BY Daniel Culpan in Opinion | 17 OCT 22

Duncan Grant’s Juicily Uninhibited Erotica

Daniel Culpan visits ‘Very Private?’ at Charleston, Sussex, where six contemporary artists, including Ajamu X and Tim Walker, respond to a recently discovered hoard of Grant’s pornographic works 

BY Daniel Culpan in Opinion | 17 OCT 22

‘Never be ashamed!’ was the lifelong credo of Bloomsbury Group artist Duncan Grant. Born in 1885 – the year that all homosexual acts, including those carried out in private, were criminalized in the UK – Grant was forced to live underground as a member of a shared, secretive, queer universe founded upon unspeakable desires and unspoken codes.

‘Very Private?’ – an exhibition of Grant’s juicily uninhibited erotic drawings, as well as newly commissioned works by six contemporary artists – illustrates a queer genealogy that spans the immediate postwar period to the present, depicting gay history through physical encounters rather than official archives. In 1959, Grant bequeathed his cache of more than 400 illustrations – labelled ‘These drawings are very private’ – to friend and fellow painter, Edward le Bas. Long hidden, the collection itself became a clandestine, cherished body of work shared among generations of queer male friends and lovers. In 2020, they were donated by theatre designer Norman Coates to Charleston, the former home of Grant and Vanessa Bell, where a selection is now on display.

Duncan Grant
Duncan Grant, Untitled Drawing, c.1946-1959. Courtesy: The Charleston Trust © The Estate of Duncan Grant and DACS

It is easy to see why Grant feared his collection falling into censorious hands. In these works on paper (all untitled, all late 1940s to early 1950s), created with a mixture of materials – including pen, pencil and gouache – bodies acrobatically combine in sexual abandon. Grant’s men are mostly muscled and ephebic, all red lips and blonde curls. One lounges back, eyes blissed-out, while another licks his nipple. A swimmer gives a blowjob to a companion dressed in a striped bathing suit, like the inspiration for a Jean Paul Gaultier advert. There’s a strange androgyny to the curved musculature and bubble butts of Grant’s subjects – a more British vision of homosexuality than Tom of Finland’s bulging hyper-clones – in keeping with Grant’s own refined, upper-class milieu. Elsewhere, a woman is seduced on a chaise longue, legs wrapped boa constrictor-like around her lover’s torso. 

Somaya Critchlow
Somaya Critchlow, Untitled, 2022, watercolour on paper, 21 × 15 cm. Courtesy: © Somaya Critchlow and Maximillian William, London; photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd 

Black bodies figure throughout the drawings. In one image, a Black man whips a pillow-hugging white youth splayed on a bed; in another, a Black man is fucked by a white man in wrestling boots. I can see, in Grant’s drawings of kink and interracial sex, an expression of the liberating potential of desire. However, such racialized top/bottom role-playing also highlights the degree to which a 20th century homoerotics was an essentially white prerogative, dominated by coteries of privileged men moving in aristocratic circles of taste and connoisseurship – like the one to which Grant belonged.

Among the contemporary works in the show, those of Ajamu X redress the eroticized Black masculinity and white gaze of Grant’s drawings. His bold photographs (all untitled) recall Robert Mapplethorpe’s rigorously formalist and fetishistic portraits from the 1980s: faceless Black male torsos, cocks and buttocks bared, legs splayed to show dangling genitalia. Here, however, objectification is more tender. For all their explicit charge, X’s images express an intimate kinship: bodies literally lean into and support one another; a tattooed arm with painted fingernails caresses a foot. 

Ajamu X
Ajamu X, Untitled, 2022. Courtesy: © the artist 

Somaya Critchlow’s sensuous watercolours provide space for Black women. It’s a softer, more reflective display of nudity, if no less unabashed. Critchlow’s women play with the idea of private seduction turned into public consumption by posing like pin-ups, with their small hips, pendulous breasts and parted mouths. Though jarring slightly with Grant’s homoerotic male Bacchanalia, the female-centred gaze of her portraits nonetheless offers a counterpart in subverting ideas of the typically imagined (straight, male) viewer.

Tim Walker’s photos explore domestic space as another physical dimension, infused with a taste for the madcap. Incorporating the items on a shopping list used by Grant for one of his drawings, we glimpse bodies fucking and frolicking amid discarded cereal boxes, empty milk bottles and cartons of eggs. I found my eye drifting from Grant’s drawings to Walker’s images, displayed on five cubes, re-casting much of the original imagery as if in a postmodern fashion shoot.

Duncan Grant
Duncan Grant, Untitled Drawing, c.1946-1959. Courtesy: The Charleston Trust © The Estate of Duncan Grant and DACS

These contemporary responses to Grant’s drawings emphasize how, by establishing a cultural elite as a form of survival in a homophobic era, a similarly narrow physical image – white, athletic, normative – became prized as its ideal object. By placing Grant’s collection within a broader spectrum of bodies and identities, the exhibition offers a more expansive portrait of queerness, moving from the proscribed pleasures of the ‘very private’ to a collective intimacy.

‘Very Private?’ is on view at Charleston, Sussex, until 12 March 2023 

Main image: Tim Walker, Untitled (detail), 2022. Courtesy: © Tim Walker Studio

Daniel Culpan is a writer based in London. He won the 2016 Frieze Writer’s Prize.