Writing in 1930, the art critic Roger Fry (1886-1934) discerned 'a certain lyrical joyousness of mood' in Duncan Grant's work, which 'leads him to affect and enjoy what is beautiful in nature, and to express that delight in beauty in his work' (Introduction to Living Painters: Duncan Grant, London 1930, p.v). Nature, landscapes and flowers were a lifelong passion of Grant's and a central subject-matter in his work. Yet while such 'Neo-Romantic' artists as John Piper (1903-92), Graham Sutherland (1903-80) and John Craxton (born 1922) were creating Arcadian landscapes inflected by nostalgia, anxiety and fantasy, Grant's primary concern in works like Garden Path in Spring was with colour, harmony and unity of design. In addition, while they sought to define a distinctly national style, Grant's treatment of landscape was consistently influenced by the European aesthetics of Post-Impressionism and was strongly anti-nationalist, even when his subject-matter was most conspicuously British.
The garden depicted here was part of the estate at Charleston, a remote farmhouse at the foot of Firle Beacon in Sussex where Grant lived and worked with the painter Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) from 1916 until his death. Together they decorated and furnished the house, designing rugs, doors, fireplaces and pottery to create a home that was something of an artwork in itself. In their own work, both artists repeatedly painted aspects of the house and garden, as often as not creating imaginary interiors distilled from elements of different rooms. Here, however, Grant chose a genuine vista, incorporating the trees and flowers which he so ardently tended. Under previous owners the garden had been used for growing fruit and vegetables; under the direction of Grant and Bell, it was transformed into the very archetype of a delightfully disordered English cottage garden. Featuring, as it did so often, in their canvases, the garden and its flora were chosen with great care and attention. Every winter the two artists would consult the latest seed catalogues, arranging flowers like roses, hollyhocks, German irises and oriental poppies in a seemingly haphazard manner to create dazzling bursts of contrasting colour, like the yellows, reds and violets seen here.
The garden at Charleston was significant not only as a charming pictorial setting but as a real physical haven from the turmoils of international conflict. At the approach of war in 1939 Grant had abandoned his London studio, transferring to Charleston many of his canvases and books as well as furniture. While he briefly joined the Home Guard in 1940, he spent the majority of the war years in the rural sanctuary of Sussex. Certainly the wider world is not alluded to in Garden Path in Spring, where the intimacy of the domestic garden setting is intensified by the crowded composition. Blocking out the views beyond and even the sky above, the voluminous trees and plants fill the entire canvas, while blossoming branches sweep inwards to form a protective shade. The extent to which Grant's vision in the early 1940s was of an inward-looking, enclosed world is most apparent when the Charleston paintings are compared with his earlier, European, landscapes. In the 1920s and 1930s, when Grant had travelled extensively around Europe with Bell, his paintings invariably looked outwards to the world beyond. In South of France 1922 (Tate N04443), for example, Grant chose a view which incorporated distant fields, farmhouses and even the activity of some labouring farmhands. In Garden Path in Spring, the closest we get to human activity is the static bust-like form on the plinth at the end of the path. The secluded world of the domestic garden plot, it seems, had become an enforced substitute for those grand sweeps of lush Mediterranean landscape now made inaccessible by war.
As a retreat from war the garden at Charleston was an anomaly. Under the government's 'Dig for Victory' campaign between 1939 and 1945, six and a half million acres of countryside had been ploughed up and transformed into productive, utilitarian allotments. Haphazard and superfluous, Grant's flower garden was a rare luxury, and in some senses a rejection of the nationalistic language of wartime self-sufficiency, in line with his earlier pacifist response to the First World War. The detached, carefree and luxurious world of Charleston, enjoyed by its inhabitants and visitors, was to appear increasingly out of tune with modern British life, and in the post-war era of austerity and rationing Grant suffered a decline in his reputation. His solo show at the Leicester Galleries in June 1945, in which Garden Path in Spring and other Charleston scenes were exhibited, received a poor critical reception, although it enjoyed some popular success and all of the large canvases sold.
The Helena and Kenneth Levy Bequest, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991, reproduced front cover (colour)
Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant: A Biography, London 1997, pp.369-70
Simon Watney, The Art of Duncan Grant, London 1990