It often occurs that I stumble across and interesting subject for My Daily Art Display when I am researching another artist. I came across today’s featured artist when I was delving into the life story of Mark Gertler and his painting Gilbert Cannan and his Mill in my last blog. I should probably state up front that today’s blog is more about the artist and her fascinating social life than her featured painting.
Dora de Houghton Carrington was born in Hereford in 1893. She was the second of the two daughters and fourth of the five children of Samuel Carrington and his wife, Charlotte de Houghton. In 1902, aged 9, the family moved to Bedford and Dora attended the local girl’s high school. The school’s ethos at the time was that the pupils should concentrate their studies on the Arts such as music and art with a healthy amount of sport thrown in rather than the normal but more commonplace subjects. Dora showed an aptitude for drawing and her teachers persuaded her parents to pay for her to attend extra drawing classes in the afternoons. One’s childhood often shapes the way we are in later life and the author Vanessa Curtis wrote about Dora’s differing relationship she had with her mother and father:
“…Although Carrington adored and revered her father, sketching him almost obsessively, she did not admire her fussy, martyr-like mother, who crammed the house with ornaments and devoted herself to charity work and religious causes….”
It is quite obvious that Dora’s mother had a suffocating influence on her children, especially her daughter. Dora’s brother, Nicholas wrote of his mother extreme views on sex and religion:
“..The first was extreme prudishness. Any mention of sex or the common bodily functions was unthinkable. We were not even expected to know that a woman was pregnant. Even a word like confined was kept to a whisper. The second was church-going and behaviour on Sunday. We all came to hate the whole atmosphere of a Sunday morning. The special clothes, the carrying of prayer books, the kneeling, standing and murmuring of litanies…”
In 1910, aged 17, she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. There can be no doubt that once Dora Carrington was free of her home life and the puritanical views of her domineering mother, she rebelled. She cut her hair to a bob which gave her a somewhat androgynous appearance. She entered into many intense and sometimes sexual relationships both with women and homosexual and heterosexual men. She also decided that she wanted to be known simply by her father’s surname, “Carrington”. Carrington fared well at the Slade and won several awards for her work. One of her fellow students was Mark Gertler, who was totally besotted with Carrington and it was through him that Carrington met Lady Ottoline Morrell, the “society queen” and he introduced Carrington to the Bloomsbury Group, a group of writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists. Lady Ottoline and her husband Philip had a house in Bloomsbury, Central London and a country house in Garsington, Oxford where they would hold weekend parties for their friends, many of whom, like Stanley Spencer, Gertler and Carrington were aspiring artists.
The Morrells were prominent pacifists and during World War I they invited conscientious objectors, such as the artist Duncan Grant and the writers Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey to take refuge at Garsington. Carrington met Strachey, a writer and founder member of the Bloomsbury Group in 1915. Strachey was a homosexual but this did not stop Carrington falling in love with him. This was a love that was to last almost twenty years. Gertler felt no threat from Carrington’s love for the openly gay Strachey but in 1917 when Strachey bought a house and Carrington moved in with him, Gertler was devastated and realised that his love for Carrington was irrevocably unrequited and doomed.
Carrington’s father died in 1918 leaving her a small inheritance that allowed her to feel more independent. That same year, Carrington was introduced to Ralph Partridge, a friend of her brother Noel. Partridge like many men before him was besotted with Carrington, even though he was aware of Carrington’s love and devotion to Lytton Strachey. Despite this knowledge, and knowing that Carrington would never give up Strachey, he married her in 1921 and along with Lytton Strachey, they bought and moved into Ham Spray House just outside the town of Hungerford. It was here that they spent the rest of their lives. It was a happy period for Carrington who carried on with her artwork and looking after the two men in her life. Unfortunately, over time, Strachey suffered frequent bouts of illness and had to be cared for by Carrington.
In 1926 Ralph Partridge started an affair with Frances Marshall, a writer friend and member of the Bloomsbury Group and went to live with her in London. His marriage with Carrington was all but over, but never in the eyes of the law. Partridge did however still visit her most weekends. Carringotn in the meantime had a number of extra-marital affairs with both males and females. The most famous being her affair with Gerald Brenan, an army man and friend of her husband. She also had a tempestuous love affair with Henrietta Bingham, the daughter of the American ambassador in London
In 1931 Strachey became seriously ill with stomach trouble and the doctors could not decide as to what was causing the illness. By the end of that year doctors had given up hope of curing him. In a fit of deep despair at the thought of losing her beloved friend she attempted to kill herself but was saved by her husband Partridge. For the next month she watched as Strachey moved slowly towards death. In January 1932 the end came for Strachey and, following an autopsy, it was discovered that he had been suffering from stomach cancer. Carrington was devastated and her friends tried to rally round to support her but it was to no avail as in March 1932 she shot herself with a gun she had borrowed from a neighbour. Her husband found her just before she died. She died just a fortnight before her thirty-ninth birthday.
The painting I am featuring today entitled Farm at Watendlath was completed by Carrington in 1921. Newly-wed Carrington and her husband along with Lytton Strachey and some of their artist friends spent a summer holiday here that year. One of their holiday companions was her future lover and friend of her husband, Gerald Brenan. She would often return to spend other painting holidays around this area and she and her friends were frequent visitors to the farm which is near to Keswick in the Lake District. The house we see in the painting faces Watendlath Beck, which flows from Watendlath Tarn into Derwentwater. A stuffed stag hanging inside was known as ‘Mr Wordsworth’ The two female figures we see in the painting are unknown and it has been suggested by some art historians that this depiction of female figures, dwarfed by a fertile and undulating landscape, relates to the artist’s sense of being overwhelmed by her own womanhood. However, I find that interpretation hard to believe.
Her life story, in many ways, is tinged with sadness. Her relationship with Lytton Strachey could not have fulfilled all her dreams and she would have constantly have had to compromise. Yet, I am sure she had times of great joy and maybe we should look at this painting and remember that at the time she painted this, she had just married and she was at a place she loved with companions whose company she enjoyed and who in return where devoted to her.
The painting which can be found at the Tate Gallery London was presented to that establishment by her brother Noel Carrington in 1987.