Today in Gay History: Dreamboat Duncan Grant
By Andrew Belonsky
They don't make men like Duncan Grant anymore.
Born in Scotland on January 21, 1885, Grant, a talented, industrious, kind, and handsome painter, was initially raised by an army major father in India and Burma, but his adolescent years were spent at exclusive, idyllic prep schools in the English countryside. Then, after graduating from the Westminster School of Art in 1902, he settled in the Bloomsbury neighborhood and embarked on a romance with the writer — and his cousin — Lytton Strachey.
It was Strachey who introduced young Grant to the men and women who would become known as the Bloomsbury Group — EM Forster, Virginia Woolf, and art critic Clive Bell— and it was with these connections that helped Grant, an exceedingly talented painter whose post-impressionistic landscapes, still lifes, and portraits (many of naked men!) and romantic textiles, launch his career. His first big shows, organized in 1902 and 1903 by future colleague Roger Fry, established Grant as one of the most talented artists of his era and over the next decade he was celebrated in all corners of society. Then, in 1913, he became a co-director at The Omega Workshop, a collective founded in 1913 and that gave rise to what we now call graphic design.
The Workshop thrived in those early years, but it wasn’t long before the Great War changed the scene and in 1916 Grant decided it was time for him and his lover, writer David Garnett, to get out of town. They planned on starting a fruit farm, but ultimately joined a handful of their Bloomsbury pals at a home in East Sussex, Charleston House.
In addition to Grant and Garnett, the home provided shelter for another of Grant’s lovers, seminal economist John Maynard Keynes, and for Clive Bell’s wife, Vanessa, an interior designer who was Grant’s sole female lover. One year after the move, in 1919, Grant and Bell had a child, Angelica, who was raised thinking Bell’s estranged husband, a frequent guest, was her father. So, for the next decades the small, untraditional family lived together while Grant carried on with his gay ways and kept up his work.
By 1935, Grant, who was described as kind and caring and fair-minded, was so well-respected and his work so admired that the British government commissioned him to decorate rooms in the Queen Mary ocean liner. He of course jumped at the opportunity and spent months creating curtains, carpets, murals and hand-made panels for the ship’s Main Lounge. Ultimately, however, the ship’s design committee rejected his submission. Yet Grant’s career marched on and though his popularity ebbed and flowed, he remained on of England’s most well-respected and versatile artists. Frances Spalding puts it well when she says an “agility” informs Grant’s art:
"He never hesitates to engage in large-scale projects, producing murals for a polytechnic dining-room, an ocean liner, a Sussex church, a chapel in Lincoln Cathedral and towards the end of his career, a double portrait of Gilbert and George. But he also willingly turned his hand to the smallest of tasks, such as decorations for Christmas cards, tiles or cushion covers. At one moment he can be surprisingly audacious, at others, seductively intimate."
In this slideshow, we take a brief look at Grant’s works, primarily his paintings, but also include a few interiors of Charleston House. The designs he implemented there have gone on to inspire fabric and interior designers for generations and, today, the British home goods company Sanderson sells yards of canvas drawn from Grant’s oeuvre.