Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell paid a visit to the Burgundian city of Auxerre in summer 1950. Grant’s biographer Frances Spalding has described the trip.
Duncan's own creative output showed no sign of faltering. [Grant and Bell’s daughter] Angelica accompanied him and Vanessa to France in the summer of 1950. They painted at Cézy and on their way home were so taken with Auxerre that they booked themselves into a commercial travellers' hotel and began painting river scenes. 'Duncan and Nessa are turning out sketch after sketch,' Angelica reported to [her husband] Bunny [Garnett].
They returned there a few years later in autumn 1953, making a dedicated painting expedition to the city during which both Grant and Bell produced finished oil paintings. This work, Auxerre, relates to a slightly larger version by Grant which shows the same scene with the additions of the riverbank at the lower right-hand corner and a fisherman at work (fig. 1). In both cases, the formal symmetry between the bridge and its reflection evidently provided the basis for the composition, though the painting of water – calm and clear – suggests a decorative enjoyment of colour and tone.
On the same visit, Bell painted a similar scene to that by Grant. Though The Bridge at Auxerre, France (c. 1953, Charleston) (fig. 2) depicts the same industrial brick chimney stack as that seen in Grant’s picture, the Yonne river is approached from a different position on the embankment and two different bridges (a footbridge and the medieval stone bridge) are shown.
Some three decades earlier, Roger Fry had also been attracted to the bridges of Auxerre during a painting trip in circa 1925. A drawing from that visit shows the foreground flooded by the river, overlooked by the bridge and the city’s cathedral. It was owned by Grant and Bell. One picture leads to another, and Fry’s earlier activity presumably encouraged their own efforts.
Peter Tillou Private Collection Private Collection, London
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