Duncan Grant - exhibited in Berlin  

Duncan Grant - exhibited in Berlin
- by Douglas Blair Turnbaugh
Published in ERATO No. 9: Autumn 1997

Pas de Trois

uncan Grant is a gay hero. Growing up in the Victorian era (born in Scotland in 1885), in an environment designed to terrorise gay men, Duncan was gay and proud and out. Of course, he did have exquisite manners and did not frighten the horses[1] - the basic requirement of English upper class society. Duncan had no psychological problems with his homosexuality except initially the impatience of a virile virgin aching to begin an active sex life. He heard one could meet homosexuals in London’s National Gallery & made his first sexual score there, in front of Bronzino's ”Venus and Cupid (I believe at that time saucy Cupid’s openly presented arse had been over painted with red drapery which has since been removed).

From then on, he was courageous but not imprudent in leading an open unclosetted gay-life. "Never be ashamed," he said. Early lovers were undergraduates from Cambridge including his famous cousin Lytton Strachey and the even more famous economist John Maynard Keynes. Even late in life, commuting between London and his country home in Sussex, he was still picking up boys on the train, and taking them home. Sometimes they were Borstal boys, juveniles who had been in prison Then his friends would say, "Duncan's gone criminal again." Some of the boys live on forever fucking in Duncan's paintings of them. Paul Roche poet and translator of Greek drama, a great love of Duncan's life, explained Duncan was like a vixen to young men." English anti-gay laws made Duncan a criminal all through his 92 years of distinguished life, until his death in 1978.

In the 1920's and 30's Duncan Grant was perhaps the most famous British artist in the world. And he was not only an easel painter: he designed fabrics, china, furniture, interiors, murals in churches, decors and costumes for theatre and ballet. He occupied a position socially and artistically like that of David Hockney today. The Duke of Devonshire recalled him as a delightful companion, with his charm and good looks and said, "It was very easy to understand why so many people, men and women, loved him." He was the favourite painter of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

His reputation is however in abeyance. After his death, a woman who is heir to his estate has generally refused permission for his work to be reproduced, thereby leaving it in limbo until the copyrights expire in about fifty years. There is also a strong indication that after his death someone entered his studio to indulge in a kind of orgy of burning of his love letters and homoerotic art.


Descent from the Cross

Duncan was profligate with this generosity, a man who loved to give pleasure with his mind, body, art, in bed and out. Although entirely gay in preference, he fornicated with the painter Vanessa Bell, because she asked him to. He soon excused himself of that devoir, but they remained life-long friends.
Duncan often gave away his pictures to people who liked them. He told me a famous art writer stole pictures and also a rich American ballet impresario, but Duncan was too embarrassed to even reproach them. He was impressed, in a way, that they wanted the pictures so desperately.

And surely, as all artists do, Duncan made erotica, for aphrodisiac delight for himself and his friends. Three examples which escaped the fury's avenging fire were in the great exhibition "100 Jahre Schwulenbewegung" (100 years of the gay movement) at the Akademie der  Künste (Berlin). They are eloquent evidence against the thought-police's arguments condemning pornography: there is no glorification of rape, no infliction of pain, no domination, no subjugation, no brute force: Duncan was in fact unable to depict pain even if commissioned. He did have a great wit and sense of humour, which is clear particularly in his erotic drawings. Paul Roche, formerly a Roman Catholic priest, asked Duncan for a painting of the crucifixion. One effort showed a boy standing with his arms thrown open, as if dancing. Another painting shows a nubile youth with arms outstretched, floating in front of a stylised, boxy cross, and sporting an exultant erection. In Duncan's erotica, all is sensual and consensual, reciprocal, blissful, luxuriously tumescent.

    Douglas Blair Tumbaugh

[1] An English upper-class expression for being socially acceptable.

The Pictures

Descent from the Cross
Well, in Renaissance Christian iconography and theology the erection symbolizes resurrection and life, rising again.

Pas de Trois:
Here Duncan puts cubism or the idea of simultaneously showing different views to new use: underneath the tangle of bodies he shows a blond hand masturbating a black penis.

Steam Bath:
Homage to Cézanne, but instead of apples tempting as Eden's, Duncan's ravishing colour forms a feast of buttocks here more invitingly receptive than any other Ganymede's in the history of art. Duncan Grant would be happy to know that these very special pictures survive to delight and make him new friends. "Which do you like best?" he would ask, delighted by your interest.

Douglas Blair Turnbaugh

Douglas Blair Turnbaugh is author of Duncan Grant and the Bloomsbury Group (1987, ISBN 0 7475 0103 3); Private: the Erotic Art of Duncan Grant (1989); Strip Show: Paintings by Patrick Angus, published by Editions Aubrey Walter (Gay Mens Press), London 1992.

He is also a contributor to Ecrits sur Nijinsky (1992), and is a member of the Comite Nijinsky and on the Executive Committee of the Conseil International de la Danse/UNESCO.

Paintings by Duncan Grant and Patrick Angus are available for purchase from

Mr. Turnbaugh, 2. West 55th Street, New York City 10019.


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