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Dora Carrington's association with the Bloomsbury Group, a set of twentieth-century English writers, intellectuals, and artists, including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and E. M. Forster, has largely eclipsed her artistic career.

It was Carrington's complicated relationship with one of group's members, the writer and critic Lytton Strachey, that caught the imagination of director Christopher Hampton, whose 1995 film Carrington depicts the life and loves of the artist, played by Emma Thompson.

But Carrington, who preferred to be known only by her surname, was an award-winning graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art, London and a formidable artist in her own right.

Female Figure Standing

Female Figure Standing 1913

Dora Carrington (1893–1932)

UCL Art Museum

In 1910, aged 17, Carrington left her middle-class family home in Bedford and moved to London to study drawing, painting and sculpture. Specialising in figure and life drawing, she took up studio space in the Women's Life Room, where nude and clothed models posed daily.

Standing Female Nude

Standing Female Nude (recto) c.1910

Dora Carrington (1893–1932) (attributed to)

The Courtauld Gallery

Taking advantage of the Slade's pioneering policy of allowing women, like men, to work from life models, Carrington developed a talent for depicting female nudes. Her treatment of the female form and skilful use of colour in Female Figure Standing from 1913 (seen above), earned her joint first prize for figure painting at the Slade.

After graduating from the Slade, Carrington took up decorative commissions to make a living, one of which was producing woodcuts for Virginia and Leonard Woolf's fledgling Hogarth Press. This work led to an invitation to Carrington to join Vanessa and Clive Bell, Duncan Grant and Mary Hutchinson at the Woolf's country home, Asheham House, Sussex, where Carrington met Lytton Strachey, a gay man 17 years her senior.

Lytton Strachey

Lytton Strachey 1916

Dora Carrington (1893–1932)

National Portrait Gallery, London

According to Carrington's letters, Strachey was attracted to her androgynous appearance and attempted a kiss during a country walk on the Downs. Disgusted, she responded by hatching an abortive plot to sneak into Strachey's bedroom and cut off his beard. This dramatic episode marked the beginning of the pair's lifelong, turbulent and essentially platonic relationship, which according to Carrington was an example of a 'great many kinds of love'. The unlikely couple lived together from 1917 until Strachey's death in 1931. During this period Carrington produced several intimate portraits of Strachey, his family and friends.

E. M. Forster

E. M. Forster 1920

Dora Carrington (1893–1932)

National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1921, though utterly devoted to Strachey, Carrington married writer and soldier Ralph Partridge, who had come to live with her and Strachey in their home, the Mill House at Tidmarsh. Soon after, the newlywed couple spent a summer holiday with friends at Watendlath Farm in the Lake District.

Farm at Watendlath

Farm at Watendlath 1921

Dora Carrington (1893–1932)

Tate

Carrington's landscape of Watendlath Farm typifies her artistic concern with the English countryside and its dwellers. Her portrait of Mrs Box, whom she met during a stay at Marshland Valley in Cornwall, is larger than any other portrait she painted. Its size reflects the admiration Carrington felt for Mrs Box, a rural working woman, as remarked upon in one of her letters: 'Mrs Box is still full of vigour and every day she fetches the cows from the marshes by the cottage and takes them back to the farm, and she is 72!'

Mrs Box

Mrs Box 1919

Dora Carrington (1893–1932)

The Higgins Bedford

At Watendlath Farm, Carrington became close to Ralph Partridge's best friend, Gerald Brenan, a hispanophile author. To the great displeasure of her husband, Carrington began a relationship with Brenan, of whom she painted two portraits, the first of which sees him sat in the yew tree barn at Watendlath clothed in workman's dress, gazing at the viewer.

Gerald Brenan

Gerald Brenan 1921

Dora Carrington (1893–1932)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Brenan, for the most part, resided in a remote village in the Andalusian mountains in Spain. On visiting Brenan, Carrington became enamoured with Andalusia and painted a series of vibrant landscapes and portraits markedly different from her earthy paintings of rural England.

Departing from the blues and greens that dominated her earlier Farm at Watendlath, Carrington embraced the Spanish landscape, painting in swathes of rich oranges and yellows. In a letter to Brenan, Carrington declared that the Spanish landscapes 'transport me into another world. I cannot express quite what a relief it is.'

Spanish Landscape with Mountains

Spanish Landscape with Mountains c.1924

Dora Carrington (1893–1932)

Tate

Back in England, though married to Partridge, living with Strachey and in a long-distance relationship with Brenan, Carrington continued to conduct numerous love affairs with both men and women. Indeed she expressed frustration at not having had more same-sex relationships in her youth, writing in a letter to Alix Strachey, Lytton's niece, that 'I feel now regret at being such a blasted fool in the past, to stifle so many lusts in my youth, for various females.'

At the time of this letter, Carrington was engaged but in a romantic relationship with Henrietta Bingham, an American journalist who she was 'much more taken with than I have been for anyone in such a long time'.

Bingham sat for Carrington, who, building on the sensuous style she developed at the Slade, continued to paint erotically charged paintings of her female subjects and lovers, often depicting them as reclining nudes. Carrington's bisexuality is frequently glossed over by her biographers, ignored for instance in Christopher Hampton's filmic portrayal of her life, but it is illuminating when regarding her sensual portrayal of women.

Spanish Boy, the Accordion Player

Spanish Boy, the Accordion Player c.1924

Dora Carrington (1893–1932)

The Higgins Bedford

In 1924, Strachey and Carrington found that their Mill home in Tidmash had become cramped and so moved to Ham Spray House, Wiltshire, which Carrington decorated diligently. The house would be the place of Strachey's death from stomach cancer in 1931.

In 1932, Carrington, devastated by the loss of Strachey, took her own life at the age of 38. Carrington never exhibited during her lifetime and her career was perhaps blighted by the specifically feminine contradictions that faced early twentieth-century women artists. She was expected to occupy a female, domestic role, supporting the men around her yet never taken seriously as an artist, in part due to her 'feminine' decorative work and because the salacious details of her love life detracted from an interest in her artistic abilities and achievements.

Jessica Boyall, independent curator, researcher and writer

Further reading

Anne Chisholm, Carrington's Letters: Her Art, Her Loves, Her Friendships, Vintage, 2017

Gretchen Gerzina, A Life of Dora Carrington 1893–1932, Pimlico, 1995

Teresa Grimes and Judith Collins, Five Women Painters, Queen Anne Press, 1989

Jane Hill, The Art of Dora Carrington, A & C Black Publishers Ltd, 2001

The Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986–88, Tate, 1996