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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Queer Gazes and Sensual Pleasures: Duncan Grant's Bathers by the Pond

Dr Darren Clarke

[ Stories )

We asked Charleston’s Head of Collections, Research and Exhibitions, Dr Darren Clarke to write a guest piece on seminal Modern British artist Duncan Grant and his painting, Bathers by the Pond (1920-21).

The piece holds an important place within the Pallant House Gallery collections as one of our foundational works. It was received from Dean Walter Hussey, whose bequest established the gallery in 1982.

A summer’s day in East Sussex, the air so heavy with heat that the only sensible thing to do is nothing. Six men and a dog are in and around the pond at Charleston, the country home of the artist Duncan Grant, that he shared with fellow artist Vanessa Bell and her family.

Grant paints a scene of Edenic relaxation in which clothing is optional; two men wear trunks; the rest are naked. Two figures are in the pond, one sitting in the punt, one climbing up its sides. To the left of the scene a figure sits on their own, wrapped in their own thoughts, while a couple on the right lean backwards towards each other, maybe in conversation, maybe exchanging looks of admiration. Stretched across the front of the picture is a man in a relaxed pose gazing at the sky, while a little dog sleeps at his feet.

Grant, Duncan (1885 – 1978), Bathers by the Pond, c.1920-1, Oil on canvas, Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council (1985), © Estate of Duncan Grant

The painting shimmers with heat. The colours a muted, the greens and yellows and browns of a dry late summer, the earth and vegetation parched and desiccated. Vanessa Bell, writing to Roger Fry in August 1921 described it as a ‘very odd pale relief,’ considering Grant to be ‘under the influence of Seurat.’ Grant would have seen Seurat’s use of pointillism at close quarters, his friend, Maynard Keynes owned an oil study for Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

There is also Renoir in the mix. At Christmas in 1919 Bell gave Grant photographs of several late bathing paintings by Renoir who had recently died. Grant had the opportunity to study the The Large Bathers in February 1921 when he visited his old art teacher, Jacques-Emile Blanche in Paris. There are also references to Cézanne’s Bathers at Rest in the composition, which Grant would have seen in the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Gallery in 1910. But Grant’s bathers are more sensual, more corporal, there is moisture in the dry, secluded summer air.

Grant had painted bathers in a much more public setting ten years before, for a mural to decorate the dining room of the Borough Polytechnic in South London. Now in the collection of Tate and called Bathing, this large canvas depicts seven male figures in various acts of diving into the water, swimming and climbing into a boat. The viewer is invited to admire the athleticism of the subjects, their healthiness as they cleave their way through the cleansing water, a baptism in the Serpentine. The active body gives the viewer license to look, it subverts a queer gaze. In Bathers by the Pond the viewer is a voyeur, observing bodies at rest, bodies in pleasure.

When Vanessa Bell first wrote of Charleston, she described the pond as a ‘lake’, an exaggeration to be sure, but maybe she was thinking of her friend E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room With a View. In it The Sacred Lake described by Lucy Honeychurch, the young heroine of the book, as ‘only a puddle’ is the location for one of Forster’s most memorable scenes, one that is drenched with the resonance of other private Bloomsbury pleasures.

Duncan Grant: 1920, Charleston © The Charleston Trust; photograph: James Bellorini

Freddy Honeychurch, George Emerson and the Rev. Beebe go for a bathe in the Sacred Lake. They swim naked. Losing their inhibitions and social constraints they play games, splashing each other, running around the pond, pretending to be the ‘red indians’ they’d seen in books and movies, trying on each other’s clothes and throwing them into the water. Their escapades are discovered by Lucy Honeychurch, her mother and her fiancé Cecil Vyse, whose witnessing of the scene reintroduces the constraints of society and abruptly draws the chapter to a close.

Grant always seems to be searching for a location for his own Sacred Lake, free from the restrictions and laws of everyday society. In a letter to John Maynard Keynes, he describes the fishing village of Rackwick on the remote island of Hoy, part of the Orkney Islands off the west coast of Scotland. Geographically removed from the mainland, the inhabitants descended from different cultures and live side by side without the interference of an authoritarian outside world. Grant explained, ‘There is no priest, no church and no policemen. Don’t you think we better go there at once?’

Grant’s Bathers by the Pond could be an illustration of these freedoms, with its sexually charged images that appear to exclude the familial, that celebrate the alternative, that present a society of freedom, mapping queer sexuality on the pond.

The painting could be an illustration to Vanessa Bell’s imaginings of life in Sussex when she is away, as in the lengthy description of homosexual activity she includes in a thank you letter to Keynes in 1914, in which she asks: ‘Did you have a pleasant afternoon buggering one or more of the young men we left for you? It must have been delicious out on the downs in the afternoon sun… I imagine you… with your bare limbs entwined with him and all the ecstatic preliminaries of Sucking Sodomy…’

The naturalising and normalising of ‘sodomy’ and homosexuality by Bell, placing it in the sunshine, in the Sussex countryside, as an activity to occupy a ‘pleasant afternoon’ like going for a walk or having a cup of tea is reflected in the figures in Grant’s painting with their relaxed, uninhibited and almost commonplace society.

Grant made this work at the start of the 1920s, a year after his first ever solo exhibition at the Paterson-Carfax Gallery on Old Bond Street in London. At the time of his solo show, which is now recreated here at Charleston, Grant was a rising star of the British avant-garde. The work wasn’t exhibited publicly until 1975 when it was included in an exhibition called Duncan Grant and Bloomsbury, organised by the Fine Art Society. It was bought by Walter Hussey who bequeathed it to Pallant House in 1985. Maybe it was the heat in the work that kept it away from the public’s view so long.

Duncan Grant: 1920, Charleston © The Charleston Trust; photograph: James Bellorini

Charleston’s exhibition ‘Duncan Grant: 1920’ was a unique recreation of the artist’s first solo show just over a century ago. It was also the first solo exhibition of works by Grant since his death in 1978 and brought together over 30 paintings rarely seen paintings, some of which had never been exhibited publicly before.

Duncan Grant: 1920’ at Charleston Trust ran until 13 March 2022