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Collectors' Focus Bloomsbury artists.

With a recent spate of exhibitions on the art of the Bloomsberries, interest in the group's colourful, controversial characters is as high as ever. Prices for the work of such figures as Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington are reflecting the vogue

In February last year, Piano Nobile gallery in west London opened the exhibition 'From Omega to Charleston: The Art of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, 1910-1934'. The first show in a commercial setting dedicated to their work since an exhibition at Spink & Co in 1991, it featured a wide range of paintings, drawings, prints and applied arts, including ceramics and rarely loaned paintings from Charleston, the artists' home in East Sussex. The intention was to revive for new audiences a sense of the unique creative relationship between Vanessa Bell, elder sister of Virginia Woolf, and Duncan Grant, the leading artists associated with the primarily literary Bloomsbury Group. The show celebrated the abundance of their experiments across media and genres, from domestic pots and fire surrounds to formal paintings. One spectacular exhibit was the installation of 50 exuberantly painted plates, the 'Famous Women' dinner service commissioned from the artists in 1932 by the art historian Kenneth Clark, later of Civilisation fame, and only recently rediscovered. Funds are currently being raised for their acquisition by the Charleston Trust, which runs the home Bell and Grant shared from 1916 until Bell's death in 1961 (Grant lived on at Charleston almost until his own death in 1978). The show was, in the words of gallery owner Robert Travers, 'the most visited exhibition I have ever held in 35 years'.

After a period in the doldrums in the 1950s, and another dip in the '90s, Bloomsbury art, particularly the works of Bell and Grant, is once again of interest. 'We are seeing a younger generation of collectors coming into the market,' reports Travers, who retains from his show Bell's striking gouache, oil and collage portrait of Molly MacCarthy from 1914-15 (250,000 [pounds sterling]; Fig. 2)--the first full collage in modern British art, and a response to her visit in 1914 to Picasso's studio. These younger buyers are drawn, Travers suggests, 'by what these figures represent; their pioneering lifestyle, their challenge to conventional sexual mores', as much as to the boldness of their art and decorative work. In addition, exhibitions such as the Courtauld's 'Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of The Omega Workshops 1913-19' in 2009 and 'Bloomsbury Art and Design' in 2017, and 'Vanessa Bell' at Dulwich Picture Gallery the same year, have underlined the radicalism of Bell and Grant's work and its influence on others.

Crucial for both artists was their friendship with the art critic, writer and painter Roger Fry (1866-1934). In 1910 Fry mounted the exhibition 'Manet and the Post-Impressionists' in London, introducing the paintings of Cezanne, Matisse, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso, whom he greatly admired, to a shocked English audience. Referring to this pivotal moment in British culture, Virginia Woolf later said: 'On or about December, 1910, human character changed.' Certainly the paintings of all three artists were profoundly altered by their encounter with French modernism. Fry followed this up in 1912 with the 'Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition' and, in 1913, founded the Omega Workshops, based in Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury. Set up as a laboratory of design ideas for the home under the co-directorship of Grant and Bell, Omega produced everything from textiles and rugs to ceramics, furniture and clothing, all animated with boldly coloured, abstract patterns.

Having married Clive Bell in 1907, Vanessa Bell had in 1911 embarked on a brief affair with Fry. Later, although Duncan Grant had had various homosexual liaisons (John Maynard Keynes among them), a passion flared up between Bell and Grant which, despite their fluid future relationships, never fully dwindled. It underlay a lifelong creative partnership. Grant moved in with the Bells and their two sons. In 1916, Vanessa Bell and Grant, with his new lover, David Garnett--both men conscientious objectors--moved to Charleston in Sussex to set up a fruit farm.

Bell and Grant worked hard at their art. 'Against the view that they were spoiled dilettantes, you have only to look at their commission book,' Travers says. 'They put so much effort into their work throughout the 1930s and '40s.' Bell may have faltered after the devastating loss of her son Julian, killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, but Grant found new inspiration in the 1960s. It is largely their early work that attracts the highest prices, but, says Travers, 'We sold a very good four-panel screen from the 1960s by Duncan Grant for a good [six-figure] price.'

The high value set on early work is confirmed by recent auction prices. The record for Duncan Grant was achieved in June 2016, when Grant's vivid nude portrait of George Mallory (1913; Fig. 1) sold for 170,500 [pounds sterling] at Christie's London (estimate 70,000 [pounds sterling]-100,000 [pounds sterling]). The painting reveals the strong impact of French Post-Impressionism--Seurat, perhaps --just as Grant's Still Life with Bottle and Glass, painted c. 1918-19 and sold at Bonhams in London last June for 85,000 [pounds sterling], shows the influence of Cezanne. And just last September, at Sotheby's London, Grant's Tents (1913) fetched 125,000 [pounds sterling] on an estimate of 30,000 [pounds sterling]-50,000 [pounds sterling]. As Robin Cawdron-Stewart, specialist in modern and postwar British art at Sotheby's, remarks: 'Provenance plays a very important role when it comes to Bloomsbury.' The painting records a camping expedition that included Maynard Keynes, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Adrian Stephen (brother of Vanessa and Virginia) and Molly MacCarthy. It was bought by Mary Hutchinson in 1914 on the advice of Clive Bell, with whom she had begun a relationship, and had remained in the family ever since. Similarly, a gramophone cabinet painted by Grant for Maynard Keynes (c. 1926-28) sold at Christie's London on 20 November 2018 for 62,500 [pounds sterling] (estimate 40,000 [pounds sterling]-60,000). 'Paintings of Charleston are also doing well,' Cawdron-Stewart adds, citing Grant's work The French Window, Charleston (1953), which sold for 47,500 [pounds sterling] (estimate 18,000 [pounds sterling]-25,000 [pounds sterling]) at Sotheby's London in June 2017. 'Ultimately, however, it is the strength of the aesthetic that draws people,' he says: 'Strong, original, striking designs.' He refers to a ceramic fire surround designed by Bell in the 1930s, which sold in September 2018 for 21,250 [pounds sterling], twice the top estimate of 10,000 [pounds sterling]. 'We are seeing a lot of interest from first-time buyers and young collectors,' he adds. This has contributed to the rise in value of works on paper, which previously had very little market at all. Bell's early design for the Omega textile 'Maud', for instance, executed in gouache on paper in 1913, sold in June 2016 at Bonhams, New Bond Street, for 18,750 [pounds sterling].

The market is dominated by collectors in Britain and the United States. 'Americans still find the social context fascinating, the changing values of that time,' explains David Messum of Messum's gallery, who himself lives in a home with Bloomsbury connections: it was built by artist Mary Sargant Florence, whose daughter Alix, a psychoanalyst, married James Strachey, brother of biographer and essayist Lytton. Apart from Duncan Grant, Messum says, 'They are none of them virtuoso painters; they are colourists. Their paintings are about changes in mood.' Messum's handles the estate of the latter-day Bloomsbury associate, Eardley Knollys (1902-91), who was primarily an art critic and dealer, but whose boldly coloured landscapes and still lifes 'fetch between 7,000 [pounds sterling] and 15,000 [pounds sterling]'. The work of Dora Carrington, who lived with her husband Reginald Partridge (known as Ralph) and Lytton Strachey, has hit higher prices: 90,000 [pounds sterling] in July 2005 at Sotheby's London for her sensitive portrait of Frank Prewett (1920; Fig. 3), estimated at 40,000 [pounds sterling]-60,000 [pounds sterling], and 59,750 [pounds sterling] for the beautiful Flowers in a Two-handled Vase (c. 1925) at Christie's London in 2004 (estimate 40,000 [pounds sterling]-60,000 [pounds sterling]). Works by other associates--Edward Wolfe, Angelica Garnett (Bell and Grant's daughter) and the sculptor Stephen Tomlin--still circulate, at much lower prices. For there is still, as Messum says, 'a huge appetite, especially in America, for these pioneers of social change'.

Caption: 1. George Mallory, 1913, Duncan Grant (1885-1978), oil on canvas, 55.9x63,5cm. Christie's London, 170,500 [pounds sterling]

Caption: 2. Portrait of Molly MacCarthy, 1914-15, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), gouache, oil and collage on board, 92X 75cm. Piano Nobile, 250,000 [pounds sterling]

Caption: 3. Portrait of Frank Prewett, 1920, Dora Carrington (1893-1932), oil on canvas, 66.5x56cm. Sotheby's London, 90,000 [pounds sterling]
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Author:Crichton-Miller, Emma
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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