The Bloomsbury scholar Simon Watney has divided Duncan Grant’s artistic production of the 1920s into two distinct categories: low-key naturalistic oil paintings, distinguished by a narrow range of tones focused...
The Bloomsbury scholar Simon Watney has divided Duncan Grant’s artistic production of the 1920s into two distinct categories: low-key naturalistic oil paintings, distinguished by a narrow range of tones focused on brown and a smooth richness of painterly texture; and watercolours of a decorative, semi-abstract quality, with bright colours, fantastic imagery, and Elysian charm. The Shell belongs to the second category. Watney goes on to suggest that these distinct styles emerged from the categorical separation of oil painting and interior decoration in Grant’s work.
In both its silk panel format and its freely-executed manner, The Shell does indeed suggest some form of décor. It was most likely the design for an oval footstool, of the kind which both Grant and Vanessa Bell were making in the mid-1920s. They would send their designs to Twickenham where Grant’s mother realised them in embroidery. This working habit was established in April 1924, shortly after the death of Mrs Grant’s husband. Grant’s biographer Frances Spalding has written, ‘In addition to large schemes, Duncan turned his hand to individual items, designing chair covers for his mother to embroider and going to great lengths to find the right coloured wools for her.’ It is unknown whether The Shell was made into a finished footstool or not. As Spalding wrote, these individual items complemented larger interior schemes, and Grant and Bell were busy throughout 1924 and 1925 working on the Stracheys’s entrance hall and staircase at 51 Gordon Square, Clive Bell’s flat at 50 Gordon Square, Raymond Mortimer’s flat at 6 Gordon Place, and Mary Hutchinson’s rooms at Albert Gate. The Shell may have related to an aspect of these decorations.
Lydia Lopokova, Baroness Keynes Stephen Keynes, by descent Private Collection, by descent
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