24 Feb 2020

Duncan Grant:
Bloomsbury Pioneer

My name is Andrew and I volunteer as Curator’s Assistant (Fine Art) with curators Victoria Osborne and Emalee Beddoes-Davis. I have recently been working with Emalee to document the artworks that Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has received over the years through the Contemporary Art Society. This organisation encourages appreciation of contemporary art by donating works by new and important artists to UK museums. While working on this project, I have discovered the work of the innovative painter and designer Duncan Grant (1885-1978) and I’d like to share something about him and his works held by Birmingham Museums.

Paris and the Post-Impressionists

One of Britain’s most important and influential 20th-century artists, Grant was prolific, noted for his portraits, landscapes, murals and still lifes, as well as his design work. While studying in Paris in 1906 and 1907, he first encountered the work of the French avant-garde, being introduced to Matisse in 1909 and Picasso in 1912. It was only with Roger Fry’s two Post-Impressionist exhibitions in London, however, that he felt the full impact of modernism. The first of these, 1910’s ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, showcased the work of Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, while the second, in 1912, highlighted that of Matisse and Picasso. Grant was particularly influenced by Cézanne and the intense colours of the Post-Impressionists.


In the years preceding the First World War, Grant became a leading figure in the Bloomsbury Group, an influential circle of writers, artists and intellectuals living in London’s Bloomsbury area. This group included Lytton Strachey (Grant’s cousin), John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell, and Roger Fry. Together with Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, he attempted to introduce progressive European ideas. For instance, he was a co-director with these two of Fry’s Omega Workshops from 1913 to 1919, designing furniture, textiles and pottery with the aim of breaking down the distinction between fine art and design.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Between 1942 and 1947, the Contemporary Arts Society presented Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery with three paintings by Grant, each representing a different aspect of his work. 

The first of these, ‘Boats at Twickenham’ (oil on panel, 1926) presented in 1942, was the gift of Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill’s cousin. This work was probably made on one of Grant’s regular visits to his parents in Twickenham (their home from 1923) and depicts a colourful street scene with boats. The view is painted with rapid, broken brushstrokes, possibly indicating it was painted en plein air, and the warm colours of the bricks, ground and boats convey a sense of contentment. (See 'Boats at Twickenham' on the Art UK website.)

The second painting, ‘On the Table’ (oil on canvas, 1938), was purchased from the artist by Kenneth Clark and presented through Contemporary Art Society in 1946. At the time of purchase, Clark was Director of the National Gallery and Grant’s friend and supporter. This still life, painted in Grant’s studio in Fitzroy Street, London, focuses on a glass case containing two toy acrobats, one standing, the other hoisted on a stick. Grant’s technical skill is apparent in the depiction of textures and surfaces, such as the patterned tablecloth and light reflecting off the glass. (See 'On the Table' on the Art UK website)

‘On the Table’ is currently on display in Gallery 21, if you’d like to see it up close.

Volunteer Andrew looking at On the Table by Duncan Grant in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

The third work, ‘Dancers – A Decoration’ (oil on canvas, 1934), was presented in 1947. This large-scale decorative piece may owe something to Matisse’s ‘La Danse’ (1910) and the statuesque female figures of Picasso’s classicism period. Simplified figures move rhythmically and gracefully across the canvas, creating a balanced composition, while the fluent draughtsmanship, subtle use of colour and mottled ground add to the decorative effect. (See 'Dancers - a Decoration' on the Art UK website).

Volunteer Andrew standing next to Dancers, a Decoration by Duncan Grant in the Museum stores

Grant in other collections

You can also find works by Duncan Grant in several international public and private collections, including Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland, Ashmolean Museum and Art Gallery of New South Wales.