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1941 Mutable Meaning in Duncan Grant's Girl at the Piano

Amid the Blitz, with heavily bomb-damaged galleries, a grave question was raised at the Royal Academy in 1941: Should the Summer Exhibition be held? The brief debate was settled through recognition that feelings of centredness and belonging, solidity and stability provided by the event had become precious resources. They were to be hoarded in moments of plenty for use during inevitable periods of hardship. The 173rd Exhibition would be held, so the narrative went, as a public duty for King and Country.

Under such pressure, meaning mutated in the work on show. Order was sought from chaos: Richard Eurich’s monumental Dunkirk Beach, May, 1940 became a “diagram held together by tremendous effort on the artist’s part”.1 Another of the most admired paintings, Duncan Grant’s Girl at the Piano), was loaded with a similar significance (Fig. 1). It was the first time any work by Grant had appeared at the Academy but he did not (and never would) submit his painting to the Selection Committee. Begun in spring 1939, several months before the declaration of war, Girl at the Piano was exhibited at Lefevre Gallery, where it was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest and, as the conditions of the bequest dictated, presented to the nation at the Summer Exhibition.

“Every inch of the canvas is loaded”, remarked the New Statesman and Nation, when the work was first shown, “and one could cut a dozen lovely pictures from it.”2 When at the Academy, critics remarked on its fixed solidity with “nothing evasive in the design”.3 Raymond Mortimer in The Listener described it as “built up of beautifully painted passages” constituting a stable whole and “much the most solid and accomplished work in the exhibition”.4 These contemporary commentators, grown accustomed to Grant’s rejection of narrative and reverence of the decorative, focus solely on such attributes. Compositional stability, neutrality of subject, and craftsmanly skill are invoked to build a case for the work’s salve-like suitability for a nation shaken by war.

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Loaded as an idealised symbol of national security, a type of nostalgic-aspirational microcosm, Grant’s painting became knitted into the grand public narrative of the 1941 Exhibition, and stripped of its original private context. Charleston, the artist’s Sussex home and wartime refuge he shared with Vanessa Bell, forms the painting’s physical and conceptual setting. The attitudes (including conscientious objection) and aesthetics developed there since the First World War would balk at any suggestion that Girl at the Piano could function as an allegory for the stiff upper lip of the British establishment in wartime. The painting, then, appears decidedly resistant to its allotted interpretation by the British press as a product of anxiety and contestation, highlighting the tensions between the public and private spheres at this historic moment.

With this issue in mind, there is a surprising synchronicity between Grant’s fraught relationship with his daughter by Vanessa Bell, Angelica, who sat for the painting during 1939, and national concerns during its exhibition in 1941. Through the summer of 1939, Grant increasingly felt that his daughter was in danger of being torn away from him by David Garnett, his ex-lover and old enough to be Angelica’s father. It was a source of considerable conflict and anxiety during the development of the painting from 1939 onwards. Grant noted how there was “something unreal, unstable” in Garnett’s love for Angelica.5 In keeping with a formalist aspiration to the purity and isolated uniqueness of pictorial values, in Girl at the Piano, Grant set down in paint what he struggled establish and maintain in life: an ideal of security.

This is reflected in the two extant studies of Girl at the Piano. The first, and presumably earlier, shows Angelica from an angle. Her head is uncovered and her hands are visible on the keys. Altogether looser and more casual, here is the passing glimpse that may have first inspired Grant towards a larger project on the theme. The second study shows a composition closer to the final work (Fig. 2). Angelica is now viewed squarely from behind. A different chair and dress appears to bind her more securely into her surroundings, including the patterned decoration of the piano.6 The result of this developed design is that the final painting becomes inscrutable to the point of being defensive. Angelica (or her pictorial analogue) is shut off from the viewer’s gaze and reads only as a static headscarf and patterned figure. Frances Spalding records how Bell, worrying about Angelica’s choice of profession, “felt that she understood what was going on inside the head of painters far better than she did those of actors.”7 Grant’s painting questions the unknowable nature of his daughter’s mind, gazing with the telepathic powers Bell claimed, and reaching no further than the surface decoration of her clothing.

With sentiments of control and continuity, if Grant could not see the thoughts laid out beneath the headscarf, he could at least contain his sitter within rigid pictorial framework. With two chairs (one vacant), two vases of flowers (one captured in a mirror), a bookcase, and a patterned rug, the artist provides a composition meticulously constructed on a scale unusual within his oeuvre. One reviewer noted the “sedate, self-contained, almost old-masterish” quality of Girl at the Piano, bringing to mind Johannes Vermeer’s genre scenes, particularly The Music Lesson (1665).8 There, as in Girl at the Piano, a musically themed domestic composition integrates mirrored perspective, connecting Grant’s work with Vermeer’s interest in and probable use of optical devices. Even through complex reflections, be they emotional or visual, Girl at the Piano suggests Grant, like Vermeer, sets things in their place. His intricate composition operates as a brimming crucible for a multiplicity of possible assigned meanings; it is equally significant to a father looking to shore up his relationship with his daughter as it is to a nation looking to secure their home front.

The qualities Grant aspired to in his personal experience of the painting—well proportioned, stable, traditional, secure—were the same qualities viewers arrived hungry for when it was displayed at the Academy in 1941. Unexpectedly, rather than being labelled “the kind of pretty fantasy that deliberately turns its back on the clash of armies and ideologies”, it was Grant’s painting above all others that came to resonate with dominant narrative of how “heroically the Academy carries on”.9 

The rare grand scale of Girl at the Piano also places the work as one of particular intent, not designed for the crowded walls of Charleston. It is a stage-like painting conscious of its own spectacular quality. That its meaning should change dramatically upon entry to the Academy in such portentous conditions is not surprising, but it serves to illustrate how the work was offered up, as a patterned vessel in which to consecrate meaning, to a populus who politicised and utilised the work according to their collective needs. In contrast, propaganda pieces found elsewhere, Girl at the Piano laid bare what was at stake in 1941, oscillating between a lyric, domestic experience and the epic proportions of a world at war.

  1. Eric Newton, “War Pictures at the Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 3 May 1941, 5.↩︎

  2. New Statesman and Nation, 11 May 1940, quoted in Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant (London: Pimlico, 1998), 373.↩︎

  3. The Times, 3 May 1941, 5.↩︎

  4. Raymond Mortimer, “The Royal Academy, 1941”, The Listener, 8 May 1941, 660.↩︎

  5. Duncan Grant, unpublished diary, quoted in Spalding, Duncan Grant, 363.↩︎

  6. I am grateful to Dr Darren Clarke for bringing these studies to my attention and for his accompanying comments.↩︎

  7. Spalding, Duncan Grant, 363.↩︎

  8. The Times, 3 May 1941, 5.↩︎

  9. Newton, “War Pictures at the Academy”, 5.↩︎

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Explore the 1941 catalogue