Published date: 15 Sep 2011
Duncan may have been christened, but Vanessa never was," says the writer, Henrietta Garnett, of her grandparents, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. "But they loved Christmas. It was a good excuse for festivity and fun. Fun was important to them." The statement is a salutary reminder that, for all its celebrated high-mindedness, the Bloomsbury Group had a fi ne sense of frivolity. Henrietta recalls Christmases at Charleston, their Sussex farmhouse, aglitter with tawdry decorations and rowdy with parlor games.
And if her grandparents loved Christmas, they also loved Christmas cards. They made their own each year: hand painted, sometimes collaged, images full of bold, natural forms and commanding colour-clashes. It was part of their campaign to carry art into every corner of life. This had its public face in the beautiful murals they painted at Berwick Church and Lincoln Cathedral, or in the decorated furniture they made at the Omega Workshop in the years before World War I. And indeed Duncan Grant produced a special Omega Christmas card for 1913. But, of course, in the intimate – sometimes incestuous – world of Bloomsbury, it was the private performances that were most important, the exchanges between friends.
This adds a special interest to the delightful group of Christmas Cards that is offered by Bonhams in September which were sent by Vanessa and Duncan to their friends Ethel Sands and Nan Hudson over the course of three decades.
Even in an artistic world well-stocked with unconventional couples, Hudson and Sands made their mark. They were two confirmed spinsters of independent means, with artistic ambitions and impeccable taste, who cohabited happily for some 60 years. Both were expatriate Americans, and they shared that distinctive American love of France. They had studied painting together in Paris, possibly at Vuillard's atelier. They bought a beautiful chateau at Auppegard, in Normandy, near Dieppe. And in England they divided their time between Newington Manor in Oxfordshire, and 15 The Vale, Chelsea. Sociable, talented and wealthy, they came to occupy a position at the heart of the early 20th century English art world. They were disciples of Walter Sickert, founder members of his Fitzroy Street Group, and exhibitors with the London Group. But their interests ranged well beyond painting. They knew everybody, from George Moore and Henry James to W.B. Yeats and L.P. Hartley. (Their cache of cards even includes a couple of characteristic missives from the reclusive Stephen Tennant.)
They met Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell in 1913, after Ethel had attended a series of lectures by their friend Roger Fry. A friendship soon developed, and they found themselves drawn into the rich world of Bloomsbury connections. Lady Ottoline Morrel got so carried away as to suggest that Ethel might make a suitable wife for the homosexual Lytton Strachey – an idea that would have appalled all parties.
In 1927 Duncan and Vanessa carried out the frescoes in the loggia at Auppegard with wildly bucolic scenes of the seasons. It was a happy commission, though the neatness of the house or, more particularly, the garden proved rather taxing to their Bohemian ways. Vanessa complained that there was nowhere to throw away one's cigarette butts. But such trials did nothing to weaken the deep bond of affection and respect that existed between the four painters. It is this bond that is celebrated in the surviving sequence of cards, dating from 1935 onwards. Like all ephemera they carry a special charge, with their touches of fleeting intimacy. A decorated bookmark from Duncan Grant bears the legend, "Ethel is reading this book, 1948", whilst an impressionistic bunch of blue flowers by Vanessa Bell comes with the gloss, "these are meant to be flowers hanging from a blue ribbon, not standing up in a blue vase – but perhaps it doesn't matter".
Amongst the predominant flower and butterfly motifs there are occasional figures, including several madonna and child images. One delicate wash drawing by Vanessa, is explicitly 'after Titian', another seems to have something of the assured formality of Piero della Francesca about it. "It's a beautiful image," says Henrietta. The schematic architectural setting, with its framings of windows and open doors, suggests to her "the view through the door to Duncan's studio at Charleston". Vanessa reveals an unexpectedly practical side. She affi xed little printed calendars onto her cards. "She liked things to be used," explains Henrietta. "She would buy the calendars at Woolworths if she were in London, or else from Baxter's, a wonderful stationers in Lewes High Street. And she would stick them on with fl our and water paste that she boiled up in a little saucepan in the kitchen."
Her efficiency was also recognized by the Post Office. In 1932 they commissioned her to produce a poster to warn people against posting their Christmas cards too late. But it seems that even her planning sometimes went awry. One of her cards to Ethel bears the touching apology: "There were no calendars in Lewes, so I can only send my best wishes for 1958."
Matthew Sturgis is the biographer of Walter Sickert and Aubrey Beardsley.
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