Duncan Grant
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Duncan Grant

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in Great Britain for Allen and Richard Lane, 1945. 36 pages, plus five illustrations by Duncan Grant. 23 × 15 cm. colophon: ‘This edition has been specially made and produced in Great Britain for Allen and Richard Lane, and consists of 700 copies only. The text was set in Monotype Lutetia and printed by R. & R. Clark Ltd, Edinburgh, on hand-made paper by J. Barcham Green Ltd., Maidstone. The plates were made and printed by the Baynard Press, London, on Arnold hand-made paper supplied by Spicers Ltd, London. The binding in Niger Leather was executed by Henderson & Bisset, Edinburgh; and the medallion and lettering on the binding were designed by Percy Metcalfe, c.v.o.’

Nothing could be more of a contrast to Mervyn Peake’s 1943 edition of the Ancient Mariner than this sumptuous volume published two years later by Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. Limited to 700 copies, it had five full-colour illustrations by the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant (1885–1978), and in its typography, paper, printing and binding, represented the best of British book production.

Duncan Grant’s illustrations are curiously celebratory and exuberant. Composed, in a semi-pointillist fashion, largely of dashes, their colouring is bright and rainbow-like. Grant knew the French art world well, having lived in Paris in 1906 and 1907–9, and was much influenced by Cézanne and the Fauve artists in the Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910–11).

The top-hatted wedding guest (opposite) has the veneer of a Regency young gentleman; his Mariner is a bardic, bearded figure; the ‘slimy’ watersnakes (p. 116) are drawn with such brilliant colouring that they seem already in their ‘blessed’ state. Grant’s style in these illustrations does not present the darker burden of the poem. He has none of Coleridge’s transcendental interests; indeed he explains how, despite seeing a vision of Christ at his confirmation in the school chapel, he soon lost his faith: ‘When Duncan told his friend James Strachey about the vision, James’ way of dealing with it was to say, “well, let’s look up Christianity in the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” and he read it out to Duncan. “He then turned to me and said, ‘Do you mean to say you believe all this?’ The effect was instantaneous. My Christianity fell away from me like a mantle.” Perhaps his most successful illustration is his boldly decorative representation of ‘As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’ (p. 115): the ship and the sun above it are sumptuously mirrored in the still water. His final image of ‘the kirk’ and ‘the goodly company’ (p. 117) is not the world of Watchet in Somerset that Coleridge knew – the harbour, the lighthouse and the church – but rather a remote rural church, alone on a cliff with the ‘goodly company’ straggling towards it, all absorbed into an impression of light and colour.

Grant’s friends praised Duncan Grant’s temperament, his love of life, his equitable mood, his openness to sensuality. His imagery has a singular freedom: he does not seem to allude to earlier artists. This is in contrast to both Mervyn Peake and later Patrick Procktor, who were both highly conscious of the darker interpretation of Gustave Doré.