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Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell: Domesticity and Modernity

Chloe Jamieson, Royal Academy of Arts

1 May 2020

As core members of the Bloomsbury Group, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell represented part of the artistic sector of this lively intellectual collective. They blended the developing movement of English Modernism with a traditional subject: the home. No place represented this more than their own, Charleston Farmhouse. Purchased in 1916 at the height of the Great War, the seventeenth-century farmhouse which is located near Lewes, East Sussex, became a country idyll for the Bloomsbury circle, particularly for its owners Grant and Bell, who sought to put their artistic mark on the interior spaces.

Charleston Farmhouse by Chloe Jamieson, October 2016

By installing their personal style into domestic spaces, Grant and Bell materialised their understanding that modernity and domesticity are not separate constructs, but can be combined to create a different interpretation of what it means to be modern. This notion of domesticity, as Christopher Reed comments, was ‘an invention of the modern age […] a product of the confluence of capitalist economics, breakthroughs in technology, and Enlightenment notions of individuality’.[1] William Morris and his Arts & Crafts movement were  key predecessors to Bloomsbury; Morris placed a focus on interior spaces, bridged a gap between fine art and decorative design, and ’embodied the domestic focus of English modernism.’[2] Morris, Grant and Bell prove that modernist design is not restricted to the gallery in the form of painting or sculpture, but can be transferred to a liveable environment, a vital contribution to the development of modernism’s project of breaking down conventions surrounding art and interior decoration, such as stripping back Victorian ornamentation and abandoning dark, muted colour schemes. Influenced by the European art brought to Britain by fellow Bloomsbury member and art critic Roger Fry with his 1910 French Post-Impressionist exhibition, Grant and Bell produced interiors that for them stood as a gesamtkunstwerk, ‘a total work of art’, with immersive interiors that encompass the spectator. The space became a living canvas.

The Garden Room at Charleston by Simon Upton (stencilled wallpaper by Vanessa Bell, curtain fabric by Duncan Grant)

What set Grant and Bell apart from their International Style contemporaries was an approach to modernism and domesticity that proved characteristically British. Charles McCorquodale notes that ‘the International Style interior at its best is a finely designed shell where proportion plays a more important part than decoration’.[3] In opposition to the European styles of the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements, and architect Le Corbusier, Grant and Bell created interiors that had a British uniqueness to them. Quite ironically, given their pacifist political stance and rejection of English Nationalism, they sought to preserve the vernacular, and reject the Universalist Modernist agenda, notably the sterile, minimalist architectural designs championed by Bauhaus. Grace Brockington confirms that Bloomsbury ‘continued to promote Enlightenment values, more radical ideas about self and community, loyalty and belonging, [underpinning] their bid to to shape British modernism, imbuing their aestheticism with the powerful impetus that also generated their objections to war’.[4] What did bind them with their continental counterparts was their desire to reject the stuffiness associated with the preceding Edwardian and Victorian interiors, stripping back the unnecessary clutter and revealing a more intimate view of a personal space.

Door detail © The Charleston Trust (painted by Vanessa Bell)

Grant and Bell began to design decorative murals for various rooms of the Bloomsbury circle early in their career, notably Virginia and Leonard Woolf at 52 Tavistock Square (c.1924). However, it was their own home at Charleston that best exemplified their personal style. Vanessa’s son, Quentin, said of his mother and  Grant: ‘Whenever Duncan and Vanessa entered a house there was a fifty-fifty chance that they would cover the walls with decoration […] At Charleston the work of decoration began almost at once.’[5] They painted walls, fireplaces, skirting boards, bed frames, doors, tables, tiles, the original Elizabethan wood-beams and furnishings. The designs themselves are reminiscent of Grant and Bell’s days at the Omega Workshops, pioneered by Roger Fry, with geometric forms, monumental figuration and florals in bright, vivid colour schemes. Although their work is dismissed by both contemporary and recent critics as ‘sentimental’and ‘amateur,’ one cannot help but conceive of this as a deliberate approach to the wider modernist project.[6]

Their  approach to modernist decoration stands in  complete contrast to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1927-31) [see below], for example, which bears a ‘commonsense’ architectural formation, sleek in design and functional as opposed to a heavily decorated and florid appearance.[7] In comparison to Le Corbusier, Grant and Bell’s focus in interior decoration was not so much on functionality, but on aesthetics. Watney states that Charleston represented ‘a version of modernism that was neither aristocratic nor industrialised’, unlike the Villa Savoye, through which Le Corbusier ‘[staked] his claims for modernity on the rejection of domesticity.’[8]

Deborah Ryan furthers this critique by adding that, during the 1930s, ‘the continental style in architecture had not really caught on [in Britain]’.[9] For Grant and Bell, this left a gap in the market for their particular brand of modernity; their domestic interpretation created a style that was distinctly British. The German Bauhaus interiors, along with French Corbusian design, produced work in which ‘architectural thinking […] linked with the emphasis on machine manufacture’.[10] Grant and Bell’s eclecticism sets them apart from the Modernist tradition of ‘homes for cyborgs’ and instead reflects their personal style: spaces of comfort, personality and unpretentiousness.[11] Grant and Bell used Charleston as their blank canvas, with free rein to decide how they would like their own house to be decorated.

The Studio at Charleston (fireplace by Duncan Grant, tile designs by Vanessa Bell)

Their unconventional approach to art, embodied in their diverse designs at Charleston, most definitely reflects their unconventional approach to life. Dorothy Parker once quipped that the Bloomsbury coterie ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’ – and this is certainly true of Grant and Bell.[12] Happily, unlike most of their other interior designs in other locations, Charleston still exists today and welcomes visitors to view Grant and Bell’s interior work and their beautiful gardens.

The Gardens at Charleston by Chloe Jamieson, October 2016

In this challenging time, Charleston, like many other museums, has had to close their doors to visitors. This is financially devastating for Charleston, which receives no public funding for their wonderful endeavours to preserve the home and gardens. They have therefore launched an emergency appeal, calling for donations from the public. This is, of course, a challenging time for many of us in the modernist community. However, if you feel you are able, the Modernist Review would be delighted if you would consider sending a donation to Charleston, large or small, so that future members of the modernist community can enjoy and study this beautiful home.


[1]Christopher Reed, ‘Introduction’, in Not at Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture, ed. Reed (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), p. 7.

[2]Ibid., p. 13.

[3]Charles McCorquodale, A History of Interior Decoration (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1983), p. 209.

[4]Grace Brockington, Above the Battlefield (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), p.44.

[5]Quentin Bell, Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 1997), p. 14.

[6]Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997) pp. 9, 313.

[7]Francesco Passanti, ‘The Vernacular, Modernism, and Le Corbusier’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 56: 4 (1997), pp. 438-451 <; [accessed November 17th 2016], p. 442.

[8]Simon Watney, The Art of Duncan Grant (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997), p.80; Christopher Reed, Bloomsbury Rooms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 2.

[9]Deborah Ryan, The Ideal Home: Through the 20th Century (London: Hazar Publishing, 1997), p. 70.

[10]McCorquodale, p. 205.

[11]Anthony Vidler, ‘Homes for Cyborgs’, in Not at Home, Reed ed., pp. 161-178.

[12]Amy Licence, Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group (Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2015), quote page unnumbered.


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