Monday, June 26, 2017

Pilgrimage to Cassis: John Allan Wyeth’s 10-day sojourn with Duncan Grant on the Côte d'Azur

Cassis-sur-Mer in 1932

In April, 1932, a brief encounter in Cassis-sur-Mer between the unknown war poet, John Allan Wyeth, and the celebrated painter, Duncan Grant, had, by Wyeth's own account, a seminal effect on the poet’s life, bringing his career in literature to an end, and opening the door to a new life in art, where he would remain thereafter.  The change in career was accompanied by a change in residence, from six years in Rapallo, Italy (1926 to '32), to six years ('32 to '38) during which (as nearly as we can tell) he divided his time between Paris in winter/spring, and Bavaria in summer/fall (with sidetrips to Cyprus and Greece)--- an annual circuit which he continued to make until the onset of the Second World War.

Café Liautaud
Duncan Grant and the Bells, Clive and Vanessa, had spent their summers in a small house, "La Bergère," in a vineyard just outside Cassis-sur-Mer, since 1927, and would continue there until the outbreak of the war.  The relationship between the three was intimate, intricate, and radically unorthodox.  It has also been so thoroughly documented and discussed that there is no need to recount it here (for those seeking further particulars, see “Sources Consulted” at the end of this posting). 

What it was like for Wyeth--- alone and a stranger, appearing unannounced on an April midnight--- to be welcomed warmly into a household of such artistic and amatory legend, is hinted at in Wyeth’s opening letter. It changed the course of his life, and the emotional effects of that welcome were still recalled vividly after forty years.

After a night in Duncan's bed, followed by breakfast together on the terrace with Clive and Vanessa, Wyeth spent the next ten days in nearby Cassis at one of the hotels near the port-- probably the Hotel Cendrillon, where Grant was a familiar.  Each morning, with a bundle of sketchbooks under his arm,
Grant would meet with Wyeth at a harborside café-- perhaps the Café Liautaud, favored by local artists and literati--- to instruct the younger man in the finer points of the painter's art--- before finally sending him off to Paris with a letter of introduction to Jean Marchand at the Académie Moderne..

The letters between Wyeth and Grant, and Grant’s companion, Paul Roche, all date from 1976--- many years after the events described--- when Wyeth was 80, and Grant, 92.  At least one letter in the exchange, alluded to by Roche, is missing, and it may be that others are as well.  

~~BJ Omanson


John Wyeth to Duncan Grant, 30 January 1976                                                                                                                                                              

My dear Duncan,
I have wanted --- for years --- to write you a letter of infinite gratitude, devotion, a humble love and, as far as mortals may, undying affection.  You may, only with difficulty, call to mind the pilgrimage I made to you at Cassis-sur-Mer, under the aegis of Peter Murphy, who deserted me enroute when we drove through Toulon and sent me on alone to your midnight door --- many many happy years ago ---  It was early in April, I believe 1932 (year of the first great Picasso show in Paris) and a year of crisis for me --- dissolved by your immediately taking me in to your protection, care, instruction and I sincerely hope into some tiny part of your heart, as someone turning to you for help, discerning encouragement and trust in my possible gifts might hope to be judged and, as it turned out, saved by you.     
I have had the happiest life imaginable, thanks to you and and while I have so far got one Cypriot landscape into one museum --- Pittsfield Mass. (in permanent situ at the top of the stairway --- shades of the Winged Victory!)   I know that I have painted a goodly number of canvases you would have approved of, and sponsored, and that I will leave behind me a modicum of beauty dependent entirely upon your welcoming me into your friendship at that perilous turn of my life.          
I love you now as I loved you then, then with a trusting hope, now with an eternal gratitude, you were a sort of god to me, as an English Cezanne, and it was you who set me on my way in life.          

My niece, in Princeton, whom I am visiting at present, owns one of those amateur watercolours I submitted to your judgement and Ihage only to glance at it to feel myself back in your studio submissive to your criticism and hearing you say, when I asked you “What shall I do ---  shall I go ahead?” --- “I should think it would be worth almost anything to go ahead.”   When I look at it now we exchange grins over a secret shared.          
I somehow felt safe with you before your examinations of my (self made) amateurish artifacts the morning after Peter’s propulsion of me into your life --- for that short while at least.          
I remember that blissful sense of safety and rescue waking up in your bed, together, with Clive Bell coming in the front door to announce breakfast about to be served by Vanessa on the terrace below --- possibly determined to find out who had descended upon you five minutes before twelve the night before.         
Duncan, my long cherished and lived friend --- and saviour --- do you remember giving me morning hours of instruction, notes, formulas, tricks of you’re your own painting manner, many mornings (of the 10 days I spent in a harbour hotel in Cassis) --- my first and most vital hours of study --- in some matinal café where we met so many times before you sent me off to Paris and Academe Moderne with a letter to Jean Marchand.          
The rest is history for me at least, and not even some days in New York of acute suffering ---  we all go through it, it seems, could break the long record of much work, much dealing with and production of beauty and an incessant happiness that has filled a life of secret devotion to you.          
Will you let me include a Bavarian landscape snapshot --- in spite of browning of the greens in the photograph --- they are actually, on the canvas, the intense greens of Ireland, for your possible interest?           
I went to Berchtesgaden (Greece & Cyprus) almost every year of my 6 years in a studio just around the corner from Jean Marchand.          
I hope this snapshot may offer some justification of your crucial envoi of me into the life of a painter --- starting at 38, and not 80.  And happier than I can say.          
This epistle, starting simply as a record of love, has broken the limits of decency, and I must close it instantly.          
Do believe in my avowal of a love exceeding friendship and the most grateful thanks for your great role in my life.                                                                                                                

Love to you always,                                                                                                                
John Wyeth                                                                                                  


Duncan Grant to John Wyeth, 11 April 1976  

Duncan Grant’s reply is dated April 11th, and is typed on letterhead from the El Farah hotel in Tanger, Morocco.  He begins by stating what a surprise Wyeth’s letter was, but “who would mind having a letter of love like that?”  He notes that the Cassis days “seem an epoch away”, but that he still has vivid dreams of “that sun-drenched life”, and that his happiness is increased knowing that their meeting has come to mean so much to Wyeth.  He expresses pleasure that his sending of Wyeth to Marchand “bore fruit a thousandfold”.  He comments on what an interesting life Wyeth has led, and wonders at Wyeth’s youth: “only 80!”, while he himself has just passed 92.  He alludes to a recent bout with pneumonia in November, and credits his survival to the devoted ministrations of his companion, the poet Paul Roche.  He writes that they expect to be back in England by mid-May.
This much of the letter is typewritten by Roche.  At the bottom of the page is a note in Grant’s almost-illegible hand:  “Yes my dear John, it is a great blessing to have behind me a modicum of beauty.  How much you and I have to be thankful for.  My heartfelt feelings, Duncan Grant.”


Duncan Grant (at Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex) to John Wyeth, 3 August 1976

Grant writes that he was only just returned from Africa when he received Wyeth’s “welcome letter” and a second letter containing $1000 for purchasing one of Grant’s paintings, which he is to select.  Grant goes into some business details, and explains the transaction may have to be conducted through his dealer.  He then writes, “It makes me very proud and happy to be told that I have made another person’s life a happier one --- one cannot wish for more than one day to be allowed to look through the result of your happiness…”  Grant then commiserates with Wyeth on his recent illness, and explains that, while he himself has recovered his health, his legs remain paralyzed, though he is hopeful he may yet recover the use of them.  He apologizes for the illegibility of his handwriting and asks Wyeth to excuse it, as being “from an old man of 90 or so.”   


John Wyeth to Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, September 5, 1976

Dear Al
--- I hope you won’t find in my writing to you what must seem out of the blue, nor any note of presuming on a friendship of very long duration.          
Here’s what’s w/---- I am awaiting daily --- the expressing of a canvas by Duncan Grant which Ihabve purchased from (sight unseen at $1000) with a view of presenting it to you in your office on some appointment with you as a donation to your wonderful Museum of Modern Art.                
Duncan Grant was my first teacher, when I visited him in 1932 at Cassis sur Mer where he was domiciled in Clive Bell’s Villa La Bergere--- he occupying the upstairs studio over the ground floor quarters of Clive & Vanessa Bell.  I brought him my amateurish efforts at watercolour, and one half begun, half finished oil landscape, for him to criticize and judge whether or not I should begin a painting career.                
When, after his two hour consideration of my work, I asked him point blank, Tell me, what shall I do?  Shall I go ahead? And he answered “I should think it would be worth almost anything to go ahead.”  I took a room at a hotel on the port, and met Duncan almost every day for an hour’s instruction out of a pile of his notebooks which he brought down every day, at a café near the harbour.  A priceless and wonderful introduction to painting, for which he gave up his own mornings work for about 10 days.  This was in April, 1932.                
He told me to go to Paris and  study under Jean Marchand at the Academe Moderne, giving me a letter of introduction to Marchand.                
I went back to my family at Rapallo, settled my effects and took off for Paris, in mid-May to begin a 6-year study under Marchand’s direction --- with my studio near the Port d’Orleans around the corner from Jean Marchand’s studio-dwelling.                
This letter is not to be about me, but the matter in hand --- a grateful pupil’s desire to establish his master’s work in the First Museum in America --- and, failing here, to try the Metropolitan Museum, the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum in Providence where they already have two of Marchand’s portraits --- or possibly our own museum in Princeton, or the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass, where one of my landscapes in Cyprus is permanently housed.                
I believe Duncan Grant is, not yet, in any museum in America, though of course I may be wholly wrong.  You are familiar with Clive Bell’s estimate of him as the greatest painter in England --- he has, I know, two paintings in the National Gallery in London, at Millbank.                
He is now 91, legs paralyzed after a death’s door bout with pneumonia in Tangiere last winter, just beginning to walk with help --- and painting every day from 10 A.M. to sunset.  Certainly a great spirit there --- one can understand Paul Roche (the English poet) dedicating his translation of the Oedipis Plays of Sophocles “for Duncan Grant, my choice and master spirit of this age.”
At the end of 49 years of painting on my part, I suddenly wrote my thanks to Duncan Grant, for the marvelous happy life he gave me by setting me on my way under his initial and fruitful direction.      When his painting arrives I’ll have it handsomely framed and will bring it (plus my letter from Duncan Grant and Paul Roche, who is taking care of him during this convalescence) and confer with you exactly how to donate this as yet unseen canvas to your Museum.              
I will, later this fall, telephone you from Princeton for an appointment.  Do not bother to answer this, as I know how busy you are.  

John Wyeth.  


John Wyeth to Duncan Grant, 9 September 1976                                                                                                              

My dear Duncan –                
I am in the first full flush of delight and joy in the pride of possession --- a casual ring of the doorbell and behold, as I had hoped, the carefully prepared, protected and sizeable packet from Charleston put into my hands by a benign and unfamiliar postman.  And not yet opened, for I shall wait a short time to gather about me a few choice initiates (who have been like myself eagerly awaiting your precious shipment) for a most private vernissage (sans varnish of course) --- this being one of the greatest moments of my life.                
I cried, the other day, indeed sobbed with joy on learning from Paul Roche’s letter (yet to be answered) – (in which he recorded a return of life to your temporarily stricken legs) --- that you were again able to walk --- if only so far as a little and with help --- God!   --- even now a filament of tears and a choking gullet and an almost agonizing joy at the news and its promise of ultimate complete recovery.  Deo gratias!
It so happens I got off a preparatory letter to the head of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., yesterday, notifying him of the purchase & dispatch of a canvas chosen by you, telling him I was expecting its arrival any day, and that, once handsomely framed, I would telephone for an appointment (and a viewing) in his office at the Museum, there to discuss the project of my donating it to his Museum --- the first in America.  This will be, I imagine, early in October, when I will be at my niece’s house at Skillman, 5 or 6 miles outside of Princeton.  Right now I am in the throes of unpacking, having decided not to move to other quarters until some time in the new year. May it be a blessed one for you, above all people in the world --- how well I understand Paul Roche’s dedication of his Sophoclean Trilogy --- my choice too, my master spirit too, since this painter would never have existed without the breath of life your creative genius inspired him with 44 years ago, at Cassis sur Mer. Most humbly, most gratefully and most lovingly yours ---
John Wyeth

I'll write in a few days to Paul Roche, and again to you.  Don’t bother to answer right now.  


Paul Roche to John Wyeth, 24 October 1976  

Roche begins by telling Wyeth how pleased Grant was at Wyeth’s enthusiastic response at receiving Grant’s painting “The Pond in Winter.”  Regardless which museum accepts, or whether it is accepted by any museum at all, what matters most to Grant is that Wyeth himself is pleased by the painting.  Roche writes that the landscape was painted from a particular window in the Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex (Vanessa Bell’s bedroom). 

Roche then refers to a book that Wyeth had mentioned in a previous letter (missing), namely Virginia Woolf and her World by John Lehmann, and confesses that the book is not present in the farmhouse library, in spite of the fact that Grant had just called on Lehmann a few months before.  Roche then passes on the news that Grant had again succumbed to pneumonia the previous month (“with several days of wandering and delerium”), but had since recovered enough that he was able to be present at private showing of his work.  Roche thanks Wyeth for “his kind words” regarding his translation of Sophocles, which he goes on to discuss for several sentences, mentioning as well several recent translation projects. 

Roche then mentions Wyeth’s book of poems, This Man’s Army, which he urges Wyeth to send to them as a xeroxed copy, rather than a copy of the actual book which Roche supposes would be “ruinously expensive” (presumeably due to its scarcity). 

Roche inquires whether Wyeth has seen “the beautiful little film” made about Grant and Charleston by Christopher Mason, and mentions that he was able to arrange a showing of it to his students when he was teaching recently at the California Institute of the Arts.  Roche suggests that Wyeth might ask the Museum of Modern Art to show it, given the recent growth of interest in the Bloomsbury Group.  He then closes by mentioning a new book about the Bloomsbury painters by Richard Shone.  


John Wyeth to Duncan Grant, 16 December 1976

(letter missing).


Duncan Grant to John Wyeth (in Skillman, N.J.)--- an undated postcard written in Paul Roche’s hand  

Grant thanks Wyeth for the good news that his painting “Pond in Winter” is to find a home in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design.  “What a lovely collection they have,” he writes, and says he has been poring over the catalogue and postcards of their collection which Wyeth sent.  He goes on to comment that Wyeth must have spent a great deal to have had the painting so beautifully framed.  He says he is glad that Wyeth will be spending “many weeks in the enchantingly green countryside of which you send me photographs.”  Finally, he reports that his show in Lewis was a success.  


Paul Roche (at Aldermaston, Berkshire)  to John Wyeth, 10 January 1977  

Roche writes that both he and Grant owe Wyeth a letter, and refers to a letter dated Dec 16, which is no longer extant.  He passes on some news that Grant was ill with an infection over Christmas, when he was visiting Roche and his family in Aldermaston, Berkshire. 

Roche then turns to the subject of Wyeth’s book of poems, This Man’s Army, a copy of which Wyeth has recently sent them.   Roche begins with a question: that he is “dying to know” when the sonnets were written.  “They seem to have been written on the spot --- so fresh and lively are they --- “  and yet, he notes, they were published a decade after the war.  Roche relates that he read the entire sequence aloud to Grant.  “From the very first I was amazed: amazed that poetry of that kind and quality was written between the wars.  And if in fact they were actually written at the time, it makes it even more impressive.  There is none of that Georgian diffuseness & wooliness one might have expected from the period.  They could have been written today ---- they’re chiseled and precise and yet brilliantly meet the musical demands of the sonnet form.  As to the account itself, it moves with an irrefutable genuineness and vividness.”  Roche goes on to say that Grant was as affected by the sonnets as he was, and they are at a loss to understand why the sonnets have never been republished (they finally would be, but not for another 30 years --- long after Wyeth’s death).


A final note:  a significant body of compelling, though circumstantial, evidence exists which  suggests that, while Wyeth was painting landscapes in Bavaria every summer and fall between the years 1932 to 1938, he may also have been passing information on Nazi activities to British intelligence.  This possibility will be fully explored in a future posting.


I am indebted to members of the Wyeth family: Ellie Wyeth, Marion Sims Wyeth and France Sloat, for permission to reproduce these letters of John Allan Wyeth, and for access to the letters of Duncan Grant and Paul Roche.  Particular thanks also to France Sloat and Dana Gioia, without whose generous assistance and invaluable suggestions this posting would not have been possible. 


Sources Consulted

Bell, Quentin, and Virginia Nicholson, with photographs by Alen Macweeney.  Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden  (Henry Holt, 1997).

Caws, Mary Ann and Sarah Bird Wright.  Bloomsbury and France: Art and Friends  (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Gadd, David.  The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbury  (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974).

Gioia, Dana.  "The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth," in John Allan Wyeth, This Man's Army: A War in Fifty-odd Sonnets  (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

Nicholson, Virginia.  Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, 1900-1939  (William Morrow, 2004).

Roche, Paul.  With Duncan Grant in Southern Turkey: A Journal  (Honeyglen Publishing, 1982).

Shone, Richard.  Bloomsbury Portraits  (Phaidon, 1976).

Spalding, Frances.  Duncan Grant: A Biography  (Chatto & Windus, 1997).

Spalding, Frances.  Vanessa Bell  (Ticknor & Fields, 1983).

Todd, Pamela.  Bloomsbury at Home  (Abrams, 2000).

Turnbaugh, Douglas Blair.  Duncan Grant and the Bloomsbury Group: An Illustrated Biography (London: Bloomsbury, 1987).


  1. Any idea when you'll let us find out about Wyeth's activities in Bavaria 1932-1938?

    By the way, your research is amazing.

    1. Thank you for asking. In my just-published book, "Before the Clamor of the Gun: the First World War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth," there is a chapter discussing Wyeth's activities in Bavaria in the 1930s.

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