In June, 2013, I wrote in Fitzrovia News about an important art collection, then in a private house in Fitzrovia, that included works by Vanessa Bell, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Maurice Denis, Duncan Grant, Amadeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Graham Sutherland and Alfred Wallis.
The collection had been passed down through three generations of gay men: from Eddy Sackville West, later Lord Sackville, and Eardley Knollys, art dealer; to Fitzrovia picture framer Mattei Radev, a Hungarian refugee who died in 2009; to the current owner, Radev’s partner, retired theatre designer, Norman Coates.
In an exciting postscript to that story, Norman Coates, saved some of the best until last, when he recently revealed that an extraordinary stash of more than 400 erotic drawings of men by Bloomsbury Group artist Duncan Grant (who died in 1978 at the age of 93) that was long thought to have been destroyed, were actually secretly passed down over decades from friend to friend and lover to lover, and stored in plastic folders under Coates’ bed for years.
Grant, one of the most celebrated and successful British artists of the mid-20th century, was frequently in Fitzrovia. As a gay man he lived the first 82 years of his life as a criminal. Coates told the BBC that he would occasionally “haul them out” to show to friends. “Every single person was startled by them, because they’re very graphic. You couldn’t have sex in some of those positions, we all agreed — although I think some went home and tried. But I would be careful not to show them to certain other people, like my mother.”
Coates has now decided the drawings need a wider audience, and has generously given them to Charleston, former home and studio to Grant and many other ‘Bloomsburys’, in Lewes, East Sussex. Nathaniel Hepburn, Director of Charleston, said that 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”.
Clive Jennings is arts editor of Fitzrovia News. He is an artist, curator, gallerist and art dealer. Follow him on Instagram @clivejenningsart