I thought I'd write a post about the artist Dora Carrington today because she is, in my opinion, not just a very interesting person but an incredibly underrated painter and decorative artist. Perhaps it's because of her association with the Bloomsbury Group, and her Bloomsbury-esqe love life - like many in the group Carrington 'loved in triangles'. A quick google search throws up far more images of her surrounded by the loves in her life, rather than her artwork. Or perhaps it's because of Carrington herself, for she was a woman who pursued desire so ardently in her private life, and yet doubted her work to such an extent she would often refuse to sign her paintings.
Dora de Houghton Carrington was born into a middle-class family in Hereford in 1893. Stifled by her upbringing and family circumstances, Carrington gravitated towards art at school, and in 1910 won a scholarship to the Slade School of art. The Slade in 1910 was a hotbed of radical ideas and bohemianism, and Carrington embraced it fully, cropping her hair into the fashionable (and shocking) 'Slade bob' (Virginia Woolf referred to Carrington and her friends as 'crop heads'), dropping her hated first name, wearing deeply unfashionable clothes, and moving to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, then the very epicentre of Bohemian living.
Carrington's love life was complicated from the off, and her early days at the Slade saw her become entangled with fellow painters Paul and John Nash, Christopher Nevinson, and Mark Gertler, who had a especially strong influence on Carrington's painting. Her liasion with Nevinson and Gertler was particularly tempestous, because although Carrington refused to choose between the pair or engage in sexual relations with either of them, she also refused to end either relationship
Despite it's bohemian leanings, the Slade's aesthetic was still deeply traditional, and Carrington's painting continued to develop very much in this mould. Unlike many of her peers, Carrington was unmoved by Roger Fry's post-impressionist exhibition at Grafton Street Galleries in 1910 (which introduced the British art world to previously unknown artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Gaughan, Van Gogh, and Cezanne, and 'changed human nature', according to Virginia Woolf). Across her career, Carrington's style can often be aligned much more with the Pre-Raphaelites, than the post-impressionist craze that swept through her contemporaries during her lifetime.
In 1914 Carrington left the Slade, but her lack of confidence in her work meant she rarely exhibited and often refused to sign her paintings. By this time, Carrington had become associated with the Bloomsbury Group through Mark Gertler, who introduced her to the socialite and notable eccentiric Lady Ottoline Morrell. That same year, Carrington began to explore the field of decorative art, by working with Roger Fry's Omega Workshop - Fry's attempt to push post-impressionism into the world of interior design. Fry was eager to help young artists earn a living, and established a studio in London where he employed a team of artists to apply the principles of post-impressionism to the domestic interior. This encouraged Carrington to move beyond the canvas, and she would paint onto any surface she had to hand, including inn signs, glass, tiles, and furniture. Carrington also created a series of woodcuts for Leonard and Virginia Woolf's publishing house, the Hogarth Press.
Diarist Francis Partridge described Carrington thus, "Her unique personal flavour makes her extraordinarily difficult to describe, but fortunately she has painted her own portrait much better than anyone else could in her letters and diaries, which no-one can read without recognising her originality, fantastic imagination and humour. Her poetic response to nature shines from her paintings, and from letters whose handwriting was in itself a form of drawing.... Physically, her most remarkable features were her large, deepset blue eyes and her mop of thick straight hair, the colour of ripe corn. Her movements were sometimes almost awkward, like those of a little girl, and she would stand with head hanging and toes turned in; while her very soft voice was also somewhat childish and made a first impression of affectation. Her laugh was delightfully infectious."
Carrington met the historian and biographer Lytton Strachey in 1915, and forged a connection which would have a huge impact on the rest of her life. The homosexual Strachey found himself attracted to Carrington on their first meeting, and boldly tried to kiss her during a walk across the Sussex Downs. The bristle of Strachey's beard against her skin enraged the young painter, and Carrington vowed to seek revenge. Later that evening she snuck into the room where Strachey was sleeping, and attempted to chop off his beard, but just as she was about unleash the decisive snip, Strachey opened his eyes, and Carrington fell deeply and unalterably in love with him. Strachey and Carrington became inseparable, although their platonic union appalled his Bloomsbury friends, and enraged Mark Gertler (who had encouraged the friendship, feeling safe in the knowledge of Strachey's homosexuality).
In 1917, Carrington set up home with Strachey at Tidmarsh Mill, and seems to have begun to win over his friends. In 1918, both Carrington and Strachey fell in love with Ralph Partridge, a Cambridge contemporary of Carrington's brother. Frances Partridge writes:
"Her love for Lytton was the focus of her adult life, but she was by no means indifferent to the charms of young men, or of young women either for that matter; she was full of life and loved fun, but nothing must interfere with her all-important relation to Lytton. So, though she responded to Ralph's adoration, she at first did her best to divert him from his desire to marry her. When in the end she agreed, it was partly because he was so unhappy, and partly because she saw that the great friendship between Ralph and Lytton might actually consolidate her own position."
Carrington and Partridge were married a year later, with Strachey accompanying them on their honeymoon. Carrington wrote to Strachey, "So now I shall never tell you I do care again. It goes after today somewhere deep down inside me, and I'll not resurrect it to hurt either you or Ralph. Never again. He knows I'm not in love with him... I cried last night to think of a savage cynical fate which had made it impossible for my love ever to be used by you. You never knew, or never will know the very big and devastating love I had for you ... I shall be with you in two weeks, how lovely that will be. And this summer we shall all be very happy together."
And yet, the ménage à trois appears to have initially worked. In 1924 the threesome moved to Ham Spray House in Wiltshire, where Carrington had a studio and painted the library especially for Strachey. Both Carrington and Partridge continued to seek affection outside of the marriage, with Carrington embarking on a rather tortured affair with her husband's friend Gerald Brennan, and Partridge falling in love with Frances Marshall, who he would later marry. By 1926 Carrington's marriage was effectively over.
Carrington's foray into domesticity, which she had shown such disdain for as a young woman, appeared to have stifled her artistically, although she claimed she was never happier. It was her relationship with the the artist Beakus Penrose which really enlivened her again, and they made three short films together in and around Ham Spray.
n 1931 Strachey fell seriously ill with stomach cancer. Ralph Partidge and their Bloomsbury friends rallied around Carrington, terrified at the toll Strachey's illness was taking on her. In December of that year, Carrington attempted suicide by gassing herself in the garage at Ham Spray. Strachey died a month later.
On 11th March 1932 Carrington borrowed a shotgun from a neighbour and shot herself. She was discovered alive, and Ralph Partridge, Frances Marshall, and David Garnett were able to reach her before she died. They discovered her propped up with rugs on her bedroom floor, with a fortifying glass of sherry, the Doctor thinking it best not to move her. Seeing her estranged husband's distress, Carrington promised to do her best to get well. She passed away a few hours later.
Carrington's tempestous and often controversial personal life has rather over-shadowed the body of work she produced during her short lifetime. In 1978, Sir John Rothenstein, the Director of the Tate, described her as 'the most neglected serious painter of our time'. The Tate now own two of her paintings. In 1995 a major film starring Emma Thompson as Carrington was produced (and is really quite good), and this year the artist came second in a public poll of painters the public would like to see exhibited as part of Art Everywhere. Here's hoping this renewed interest in the work of Dora Carrington continues!