Dora Carrington - Biography and Legacy
British Painter and Decorative Artist
Biography of Dora Carrington
Dora Carrington was the fourth of five children - the second of two daughters. Her parents were Samuel Carrington, a railway engineer, and his wife, Charlotte Houghton. Her earliest days were spent in Hereford, a short distance east of Wales. Several years later the family moved to Rothsay Gardens in Bedford.
Carrington would later recall that she had "an awful childhood." Her mother was anxious, demanding, and extremely pious, devoting much of her time to religious causes.
It was away from her family, at Bedford High School, that Carrington received personal attention that encouraged her creativity. Her teachers quickly recognized her artistic talent. While still a young student, she twice won national prizes for figure drawing, at the tender ages of 12 and 13.
In 1910, Carrington enrolled in the Slade School of Art, part of University College, London. While at Slade, Carrington developed close friendships with two girls, Dorothy Brett and Barbara Hiles. So close were the trio that Dorothy and Barbara followed Carrington's lead when she cut her long hair to a daring, short bob. This was especially daring since the flapper trend of the 1920s was still several years away. The three soon became known as the "Slade Cropheads." It was around this time that Carrington stopped using her first name, and came to be known by many of those closest to her simply as 'Carrington' for the remainder of her life.
During her years at Slade, Carrington was romantically pursued by two fellow students, Christopher Nevinson and Mark Gertler, but she never pursued a relationship with either suitor. Still, she did little to dissuade their affections, which resulted in a great deal of drama and heartache all around.
In spite of her daring fashion choices and tumultuous romances, Carrington's artistic development during this time was rather pedestrian. She was learning and working in very traditional styles.
After completing her training at Slade, Carrington worked making paintings and woodcuts for the Omega Workshops and the Hogarth Press, both creative businesses established by members of London's bohemian Bloomsbury Group, whose most famous members included the novelists Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, as well as the noted economist John Maynard Keynes. Though she was friendly with many members of the group and maintained a regular correspondence with Woolf, Carrington was more of a fringe player in Bloomsbury. While working at the Omega Workshops in 1916, she met the writer Lytton Strachey, who would be her main love over the course of her life. The two became fast friends and started living together in November 1917. Even though he was openly homosexual, Carrington had deep romantic feelings for him. Their enduring friendship had much in common with a marriage, but, for her part, Carrington also explored other romantic relationships with both men and women.
In 1918, Carrington's father died, leaving her a small inheritance that allowed her greater financial - and thus artistic - independence. Soon thereafter she met Ralph Partridge, a friend of her younger brother, who worked at the Hogarth Press with Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Marking the start of a strange love triangle, both Carrington and Strachey fell in love with Partridge, and he returned the affections of both. Partridge married Carrington in 1921, and Strachey paid for the wedding. The trio went on a honeymoon to Venice together. Strachey commented, "Everything is at sixes and sevens-ladies in love with buggers and buggers in love with womanizers, and the price of coal going up too. Where will it all end?" Back in England, Carrington divided her time between fulfilling the domestic chores of a wife and those of an artist. She painted on almost any medium she could find, including glass, signs, tile, and the walls of her friends' homes.
In 1924, Strachey purchased the lease to Ham Spray House near Hungerford in Wiltshire. Soon, the tight union of the trio began to dissolve. Partridge found a mistress in London, while Carrington began an affair with Partridge's friend Bernard Penrose. An unwanted pregnancy and abortion put a sad end to their relationship in 1928. Carrington never again had a romantic relationship with a man, turning her attention exclusively to women.
In late 1931, Strachey became violently ill. Although doctors were unable to correctly diagnose the problem, it was later discovered that he had stomach cancer. Panicked by Strachey's sudden decline, Carrington attempted to asphyxiate herself in the garage, but Partridge rescued her. Strachey died shortly thereafter, in January 1932. After his death, Carrington wrote in her journal: "They say one should keep your standards & your values of life alive. But how can I when I only kept them for you. Everything was for you. I loved life just because you made it so perfect & now there is no one left to make jokes with or talk to... I see my paints, & think it is no use for Lytton will never see my pictures now, & I cry."
Two months later, Carrington shot herself. She was found before she succumbed to her injury, allowing her closest friends to say their goodbyes at her bedside in Ham Spray House. She was thirty-eight years old.
The Legacy of Dora Carrington
Carrington was immortalized in print by D.H. Lawrence (Women in Love - 1920) and Aldous Huxley (Crome Yellow - 1921), but she never achieved fame as an artist during her lifetime. This can be attributed the fact that she rarely exhibited, or even signed, her work, along with the fact that she was not working in the most current styles. For many years, her art was associated with the Bloomsbury Group due to her connection with Strachey, as well as her many romantic entanglements within that group. Still, she was not interested in the formal experimentation of modernism to the same extent as some of the group's most famous members, including Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf. Indeed, she is now celebrated for her many portraits and landscapes that defy easy classification, lying somewhere on the boundaries of the Post-Impressionist, Pre-Raphaelite, and Surrealist movements. She is also celebrated for her attention to the decorative arts, as well as to "feminine" interests, from her focus on women in her landscapes to her interest in the "feminine realm" of the decorative arts.
In the 1970s, when David Garnett published a selection of her letters and selections from her diary, Carrington's painting gained a new academic and popular following. Since then, her work has been acquired by the Tate Britain, and was also the subject of a major Barbican retrospective in 1995. Her intimate portraits of those closest to her influenced an eclectic group of artists, particularly portrait painters in the UK and the US, including Alice Neel, Tracey Emin, and Tom Phillips.