Radical Bloomsbury: Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell's story at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery

By Culture24 Staff | 15 April 2011
An image of a colourful abstract painting of people sitting around a tent
Vanessa Bell, Summer Camp (1913)© Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Bryan Ferry Collection
Exhibition: Radical Bloomsbury: The Art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, 1905-1925, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton, until October 9 2011

“We’ve focused very much on the paintings, so we haven’t really included very many pieces of furniture or ceramics,” says Brighton Museum’s Nicola Coleby, standing in front of a pair of gorgeous cupboard doors procured from Charleston, the revered Sussex country retreat where Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell set up home in 1916.

A black and white photo of a young man's face
Alvin Langdon Coburn, Duncan Grant© George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and FilmA black and white photo of a young man's face
“We’ve got a fantastic technician who does all the carpentry for us, and he made the frames for these, because they were literally just a pair of doors. They were quite fragile.

“When you think of Charleston you think of the applied arts, so we looked at the other aspects of it.”

The magic of this show emanates from the characters behind the canvasses and sculptures, borrowed from lenders ranging from the Tate to libraries and private collections.

Grant was one of the only British artists who knew Picasso and Matisse at the start of their careers, and was hugely influenced by the Imperial world of India and Burma where he spent the first ten years of his life.

Bell was a painter and designer and the sister of Virginia Woolf, a fellow member of the all-powerful Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists who used Charleston as a spiritual home.

The icons they dallied with are dotted around the six chambers – in the opening section, the influence of Matisse on Grant is crystallised by The Dancers, and Bell finds Woolf dozing in an armchair in the final room, Homes and Carnivals.

An image of a colourful oil painting of a woman sleeping in an armchair
Vanessa Bell Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) (1912)© National Portrait Gallery, London. Lent by the National Portrait Gallery, London. Purchased with help from The Art Fund, 1987
In between there are four-minute kinetic collages set to music – “in effect it’s one of the earliest performance pieces ever,” muses Coleby, surveying the Bell piece from almost a century ago – as well as enormous Venuses on clouds, angular Cubist portraits and expressionist sun-drenched landscapes.

“I think because they both experimented with so many different styles it works best grouping them together in dates and themes,” suggests Coleby, wandering through an enchanting section on the exotic, oriental and ornamental, where feline performers slink before the camera and ballerinas run amok.

“David Mellor, the curator, saw the influences which were coming through at different times. I think he was quite excited by this exoticism – it’s something which hasn’t been touched on so much.”

  • Open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday. Admission £3-£6 (free for under-15s, joint ticket with admission to Charleston £12).

Watch Nicola Coleby discuss the opening to the exhibition:

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