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Bathers by the Pond, Duncan Grant (1920-1)

Painting showing four men reclining naken of in bathing shorts beside a pond. One other man is in the water, hanging on to the edge of a small rowing boat, also containing another man.

At a glance

Artist: Duncan Grant

Date: c. 1920 – 21

Location: Room 1

Materials: Oil on canvas

Acquisition: Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council (1985)

This painting by Duncan Grant depicts a group of male nudes relaxing in the warm afternoon sun by the pond at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex. Charleston was the artistic hub and home to members of the Bloomsbury Group, a prominent group of liberal artists and writers working during the early twentieth century.

Not only was this painting thought to have been hung at Charleston in Maynard Keynes’ bedroom – a room that the economist occupied on visits between 1916 and 1924 – but it is likely that the reclining figure at the centre of this painting was based on Keynes himself. Keynes and Duncan Grant were in a serious relationship several years earlier and it is possible that Bathers by the Pond is a depiction of several of Grant’s lovers, including David Garnett. Garnett had strawberry blond hair and a ruddy complexion that is recognisable in the figure in the top right-hand corner of this work.

The Bloomsbury Group was founded at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, London, where sisters Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) and Vanessa Stephen (later Vanessa Bell) lived. They had moved to this property from Kensington in 1904 after the death of their father, the well-known writer Sir Leslie Stephen. When their brother Thoby came to visit from Cambridge, he brought his university friends with him, and it was at these gatherings that politics, art, philosophy and literature were discussed amongst the group. Vanessa, who had trained as a painter at the Royal Academy Schools, started The Friday Club in 1905 where young artists could meet and discuss their work and ideas.

Although the group took their name from the area, Bloomsbury, from 1916 the group spent progressively more time at Charleston farmhouse in Sussex where artists and lovers Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and Grant’s partner David Garnett, moved during the First World War. This move was the result of Grant and Garnett avoiding conscription; instead they became conscientious objectors and thus needed a farm on which to work for the duration.

The Bloomsbury Group lived an unconventional existence with writer Dorothy Parker famously describing that they ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.’ All of the core members of the Bloomsbury Group came from affluent backgrounds which gave them unique social advantages. This allowed them to live comfortably whilst maintaining the guise of modern bohemianism.