawing lessons for him. Eventually, he was allowed to follow his desire to become an artist, rather than join the army as his father wished, and he attended Westminster School of Art in 1902. He then studied art at the Slade School and in Italy and Paris.
He was a cousin, and for some time a lover, of Lytton Strachey. Through the Stracheys, Duncan was introduced to the Bloomsbury Group, where John Maynard Keynes became another of his lovers.
Career in art
Grant is best known for his painting style, which developed in the wake of French post-impressionist exhibitions mounted in London in 1910. He often worked with, and was influenced by, another member of the group, art critic and artist Roger Fry. As well as painting landscapes and portraits, Fry designed textiles and ceramics.
After Fry founded the Omega Workshops in 1913, Grant became co-director with Vanessa Bell, who was then involved with Fry. Although Grant had always been actively homosexual, a relationship with Vanessa blossomed, which was both creative and personal, and he eventually moved in with her and her two sons by her husband Clive Bell. In 1916, in support of his application for recognition as a conscientious objector, Grant joined his new lover, David Garnett, in setting up as fruit farmers in Suffolk. Both their applications were initially unsuccessful, but eventually the Central Tribunal agreed to recognise them on condition of their finding more appropriate premises. Vanessa Bell found the house named Charleston near Firle in Sussex. Relationships with Clive Bell remained amicable, and Bell stayed with them for long periods fairly often – sometimes accompanied by his own mistress, Mary Hutchinson.
In 1935 Grant was selected along with nearly 30 other prominent British artists of the day to provide works of art for the RMS Queen Mary then being built in Scotland. Grant was commissioned to provide paintings and fabrics for the first class Main Lounge. In early 1936, after his work was installed in the Lounge, directors from the Cunard Line made a walk-through inspection of the ship. When they saw what Grant had created, they immediately rejected his works and ordered it removed.
Grant is quoted in the book The Mary: The Inevitable Ship, by Potter and Frost, as saying:
“I was not only to paint some large murals to go over the fireplaces, but arrange for the carpets, curtains, textiles, all of which were to be chosen or designed by me. After my initial designs had been passed by the committee I worked on the actual designs for four months. I was then told the committee objected to the scale of the figures on the panels. I consented to alter these, and although it entailed considerable changes, I got a written assurance that I should not be asked to make further alterations. I carried on, and from that time my work was seen constantly by the Company’s (Cunard’s) representative.
When it was all ready I sent the panels to the ship to put the finishing touches to them when hanging. A few days later I received a visit from the Company’s man, who told me that the Chairman had, on his own authority, turned down the panels, refusing to give any reason.
From then on, nothing went right. My carpet designs were rejected and my textiles were not required. The whole thing had taken me about a year….. I never got any reason for the rejection of my work. The company simply said they were not suitable, paid my fee, and that was that.”
Duncan’s early affairs were exclusively homosexual. These included his cousin, the writer Lytton Strachey, the future politician Arthur Hobhouse and the economist John Maynard Keynes, who at one time considered Grant the love of his life. Through Strachey, Grant became involved in the Bloomsbury Group, where he made many such great friends including Vanessa Bell. He would eventually live with Vanessa Bell, who though she was a married woman fell deeply in love with him, and one night succeeded in seducing him; Vanessa very much wanted a child by Duncan, and became pregnant in the spring of 1918. Although it is generally assumed that Duncan’s sexual relations with Vanessa ended in the months before Angelica was born (Christmas, 1918), they continued to live together for more than 40 years.
Living with Vanessa was no impediment to Duncan’s relationships with men, either before or after Angelica was born. Angelica grew up believing that Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell was her father; she bore his surname and his behaviour toward her never indicated otherwise. Duncan and Vanessa formed an open relationship, although she herself apparently never took advantage of this after settling down with him and having their child. Duncan, in contrast, had many physical affairs and several serious relationships with other men, most notably David Garnett, who would one day marry Angelica. Duncan’s love and respect for Vanessa, however, kept him with her until her death in 1961.
Angelica wrote: “(Grant) was a homosexual with bisexual leanings”.
In Grant’s later years, his lover the poet Paul Roche (1916–2007), whom he had known since 1946, took care of him and enabled Grant to maintain his accustomed way of life at Charleston for many years. Roche was made co-heir of Grant’s estate. Grant eventually died in Roche’s home in 1978.
Duncan Grant’s remains are buried beside Vanessa Bell’s in the churchyard of St. Peter’s Church, West Firle, East Sussex.