Duncan Grant was a key member of the Bloomsbury group and one of the most celebrated and successful British artists of the mid-20th century. As a gay man he lived the first 82 years of his life as a criminal.

    He has long been known for his drawings of homosexual men making love, and even art he painted for Lincoln Cathedral has homoerotic elements to it. 

    It has been reported by The Guardian, the BBC, and other British newspapers that a large stash of more than 400 erotic gay drawings by Duncan Grant that was long thought to have been destroyed has come to light, secretly passed down over decades from friend to friend and lover to lover.

    In the 1940s and 50s Grant made hundreds of drawings, many of them explicit and often influenced by Greco-Roman traditions as well as contemporary physique magazines. (I remember these sketches would periodically appear in gay porn magazines when I was younger).

    On 2nd May 1959, Grant gave his friend Edward le Bas a folder marked “these drawings are very private”. The mythology in Bloomsbury circles is that the drawings were later destroyed, probably by Le Bas’s sister.

    However Nathaniel Hepburn, the director of Charleston, the beautiful Sussex farmhouse that was the home of Grant, his boyfriend David “Bunny” Garnett, and Vanessa Bell, was contacted with an offer of the drawings.

    “There haven’t been many joyous moments in 2020 for anyone running a cultural organisation, or many people in the world,” Hepburn said. “But certainly getting that email, having that phone conversation and then seeing the drawings and realising how important they were going to be … it was certainly a high point of the year.”

    The offer came from the retired theatre designer Norman Coates, who for years stored the drawings in plastic folders under his bed.

    Coates said the drawings were “extraordinary, so in your face. You can’t avoid them. When I’ve occasionally brought them out to show selected friends after dinner, after the initial ‘My God’ exclamation at these very explicit drawings, they mellow … the sexual element really doesn’t dominate.

    “It is the painting and the skill of his drawing and the aesthetic of it which negates the sexiness of them. It becomes irrelevant that the subject is what it is … it is a very odd feeling. It just becomes a beautiful collection of pictures.”

    Coates was left the drawings by his partner, Mattei Radev, who died in 2009. Radev, a Bloomsbury mainstay who as a younger man had a secret, tortured affair with E.M. Forster, was left them by Eardley Knollys, who died in 1991.

    Knollys, who ran the influential Storran gallery in London and had an affair with Jean Cocteau, was given them by Le Bas, a painter. Le Bas was given them by Grant, a man who the economist John Maynard Keynes briefly thought might be the love of his life.

    Hepburn said, “They are, I think, a body of work that talks of love. Of course at a time they were made, that is a love that was illegal,” he said. “He was never able to share the works. How we see them now will be very different.”

    Next week it will launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise the remaining sum needed to reopen. The appeal will kick off on 16 October, the 104th anniversary of the date when Grant, l moved to Charleston.

    Hepburn said at some point the drawings, an important slice of gay history as well as art history, would be exhibited and incorporated into stories told at Charleston, a place that was “an artistic home … but also one of queer celebration and of a group of people imagining life differently”

    Adapted from The Guardian 8th October 2020.