Carrington, Dora (1893–1932)
Carrington, Dora (1893–1932)
English painter and decorative artist who lived for nearly half her life with Lytton Strachey. Name variations: Dora Carrington Partridge. Born Dora de Houghton Carrington on March 29, 1893, in Hereford, England, in a house called Ivy Lodge; committed suicide on March 11, 1932, at Ham Spray near Ham, Wiltshire; fourth child of Samuel (a civil engineer with the East India Railway Company) and Charlotte (Houghton) Carrington (a governess); attended Bedford High School, 1903–10, and Slade School of Art, London, 1910–14; married Ralph Partridge, May 31, 1921; no children.
Attended Slade School of Art and met Mark Gertler (1910); met Lytton Strachey (1915); moved into Tidmarsh Mill with Lytton Strachey (1917); her father died (December 1918); fell in love with Gerald Brenan (1921); moved to Ham Spray (July 1924); earned money painting glass pictures and tiles (1924—); started affair with Beakus Penrose (1928); death of Strachey (January 1932); committed suicide (March 11, 1932).
Selected paintings (unless otherwise stated, all the following are in private collections): Hills in Snow at Hurstbourne Tarrant (1916); Giles Lytton Strachey (1916); The Mill at Tidmarsh, Berkshire (1918); Mrs Box, Farmer's Wife at Welcombe, Cornwall (1919); Lady Strachey (Scottish Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 1920); Farm at Watendlath (Tate Gallery, London, 1921); Mountain Ranges from Yegen, Andalusia (c. 1924).
Dora Carrington was once described by Lady Ottoline Morrell as "a wild moorland pony." Others recall her amazing blue eyes and her blonde hair with its Dutch-boy cut. But "tens of thousands of young women have china-blue eyes, talk in little gasps and have sex trouble," wrote David Garnett, "but one does not want to wade through their correspondence." She fascinated her friends, many of whom were writers. Katherine Mansfield featured her in a short story. D.H. Lawrence characterized her in Women in Love and "None of That"; Aldous Huxley used her in Chrome Yellow, Wyndham Lewis in The Apes of God. But each portrayed only one facet of her complexity. She was also "the most neglected serious painter of her time," wrote John Rothenstein.
After her death, she quickly disappeared from the public mind. Carrington had always been incredibly diffident about her painting, and little had survived. Her name did not resurface until the publishing of her friends' letters and diaries in the 1960s and her own in 1970. It was kept alive by the emergence of interest in women artists in the 1980s and was brought to the forefront again by the release of a feature film, Carrington, starring Emma Thompson , in 1995. Her oil painting "Farm at Watendlath" was reproduced on the front cover of The National Trust Magazine for Autumn 1995 and an exhibition of her work was held at the Barbican, London, from September to December 1995.
There is no shortage of information about Dora Carrington's life, for she was part of a group who kept extensive diaries and wrote letters to and about each other constantly. The difficulty lies in trying to distinguish between fact and opinion, between the significant and the trivial. Throughout her days, Carrington enjoyed parties, dancing, amateur theatricals, home movies, tobogganing, kite-flying, and games of Pooh-sticks. She cycled for miles, learned to ride a motor bike, and drove a car. She was thrilled one day to be taken up in an airplane. Friends testify to Carrington's fun-loving nature; her letters are often wryly humorous, and there are examples of her utilitarian work that display a keen wit. Yet from an early age, she was dogged by self-doubt: a sense of frustration over what she felt she was capable of in contrast to what she actually achieved became dominant. An inability to knowingly cause others distress often made her indecisive in her relationships. And the nightmares to which she was prey seem to have become more frequent and horrific in later life.
Dora's father Samuel Carrington was born into a family with a tradition of service in India. He was educated at Cheltenham College, trained as an engineer, and, at 25, joined the East India
Railway Company as a civil engineer. He suffered the customary tropical diseases, supervised the building of many railway stations, and traveled to many other parts of the world. He seems to have been a fair-minded man who treated the locals under his supervision with kindness and respect. He was said to have once personally supported a whole district when it was stricken by famine. After 30 years, he returned to England intent upon marrying and raising a family. Samuel was comfortably off and still physically active, though rather deaf owing to the accumulated quinine he had been obliged to take during his life in the tropics.
Dora's mother, Charlotte Houghton Carrington , had been a governess, already in her 30s, when she met Samuel Carrington. The Carringtons disapproved of Charlotte because she was "from a less affluent stratum of the middle class," but she was already related to them by marriage. Her brother had married Samuel's niece. When her brother died, she stepped in to help her widowed sister-in-law bring up the children. Possibly, the Carringtons felt that with Samuel's money he could have attracted a more elevated "catch" and were disappointed. However, there is no evidence that Samuel was dissatisfied with his choice. Charlotte gave birth to six children in the space of five years. Dora, the fourth, was born when her father was 61.
In a much-quoted letter to Gerald Brenan, Carrington declared that she had an "awful childhood," but there seems to be little evidence to support such a claim. At first, the family moved house frequently; by the time Dora was ten, she had lived in at least five different houses. The blonde child with the striking blue eyes tended towards plumpness and inward-turning feet. The latter possibly caused her to fall down often—a habit, which earned her the nickname of Dumpty from her siblings.
Her life was a series of unresolved, opposing tensions … : she loved truth but constantly lied; she rejected her lovers but continually lured them back; she was happiest when she painted, but her painting frequently depressed her.
In later life, Carrington remembered such escapades as locking her younger brother Noel outside the garden gate and cutting a square out of the front of her dress. She wanted to test the theory that if a hole was cut in folded material, the hole would double when unfolded. Both activities were punished: because of the first, she missed a party; because of the second, she was spanked on her bare bottom by her nurse. "I turned my head round as I lay on her knee, and saw my bottom," she said. "I was mortified. … I thought it very large, and pink." Other early memories included frequently wetting herself because she was too embarrassed to ask, "May I go to the lavatory," having a friend when she was six "called Carol who had a red pinafore, and short black hair" (it was unusual for little girls to wear their hair short at that time), and attending a gymnasium to try to straighten her pigeon toes.
In 1903, the Carringtons moved to Bedford. For family men who had retired from colonial or military service, it was a popular place of residence because of its inexpensive private schools. Dora and her sister, then aged 14, were sent to Bedford High School. Though she scored well in physical education, Carrington could never become enthusiastic about competitive games. School records show that her spelling was poor (recent writers have suggested that she may have been dyslexic), but that she was good in natural history and drawing. These characteristics were to remain with her throughout her life. At first, she learned music as an "extra" but, as her artistic talents became more obvious, her parents allowed her to drop these lessons in favor of extra art.
As Dora matured, she lost her puppy fat and her hair grew long and luxuriant. From the age of 12, her drawings were entered for the annual schools' competition organized by the Royal Drawing Society of Great Britain and Ireland, and every year she won prizes. She inherited her artistic ability from both sides of the family—both Samuel and his mother were competent drawers and Charlotte had attended Lambeth Art School in her youth. Charlotte hung the walls of her homes with reproductions of famous paintings and attended the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition in London every year, bringing the catalogue home for the children to peruse. Samuel encouraged Dora's talents by keeping her supplied with materials, and Charlotte boasted of her daughter's ability to her friends. At age 17, Carrington left Bedford High School to study at the Slade School of Art in London.
It is impossible to gain an unbiased view of the elder Carringtons and their life together, as Dora, the main source of information, so clearly favored her father. She saw him as open-handed and open-minded and her mother as repressive and narrow in outlook. Charlotte certainly lacked her husband's liberal background, but there seems no evidence to suggest that he disapproved of her provincial outlook. Charlotte was responsible for the upbringing and moral guidance of five children; Samuel was accorded the indulgence more befitting a wealthy grandfather. Dora loved to hear the stories of his adventures in India and appears to have blamed her mother, rather than his age or inclination, for his more mundane lifestyle in England. In various letters she said that she hated her mother, that her mother put her father in a cage, and that she wished her mother, not her father, had died in 1918, though he was 82 years old by then and paralyzed by a stroke.
It does, however, seem to have been mainly her mother's fault that Carrington should have experienced sexual difficulties as she matured into a woman. In accordance with much middle-class thinking at the time, any discussion within the family of bodily functions was strictly taboo. One of Carrington's early memories was of being punished, along with two of her brothers, after the eldest boy knowingly allowed them to peep through cracks in the walls as he used the
outside lavatory. Dora seems to have been totally unprepared when she started menstruating at age 14 and never came to terms with this symbol of her femininity. Virginia Woolf wrote of Charlotte's struggle to explain the facts of life to Dora on the eve of her wedding when she was already 28 years of age and had had a number of sexual relationships. Charlotte seemed either unwilling or unable to accept that Dora's lifestyle changed dramatically after she left the puritanical confines of her Bedford home for the far-more-liberal atmosphere of the Slade.
As her brother Noel recalled over 60 years later, "even after one term she returned a very changed young person." Since women artists at Slade were determined to be equal to men, Carrington adopted the Slade convention of using just a surname. She would be known only as Carrington, even by her brother, for the rest of her life. In her second year, she cut her thick hair into a daring short bob, threw herself into social activities, attended dances and concerts, exhibitions and picnics. Popular, she gathered about her a large circle of friends, many of whom were older and drawn from every strata of society. Some of these she kept until the end of her life. She was attractive to men and enjoyed their attentions while steadfastly avoiding any sexual involvement. By 1912, two erstwhile friends, Mark Gertler and C.R.W. Nevinson, were bitterly quarrelling over her, while she seemed unable to comprehend their sexual feelings and wished all three could remain good friends.
Meanwhile, she was proving a very promising student. She won two prestigious prizes for nude studies and was awarded a scholarship worth £30 per annum for two years. In the summer of 1913, she painted a fresco in Ashridge House, Hertfordshire, and toward the end of 1914 sold a drawing that she was exhibiting at the New English. While still refusing sexual intimacy with Gertler, they were often in one another's company, and it was through his widening circle of friends that Carrington first became involved with the Bloomsbury Group, a set of intellectuals loosely grouped round that section of London after which they are named. They dedicated themselves to pacifism, art, and literature, as well as witty, high-flown conversation. Notes Carolyn G. Heilbrun : they lived "their lives as though reason and passion might be equal ideas."
Not all of them were rich, however, and Roger Fry, one of the earliest group members, instigated the Omega Workshop where artistic talents could be put to utilitarian use in order to make money. It is thought that Carrington was glad of the opportunity to fulfill commissions as she was permanently poor. She later remembered this as a period of "walking from Waterloo to Hampstead because I hadn't a penny. Eating two-penny soup packets meal after meal, in a smelly studio in Brompton Rd."
It was through her acquaintance with the Bloomsbury Group that Carrington met the man who was to determine the pattern of the rest of her life. She was spending a few days with a group of "Bloomsberries" at Asheham House near Lewes, the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. One of the party was Lytton Strachey, who belonged to an old, respected family, was 35, and homosexual. In appearance, Strachey was tall and thin with straight hair, a straggly red beard and spectacles. At first, Carrington found him repulsive and was shocked when he tried to kiss her. But, so the story goes, as she crept into his bedroom that night, intending to punish him by cutting off his beard, she fell irrevocably in love with him when he opened his eyes and looked at her.
Since her early days at the Slade, Carrington had been concerned about the paucity of her education, and, in Lytton Strachey, she found the teacher she had been seeking. He lent her books, read to her, and formed her mind. Despite the obvious differences between them, Strachey and Carrington had a fair amount in common. Both had fathers who had lived in India and married wives much younger than themselves. Both felt their mothers to be overbearing, and both, though irked by much within their family homes, were forced to remain on intimate terms with them because of financial dependency. Indeed, for many years Carrington seems to have led a double life: one as the reluctantly dutiful daughter at Hurstbourne Tarrant near Andover in Hampshire where her parents had moved in 1914, the other as the free-thinking artist among a like-minded circle of friends.
Carrington began to see more and more of Strachey while still carrying on her stormy relationship with Gertler. By 1917, she was cycling round the countryside in search of a home for them to share—Strachey in order to finish his book, Eminent Victorians, she as his housekeeper. By November, she was busy preparing the house she had found at Tidmarsh Mill near Pangbourne, Berkshire, for Strachey's arrival in December. Since Lytton was still extremely short of money, the rent was to be paid by friends who would then be free to use the house as a country retreat. Once there, writes Gretchen Gerzina , "Lytton read, wrote, or corrected proofs; Carrington painted and gardened and wrote her famous letters." They both, however, still spent much time in London and in the country homes of others. They seem, at this point, to have kept a careful balance between their need for independence and their need for each other.
Around this time, Carrington approached Roger Fry for advice about her work. Friends agree that something destructive took place during the interview. Despite her talent and success at the Slade, Fry evidently discouraged her from attempting to be a serious painter. "Although she would continue to paint throughout her life, she never again did so with confidence," writes Gerzina, "and from then on satisfaction with her work eluded her. Only recently has she begun to be taken seriously as a major figure of her period, whose work deserves careful attention."
Already by 1915, she had begun to doubt her own ability. In a letter to Gertler, she commented, "My work disappoints me terribly. I feel so good, so powerful before I start and then when it's finished I realise each time it is nothing but a failure." Predictably, she began a picture full of enthusiasm only to lose confidence as she proceeded, and she would leave it unfinished or paint over it at a later date. She seems to have painted very much for herself alone and was frequently so emotionally tied up with the finished product that she could not bear to expose it to public view. Of her portrait of Strachey, Carrington wrote in her diary in 1917: "Looking at your picture now tonight it looks wonderfully good and I am happy. But then I dread showing it. It's marvellous having it all to myself … and I hate the indecency of showing them what I have loved." This, of course refers particularly to Strachey, but it seems to be applicable to much of her painting. Aware of the problem, Lytton wrote to her on July 22, 1919: "Don't you think the time has come to think seriously of beginning to show your pictures? Unless you do I cannot see how you can hope to sell them, and that will really be essential if you ever want to stand on your own legs." Nevertheless, some noteworthy paintings do exist, both from this time and later.
In 1918, Carrington made a new friend, Rex Partridge, a pal of her brother Noel. By the end of 1919, Partridge was in love with Carrington, Strachey was in love with Partridge (he had peremptorily changed Rex's name to Ralph), and Carrington was enjoying Partridge's physical attractions while still remaining emotionally dependent on Strachey.
Carrington, Strachey, and Partridge set up a virtual ménage a trois at Tidmarsh. One of their visitors was Gerald Brenan, a friend of Ralph Partridge and Noel Carrington. When Brenan went to live in Spain, Dora Carrington added him to her list of correspondents, and in the spring of 1920 all three went to visit him in his remote home at Yegen, Andalusia. On their return, Carrington's painting was going well, and she was further heartened by praise from the French artist, Simon Bussy. Strachey suggested a one-woman show. She did send three pictures to the London Group show in the autumn, but the whole exhibition was a failure. However, Lady Strachey paid her £25 for a commissioned portrait of herself.
On May 21, 1921, in an effort to maintain the status quo at Tidmarsh, Carrington married Ralph Partridge. He had threatened to leave if she didn't marry him, and she feared Lytton would leave if Ralph went. Even so, life was far from smooth. All three continued to travel both together and separately, returning intermittently to Tidmarsh. Relations became even more complicated when Carrington and Brenan's friendship escalated into an affair in May 1922. Despite having already been unfaithful himself, Ralph was insanely jealous. Nevertheless, Carrington continued to juggle her relationships with all three men, and, at the end of 1923, Strachey began negotiations to purchase a new house for himself, Partridge, and Carrington near the village of Ham in Wiltshire. It was about this time that Ralph began to take an interest in the woman who was later to become his second wife, Frances Marshall .
Bingham, Henrietta (1901–1968)
American socialite. Born Henrietta Worth Bingham in 1901; died in 1968; daughter of Judge Robert Worth Bingham (American ambassador to the Court of St. James), and Eleanor E. Miller Bingham; aunt of Sallie Bingham .
When Henrietta Bingham was ten, she was in an automobile accident in which her mother Eleanor Miller Bingham was killed. Her father Judge Robert Worth Bingham, an American ambassador to the Court of St. James, subsequently married twice more, but both marriages were unsuccessful. (In 1917, he was all but accused of murdering his second wife, Mary Lily Flagler Bingham , one of the richest women in America. That autumn, the scandal made the front page of newspapers throughout the nation.)
At the time she met Dora Carrington , Henrietta was living in England with her friend Mina Kirstein and taking courses at the London School of Economics. Henrietta married briefly while in her 50s and died an alcoholic in 1968.
Brenner, Marie. House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville. NY: Random House, 1988.
Carrington's life became even more complicated when she gave way to a bisexuality, which until now she had resisted, by embarking upon an affair with Henrietta Bingham . "For the first time in her life, Carrington was in active pursuit of a particular lover," writes Gerzina. "Men had always been attracted to her, but she had never taken on the chase herself." However, life settled down at Ham Spray, and Carrington was able to paint a number of pictures (mainly portraits and flower studies) in the new studio that Lytton had had built for her. Towards the end of 1924, she began to create small pictures—a blend of paint and silver foil, covered in glass, which was then sometimes partly painted. Later, she began to paint tiles for bathrooms and fireplaces. Both pictures and tiles proved popular and provided her with a much-needed source of personal income. As ever, there was an unending stream of visitors, but at first Carrington seemed able to enjoy it all.
As the years passed, however, difficulties once again arose. Ralph and Frances took up residence together in London but still came to Ham Spray sufficiently often to ensure that Strachey kept the house. In the autumn of 1926, Carrington found a long visit to her mother, in order to nurse her after pneumonia, particularly irksome. Carrington began to drink more heavily and vacillated between the solitude of Ham Spray and the gregariousness of parties and travel. By 1928, she had once again quarrelled with Gerald Brenan and was seeking to stave off her loneliness by instigating an affair with Bernard (Beakus) Penrose who was, according to Frances Partridge, "a well-off young man, romantic about the sea." During this period, Carrington decorated rooms for Dadie Rylands, Dorelia John , a Cambridge don, and at Ham Spray. In the latter, she created an amusing trompe l'oeil bookcase to disguise an unused door. Yet her attempt to raise her spirits with Beakus was not entirely successful; in November 1929, she found she was pregnant and had an abortion. In 1930, Brenan finally broke free and became engaged to an American poet, Gamel Woolsey. Carrington and Beakus' affair was slowly winding down.
In July 1931, Carrington won a competition in the Weekend Observer, which had been announced in these words: "Mr Lytton Strachey has just published a set of six thumbnail sketches of six English Historians. Let us suppose that to these a seventh is added—that of Mr Strachey himself. We offer a First Prize of TWO GUINEAS and a Second Prize of HALF-A-GUINEA for the last 250 words of this essay." Not surprisingly, Carrington was able to imitate his style perfectly. In October, she painted another trompe l'oeil—this time on the outside wall of Biddesdon, the home of Bryan Guinness. By November, Strachey, who had always been something of a hypochondriac, was seriously ill. In her autobiography, Carrington writes that on January 20, 1932, Strachey said, "Darling Carrington, I love her. I always wanted to marry Carrington and never did." The following day, Ralph prevented her from killing herself with car-exhaust fumes. On January 24, Lytton died of undiagnosed stomach cancer.
Carrington sank into a profound depression. "Oh darling Lytton you are dead," she wrote in her diary, "& I can tell you nothing." She spent her days reading his letters to her and nights going through his clothes. Friends were worried. When she asked to borrow a shotgun to kill the rabbits overrunning the Ham Spray garden, they were even more concerned. Leonard and Virginia Woolf came to see her on March 10th, ostensibly for lunch but actually to check on her. At one point, Carrington broke down and sobbed in Virginia's arms. As she walked them to their car, Carrington kissed Virginia, who said: "Then you will come & see us next week—or not—just as you like." Replied Carrington: "I will come." Then she paused, "Or not." They were the last to see her alive. The next day, Carrington shot herself while dressed in Lytton's purple silk dressing gown.
sources and suggested reading:
Brenan, Gerald. Personal Record 1920–1972. London: Jonathan Cape, 1974.
Carrington, Noel, ed. Mark Gertler: Selected Letters. London: Hart Davis, 1965.
Caws, Mary Ann. Women of Bloomsbury: Virginia, Vanessa, and Carrington. London: Routledge, 1990.
Garnett, David, ed. Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970.
Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook. Carrington: A Life of Dora Carrington 1893–1932. London: John Murray, 1989.
Grimes, Teresa, Judith Collins, and Oriana Baddely. Five Women Painters. Oxford: Lennard, 1989.
Hill, Jane. The Art of Dora Carrington. London: Herbert, 1994.
Holroyd, Michael. Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography. London: Heinemann, 1968.
Partridge, Frances. Love in Bloomsbury: Memories. London: Gollanz, 1981.
Woodeson, John. Mark Gertler: Biography of a Painter, 1891–1939. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972.
Carrington, film produced by Polygram Filmed Entertainment, written and directed by Christopher Hampton, starring Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce, 1995.
Barbara Evans , Research Associate in Women's Studies at Nene 1College, Northampton, England
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