Dora Carrington and the Bloomsbury Group
The Bloomsbury Group
Around the turn of the twentieth century a group of Bohemian intellectuals composed of artists, writers, and economists formed a kind of clique, where they lived freely, more or less, according to their own rules and eschewed the repressive, conformist social mores of the day. They were called the "Bloomsbury Group" and most of them were from upper middle class families and had met through university networks. The group included such luminaries as writers Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, the economist Maynard Keynes, artist Vanessa Bell (sister to Virginia Woolf) and art critic Clive Bell but its central figure was writer Lytton Strachey, author of the best-selling books "Emminent Victorians" and "Queen Victoria", biographies that combined razor wit with psychological insight.
There were also number of figures who belatedly connected with the Bloomsbury Group or hovered around the edges, and among these was Dora Carrington, who was, though she would never admit to the title, an artist... and a talented one at that. Her works have a boldness, originality and impressive vibrancy that strikes the viewer immediately.
Dora Carrington, (who prefered to drop the Dora and just be known as Carrington) was a complex character, full of contradictions yet she held a mysterious fascination for many of her contempories. DH Lawrence based at least two of his characters on her - Minette Darrington, from Women in Love and Ethel Case from the short story None of That. According to her biographer, Gretchen Gerzina, she was an 'enigmatic figure':
Her life was a series of unresolved, opposing tensions and its consistency lay in her ambivalence to many of the problems she faced; she loved truth but constantly lied: she rejected her lovers but constantly lured them back; she was happiest when she painted but her painting frequently depressed her.
From A Life of Dora Carrington, (John Murray Ltd. 1983)
A talent for art had been picked up early by her family and teachers and in 1910 she was sent off to London's Slade School. At Slade she revelled in the freedom from her straightlaced Victorian mother and as she was, by default, unconventional, she took to the avant garde atmosphere like a duck to water. Carrington was the first among her friends to crop her gold hair in a bell shaped bob, a style that wouldn't hit the mainstream for another decade: she was a modern woman, at the forefront of the winds of change that were sweeping the early part of the 20th century and would usher in new perspectives on art and living.
The Bloomsbury group were an incestous lot, in as much as their relationships tended to revolve around the group or with those on the periphery. Dora was attractive to men and had many intense relationships, yet she remained fiercely loyal and devoted to Bloomsbury's central figure Lytton Strachey, who was himself a homosexual. Strachey was, in fact the only man Carrington would remain powerfully, eternally loyal too and many have found their relationship hard to fathom. What was the attraction to a gay man, thirteen years her senior?
Strachey was a sophisticated, highly intelligent, witty and charismatic figure - an individualist who flaunted convention with a degree of confidence that was hard to resist. By the time she had met him, Carrington had already rejected the constricting Victorian morality of her mother, having felt a greater emotional connection to her much older father (he was 61 when she was born), a retired civil engineer with the East India Railway Company, who had spent most of his life abroad and was also an unconventional figure. Whether or not this had any bearing on her relationship with Strachey, is impossible to say but what is certain is that Strachey became the lynch-pin of her existence and for whatever reason, the one person whose life became profoundly interwoven with her own.
Art and Love
Although she clearly possessed a gift for art, Carrington lacked confidence in her work, possibly because she was at the epicentre of a signifant pocket of talented individuals or perhaps because of her sex - it was after all, the early part of the 20th century and even among enlightened intellectuals and artists, there was still a certain degree of sexism.
An accomplished painter in portraits and landscape , Carrington drew quirky, amusing pictures on her letters to friends and was interested in all sorts of design..using anything that came to hand, old tins, signs, furniture to indulge her passion for decorative arts. For a time she also sold had painted tiles to supplement the small annuity her father had left her. Yet in her own lifetime her art was never given a great deal of attention and it was only decades later, long after her death, that her work began to be appreciated on a wider scale.
Strachey however, had encouraged her to paint and to exhibit her works, which she was loth to do. In many ways they had an idyllic arrangement; Strachey provided Carrington with a paternal friendship, encouragement and a literary education and she in turn gave him love, devotion and took over the house keeping affairs. Both had relationships and peccadillos with other people - they had a wide circle of friends, contacts and acquaintances from which to form dalliances - but it never affected their core relationship.
The End of Everything
At the time of Lytton Strachey's death in 1932, Carrington was in a relationship with political activist, Ralph Partridge but still primarily devoted to Strachey and in a complex turn, Strachey had become enamoured with Partridge himself. The three shared a house together in Tidmarsh known as The Mill, where Carrington and Starchey had lived before Partridge came on the scene. As Strachey's biographer, Stanford Rosenbaum noted, it was: A polygonal ménage that survived the various affairs of both without destroying the deep love that lasted the rest of their lives. Later the threesome would move to another house, called Hamspray.
However, enduring happiness was not to be, for when Lytton Strachey died in 1932 of an undiagnosed intestinal cancer, Carrington was distraught...so distraught she threatened suicide. Her loving friends begged her to give it time; to wait and see how she felt in two months. Strachey had left her £10,000, a considerable sum for the time and she could have lived a very comfortable life on it. Touchingly, on his deathbed Strachey had said "I always wanted to marry Carrington and I never did." and while his friends maintain this wasn't true, it was a wonderfully consoling and generous thing to say to one who, in the end, could not be consoled.
Carrington acquiesced and waited the two months but when the time had expired she shot herself, apparently unable to go on with what seemed like a now purposeless existence. Whatever it was that bound her to Lytton Strachey, even after his death it exerted its force. It was it seems, more powerful even than her own will to live.
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