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The Blossoming of the Bloomsbury Group

7th August 2023

The renown of The Bloomsbury Group arises principally from the versatility of those who worked within it: the boisterous talents of Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Dora Carrington, Henry Lamb, Lytton Strachey and many others brought literary skills, design styles, inventive artistic technique and skilful compositional motifs to their work. They laboured together in a form of brittle harmony that produced complex relationships within and outwith the Group and there were numerous inevitable disagreements woven into joyously productive years that have come to define the Group’s distinctive but chaotic legacy. At its heart, there lay a delight in the sensuous artistic temptations to be found in the everyday objects that filled the accommodation and the everyday lives of the group’s members. This quotidian inspiration could so easily have become domestically trivial. However, a bold joie de vivre introduced themes of abstraction, fantasy and exuberant design and all these were imbued with rich colour, a lavish abandonment of strict rules and a cavalier attitude to `academic` technique. In truth, the Group aligns more closely with the Fauvist movement in France than with any comparable artistic union in Britain from 1910 onwards. At a time of upheaval in the post-Edwardian era that brought a terrible War as well as all the attendant political, social and economic upheaval, the breezy approachability of The Bloomsbury Group deserved to be just the tonic that it proved to deliver.

 

The Group excelled in finding something poetic, something eye-catching, something memorable in the humdrum routine of life. A beautiful still life painting caught bidders’ eyes at Lawrences Crewkerne on July 10th. It had been painted in 1929 by Duncan Grant (1885-1978) and depicts a cluttered mantelpiece with a lidded urn, books and a clock (or jardiniere) alongside. This picture was appealingly early in date (Grant worked tirelessly for another half century after he had completed this work); it had been exhibited at the London Artists’ Association; it had been owned by the writer and keen Grant collector Sir Hugh Walpole (1884-1941); and it was sold by his executors at the prestigious Leicester Galleries in London during the period of almost reckless hedonism after VE day in May 1945. In addition, it was appearing on the market for the first time in over 75 years. Measuring 32 x 42cm, its modest scale belied an irresistible allure. It caught browsers’ eye from across a crowded saleroom and its numerous blends of brilliance helped it to a price of £11250 against hopes of £8000-10000

 

Two portraits by Grant from our sale in April could hardly have been more different from this quietly thoughtful still life but, more intriguingly, they were each so different from the other too. Grant’s mid-1960s portrait of Lindy Guinness, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava (1941-2020), depicted her in green blouse and skirt and seated upon a divan reading a book. In so many artists’ hands, this could have been a lifeless and prosaic subject but Grant’s technique was both fluent and creamy (in the clothes) and briskly linear in the front edge of the divan itself. It is domestic and yet inventive; it is informal but it is neither casual nor careless; it is richly coloured without being garish; and it imparts serenity and reflection in the sitter by the unified blending of colours with form in a palette of muted earth colours. This 58 x 48cm work made £16000 but had realised just £3300 at auction in Ireland as recently as 2017. Grant’s more provocative and confrontational portrait of his lover Paul Roche (1916-2007) in red boxing shorts was a decade earlier in date. Roche’s lean physique is depicted with a casual vigour, at ease and yet clearly alert, the body twisting slightly, the folded arms mirroring the flexed legs, the almost faceless sitter upon a Carolean-style dining chair in a pose that is shameless but with a regard that is thoughtful despite being so lightly sketched. Here the busy brushwork looks almost frantic in the chair back and yet there is a careful understanding of accuracy apparent in the musculature and the painstaking care taken in capturing the barley twist stretchers. This 80 x 55cm work made £21000. In an auction in London in March 1984, the picture had failed to reach its £800 estimate.

 

Lawrences welcomes enquiries for all forthcoming sales at enquiries@lawrences.co.uk (Tel 01460 73041) and, for the more modest collector who wishes to start buying Bloomsbury work, some ink drawings by Grant are priced at a few hundred pounds apiece and Vanessa Bell’s 1930s colour lithograph of `The Schoolroom` is guided at £800-1200.

 

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