David (Bunny) Garnett, the only child of Edward William Garnett (1868–1937) and his wife, Constance Clara Garnett (1861–1946), was born on 9th March 1892 at Brighton. He was educated at University College School and at the Royal College of Science, where he studied botany.
During the First World War Garnett went to France with the Friends' War Victims' Relief Mission. and afterwards worked on the land. After the war he opened a bookshop in the heart of Bloomsbury with his boyfriend, Francis Birrell. At the time one of his shop assistants described him as being "good-looking, fair-haired, and blue-eyed."
Garnett went to live with his lover, Duncan Grant, and his mistress, Vanessa Bell, the wife of Clive Bell, at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk. Later they moved to Charleston Farmhouse, near Firle. As Hermione Lee, the author of Virginia Woolf (1996), points out: "Vanessa, who had fallen in love with Duncan Grant before the start of the war, was painting in a farm-cottage on the Sussex coast, living in an uneasy triangle with Duncan and his new lover, David (known as Bunny) Garnett. In 1918 Bell gave birth to Grant's child, Angelica Bell. Garnett wrote to Lytton Strachey shortly afterwards, "I think of marrying it. When she is 20, I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?".
Working in the shop he got to know several members of the Bloomsbury Group, who began meeting to discuss literary and artistic issues. Other members of the group included Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Frances Marshall, Ralph Partridge, Gerald Brenan, Roger Fry, Desmond MacCarthy and Arthur Waley. Marshall later recalled in her autobiography, Memories (1981): "They were not a group, but a number of very different individuals, who shared certain attitudes to life, and happened to be friends or lovers. To say they were unconventional suggests deliberate flouting of rules; it was rather that they were quite uninterested in conventions, but passionately in ideas. Generally speaking they were left-wing, atheists, pacifists in the First World War, lovers of the arts and travel, avid readers, Francophiles. Apart from the various occupations such as writing, painting, economics, which they pursued with dedication, what they enjoyed most was talk - talk of every description, from the most abstract to the most hilariously ribald and profane."
Garnett's friends, Philip Morrell and Ottoline Morrell purchased Garsington Manor near Oxford at the beginning of the First World War and became a refuge for conscientious objectors. They worked on the property's farm as a way of escaping prosecution. It also became a meeting place for a group of intellectuals that included Garnett. He described Garsington in his autobiography, The Flowers of the Forest (1955): "The oak panelling had been painted a dark peacock blue-green; the bare and sombre dignity of Elizabethan wood and stone had been overwhelmed with an almost oriental magnificence: the luxuries of silk curtains and Persian carpets, cushions and pouffes. Ottoline's pack of pug dogs trotted everywhere and added to the Beardsley quality, which was one half of her natural taste. The characteristic of every house in which Ottoline lived was its smell and the smell of Garsington was stronger than that of Bedford Square. It reeked of the bowls of potpourri and orris-root which stood on every mantelpiece, side table and window-sill and of the desiccated oranges, studded with cloves, which Ottoline loved making. The walls were covered with a variety of pictures. Italian pictures and bric-a-brac, drawings by John, watercolours for fans by Conder, who was rumoured to have been one of Ottoline's first conquests, paintings by Duncan and Gertler and a dozen other of the younger artists."
Garnett lived with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk. Grant and Garnett worked on the farm as conscientious objectors but in 1916 a government committee on alternative service refused to let them continue there. They therefore moved to Charleston, near Firle, where they undertook farm work until the end of the war.
In 1918 Bell gave birth to Grant's child, Angelica Garnett. His biographer, Quentin Bell has argued: "Despite various homosexual allegiances in subsequent years, Grant's relationship with Vanessa Bell endured to the end; it became primarily a domestic and creative union, the two artists painting side by side, often in the same studio, admiring but also criticizing each other's efforts."
On 30th March 1921 Garnett married Rachel (Ray) Marshall, the sister of Frances Marshall. The couple had two sons. In 1922 Garnett published the highly successful novel, Lady Into Fox. The money he made from this book enabled him to buy Hilton Hall, an early seventeenth-century house near Huntingdon. In 1923 he joined forces with Francis Meynell to establish the Nonesuch Press.
Other books by Garnett included The Sailor's Return (1925), A Rabbit in the Air (1932), Pocahontas (1933) and Beany-Eye (1935). He was also literary editor of the New Statesman from 1932-34 and during the Second World War he joined the Air Ministry with the rank of flight lieutenant Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, and later became an intelligence officer in the political warfare executive.
In 1938 Garnett began an affair with Angelica Bell, the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. This greatly distressed her parents. Garnett's wife died of breast cancer in 1940 and he married Angelica on 8th May 1942 and over the next few years had four children (Amaryllis, Henrietta, Nerissa and Frances).
In 1946 Garnett joined forces with Rupert Hart-Davis, Teddy Young, Eric Linklater, Arthur Ransome, H. E. Bates and Geoffrey Keynes to form the Rupert Hart-Davies publishing company. Garnet continued to write novels and the best-selling Aspects of Love appeared in 1955. Garnett also wrote three volumes of autobiography, The Golden Echo (1953), The Flowers of the Forest (1955), and The Familiar Faces (1962).
His biographer, Frances Partridge has argued: "Garnett's was a large and vigorous output, based on a variety of interests and wide reading. On first starting as a novelist he had taken Daniel Defoe as his model, and the same combination of an imaginative or fantastic premise with a sturdy, objective, and masculine style can be seen in the work of both writers. Many of his plots were markedly original and have attracted the interest of artists in other media."
After parting from Angelica Bell Garnett moved to France and lived at the Chateau de Charry, Montcuq, 25 km outside of Cahors. As one of his friends pointed out: "Here he bottled wine and cooked for his many visitors, and could be seen sitting out of doors under a large straw hat typing away at his latest book."
David Garnett died of a cerebral haemorrhage at his home on 17th February 1981. There was no funeral, and his body was given to a French teaching hospital.