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Works by Bloomsbury artists from the Collection of The Reader's Digest Association Inc.
There are a number of collectors in Britain and North America who own substantial groups of works by the Bloomsbury painters and their circle. The emphasis of some of these collections falls on the artists' decorations and designs, some on their portraits, some on still life. The present comprehensive collection has Charleston at its core, containing quintessential images of this rented Sussex farmhouse to which Vanessa Bell, her children and Duncan Grant moved in 1916. Between the wars it was a holiday and week-end house but eventually became the artists' principal home, with their own studios, until their respective deaths in 1961 and 1978. That Charleston is open to the public, its interiors superbly recreated and its walled garden restored, is in part due to the generosity of Lila Acheson Wallace, co-founder with her husband DeWitt of Reader's Digest in 1922. She and her Foundation had been closely involved in the restoration of Claude Monet's house and gardens at Giverny. When the bid to rescue Charleston, damp and dilapidated by the late 1970s, was brought to her notice, she pledged a matching grant of £50,000 which made a very real difference to the project. Further support came from her when the Charleston Trust appealed for funds for the garden. Her name is commemorated on a ceramic plaque by Quentin Bell placed just inside the gate of the walled garden. Unfortunately she did not live to see the completion of the restoration of Charleston, having died in her early nineties in 1984, three years before the public opening of the house. The administration of Mrs Wallace's Foundation was the responsibility of Barnabas McHenry of New York. His role in the formation of the Reader's Digest Collection, which continued to expand after Mrs Wallace's death, owes much to his great enthusiasm for the art and literature of Bloomsbury.
The Collection ranges in date from a newly attributed Vanessa Bell of 1911 (lot 45), a rare survival from her pre-Post-Impressionist period, to designs and lithographs by Duncan Grant from the 1970s. It does not pretend to represent all aspects of the artists' work - there are relatively few portraits, no nudes and none of those sporting gods and goddesses that flowed from Grant's fingertips throughout his life. The bulk of the Collection consists of landscapes and still lifes, mostly painted at Charleston. Anyone familiar with the house and its contents will immediately recognise many of the objects and views depicted - jugs and vases, the corner of an Omega chair, lengths of distinctive fabric, the terrace in the walled garden, the pond. The flowers in several paintings are those that are still grown at Charleston (oriental poppies, bearded iris, purple artichokes and old-fashioned roses). Even Bell's still life painted in Lucca (lot 7) strikes a chord, for the napkin belongs to a set she brought back to England. Among the decorative designs there are studies for recognisable plates made by Quentin Bell in his pottery at Charleston and the design by Vanessa Bell for the accommodating circular table in the dining room (which forms the foreground of her painting The dining room window, lot 13, although seen here with an earlier pattern).
Moving from the rooms of the house, we encounter its beautiful setting among farm buildings to the south (lot 22), backed by the Sussex Downs, and reflected in the pond at the front of the house (lot 21), a view that was a source of delight for the painters almost from the moment they moved to Charleston - indeed, for Vanessa Bell it constituted one of the house's chief attractions (another being its secluded remoteness). The flint-walled garden, adjoining the north side of the house, was very much Vanessa Bell's province and her The apple tree (lot 3) belongs to a series of often brilliantly sunlit paintings from the 1930s. Charleston is in beautiful and varied countryside and in the 1920s the acquistion of a car put a mass of new subjects at the artists' disposal such as the nearby village of Alfriston seen in Bell's oil study (lot 46) which she adapted for a huge printed lorry bill commissioned by Shell. Roger Fry, a constant visitor to Charleston, painted his late summer landscape (lot 1) on one of his last visits; he and Duncan Grant drove to Laughton Place near Glynde and, side by side, painted the old tower and farm. Years earlier Fry had painted John Maynard Keynes in Charleston's garden and Grant's watercolour of the economist (lot 11), whose celebrated polemic The Economic Consequences of the Peace was written at Charleston in 1919, was again painted alongside Fry. The pink crochet hat that Keynes wears gives a skittish touch to the great man's seriousness of purpose.
It is only right to concentrate in this note on the theme of Charleston but it should not be forgotten that, between the wars, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were very much part of the London art world, king-pins of the London Group and the London Artists' Association, and both painters having studios at 8 Fitzroy Street in the heart of the capital's artists' quarter. Bell painted the still life of tulips in London (lot 27) which also shows the little Matisse, Le Port, which Roger Fry bequeathed to Bell; and Grant's Still life with Opel (lot 38) shows a corner of his studio in 1939, one of the last paintings he made there. In the following year, his and Bell's adjoining studios were burnt out in the Blitz and, for the first time for years, the artists were homeless in London. It was then that Charleston came into its own, providing a rich visual stimulation for those who lived and worked there; and a continuing pleasure for its visitors today.
20th Century British Art from the Collection of The Reader's Digest Association Inc.
Alongside works by the Bloomsbury artists, Mrs Wallace also collected pictures by late modern and contemporary artists. These include Flowers and a mirror by Ivon Hitchens (lot 64) and Lupins and peonies by Edward Burra (previously in the collection of the artist, Eliot Hodgkin, lot 65), the longitudinal format of both these paintings encouraging the viewer to scan along the picture, exploring the imagery and bold colours. The traditional taste was reflected in works by Gilbert Spencer, Sir William Rothenstein and Lucien Pissarro, their landscapes of rural England creating tranquil oases.
Her eclecticism is further reflected in the works on paper, from Head of a sheep by Henry Moore (lot 54) to The month of August: on the beach by Sir Stanley Spencer (lot 55). A fine group of works by Scottish artists is also included, with the Scottish Colourists represented by George Leslie Hunter's still life (lot 72) and several paintings by Anne Redpath (lots 67-69).
Mrs Wallace's vision was to create a more visually pleasing and intellectually stimulating work environment for her employees, and to embrace her belief that art and business are mutually enriching, 'Great art is something to be appreciated, not only in moments of solitude, but also in our flying minutes of busyness as we go about our daily lives'. Her broad-ranging taste resulted in one of the finest corporate collections in the world.
Duncan Grant (1885-1978)
Grant was born in Rothiemurchus, Inverness-shire, but spent his early years in India. His art studies took him from Westminster School of Art, via Italy, to a period under Jacques-Emile Blanche and a short while at the Slade School of Fine Art. Influenced by the work of Matisse and the French Post-Impressionists, during Roger Fry's first Post-Impressionist show in London in 1910-11, he became a member of the Camden Town Group and later the London Group.
His life spanned great changes in society and art, and his work as an artist helped break the mould of Edwardian painting whilst still retaining a love of the past. His involvement with the Bloomsbury Group, the Omega Workshops and his relationship with Vanessa Bell were of lasting importance, their lives and work being inextricably linked.
His output was vast and varied; he is known as much as for being a designer for the theatre, pottery and textiles as he is for being a painter and decorative artist. A passionate and charming man, summed up neatly by Virginia Woolf's maid, 'That Mr Grant, he gets in everywhere'.
Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)
Vanessa Bell was born in London, the daughter of the writer Sir Leslie Stephen and sister of Virginia Woolf. She married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907 and was a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group.
Her life was to follow an increasingly unorthodox path: while remaining married to Clive Bell, she had an affair with Roger Fry and then spent the remainder of her life in a complex relationship with Duncan Grant, the father of her daughter, Angelica.
Her work, like Grant's, combined that of the easel painter and the decorative designer, her influences and inspirations coming from the tangible world about her. She painted notably avant-garde works in her early years such as Abstract, 1914 (Tate Britain). She created designs for the Omega Workshops, and alongside Grant and her son Quentin Bell decorated the interior of the church at Berwick, Sussex. A forceful personality, she remained dedicated to her work throughout her life, the last twenty years of which were spent at Charleston.
Roger Fry (1866-1934)
Fry was born in London, both his parents from distinguished Quaker families. Having studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge he decided, to his father's regret, to study painting rather than follow a scientific career.
One of the leading critics of contemporary art in the first half of the twentieth century, Fry was an extraordinarily versatile figure; scholar, painter, historian, collector, at first a member of the establishment, and later a rebel. His Post-Impressionist shows in London in 1910 and 1912 created a sensation, indeed it was Fry who coined the phrase 'Post Impressionism'.
Fry, although older than Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, was a key member of the Bloomsbury group, and whilst all three had differing backgrounds, temperaments and aspirations, they became close friends and collaborators.
Fry was a dynamic member of the group, he opened the Omega Workshops, encouraged his friends to travel and meet other artists, introduced new artists into the group, generally encouraging and boosting the others.
Fry was often a guest at Charleston, the congenial atmosphere which he found there providing him with a ready audience for his ideas and theories. His biography was written by Virginia Woolf (1940).
Dora Carrington (1893-1932)
Dora Carrington trained under Philip Wilson Steer and Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art where she won a scholarship and several prizes. Through her fellow artists Grant and Bell she became familiar with the Bloomsbury group. Her aesthetic style, however, had deeper affiliations with that of John Nash, and Mark Gertler and Stanley Spencer, her contemporaries at the Slade, and her style in interior decoration was quite distinct from that of the Omega Workshops.
It was through Bloomsbury that she met Lytton Strachey, the person who was to become lynchpin of her complex life.
Carrington's work was principally about the people and places she loved. She worked in a broad range of media; tinselled glass pictures, drawings, decorations, wood cuts and interior designs, as well as oil paintings.
When Lytton Strachey died in 1932, Carrington, unable to continue life without him, committed suicide. Of her short life, Sir John Rothenstein commented that, 'she has been the most neglected serious painter of her time'.