“When one reaches the slopes of middle age one is glad of the merest crumbs of affection, an eyelash of lust.”
TRQ: Dora Carrington Born March 29, 1893
Painter, designer and decorative artist, Dora Carrington is known for her emotionally charged and intimate portraits and her deep attachment to the homosexual writer Lytton Strachey. Carrington was friends with members of the Bloomsbury Group, a collective of writers, artists, and intellectuals that included Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant.
Dora de Houghton Carrington was born on March 29, 1893, in Hereford, England. She was the fourth child of Samuel Carrington and Charlotte Houghton. Her father was a solicitor, and her mother came from a prominent family of landowners. Carrington’s family was strict and conservative, and she often found solace in her art.
As a child, Carrington was creative and sensitive. She spent much of her time drawing and painting and had a vivid imagination. However, her childhood was not without struggles, and she had anxiety and depression from an early age. Despite her difficulties, Carrington’s talent was recognized, and she began attending art classes at 13.
At 17, she won a coveted scholarship to the prestigious Slade School of Art in London, where she studied under the tutelage of Henry Tonks and Fred Brown. For four years, Carrington honed her skills and developed a unique artistic style. Intense emotions and a sense of alienation marked Carrington’s time at the Slade.
While at Slade, Carrington shed her first name and became known solely by her surname. She also adopted a distinctive bowl cut. Carrington’s androgynous look set her apart from the feminine ideal of the era. Before these traits were fashionable, her appearance was a bold challenge to the gender expectations of her time and defied societal norms for women. She excelled as a student at the prestigious institution and earned many and prizes despite academic traditions that marginalized work such as hers.
At 18, Carrington crossed paths with Mark Gertler (1897-1939), a fellow artist whose presence in her life was to be profound. Their relationship was the first of several tumultuous friendships and love affairs Carrington would experience. While she enjoyed Gertler’s companionship and even had a brief romance with him, she refused to conform to the societal expectation that women should be subordinate to men.
Carrington started her painting career in the early 1910s and exhibited her artwork at the London Group, where she gained recognition for her distinct style and expressive depth. However, as a woman artist, she faced challenges in being taken seriously by the male-dominated art world. Carrington persisted and continued to create, exploring new techniques such as fresco painting.
In 1911, Carrington painted a portrait of Gertler, which marked the beginning of her association with the Bloomsbury Group, as Gertler introduced her to several of its members. It was at one of these gatherings she met the renowned writer Lytton Strachey. Despite Strachey’s openly homosexual lifestyle, the two became close friends and agreed to support each other throughout their lives.
In 1916, Carrington painted her famous work, the Portrait of Lytton Strachey, capturing his unique character and essence on canvas. In 1917, Carrington joined Strachey in the picturesque mill house near Tidmarsh Mill in Panbourne, Berkshire. That same year, she also created woodcuts for Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s book, Two Stories, published by the Hogarth Press.
In 1918, Carrington received a small inheritance after her father’s passing, which gave her a newfound sense of independence. That same year, she crossed paths with Ralph Partridge, an acquaintance of her brother Noel from Oxford who was helping Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press. Partridge became the object of affection for both Carrington and Strachey. Once Partridge accepted the reality that Carrington would never leave Strachey, they began a complex and unconventional relationship.
In 1921, Carrington agreed to marry Partridge to maintain their ménage à trois with Strachey. Strachey even paid for the wedding and accompanied the newlyweds on their honeymoon in Venice. They continued to live together in their unconventional arrangement. However, the following year, Carrington began one of her two extramarital affairs with men, showing her discontent with the situation.
Gerald Brenan, an Army officer, and writer who was a friend of Partridge’s, became Carrington’s first extra-marital lover. Brenan had moved to Yegen, Spain in 1919. In 1920, Partridge, Carrington, and Strachey visited Brenan in Spain. After their visit, Carrington and Brenan developed a lengthy correspondence, during which Carrington painted Brenan’s portrait. They had a brief affair in 1922, and Carrington painted the oil painting Mountain Range at Yegen, Andalusia in 1924, inspired by the time she spent with Brenan in Spain.
In 1923, Carrington’s sexual orientation took a turn when she met Henrietta Bingham, daughter of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Carrington was drawn to Henrietta, and the two became lovers. This awakened Carrington’s sexual feelings towards women, and she began to identify as a lesbian. She expressed her feelings through art, creating a pen and ink drawing of Henrietta, which was her first erotic drawing of a woman. The relationship between Carrington, Henrietta, and Strachey, who had been Henrietta’s lover, developed into yet another complex ménage à trois.
In 1924, Strachey and Partridge acquired the lease to Ham Spray House near Hungerford in Wiltshire. Carrington joined them, and the three of them lived together there until 1932. Carrington took care of the household chores, looking after Strachey, and creating a decorative scheme for the house. It is ironic that Carrington, who rebelled against traditional roles for women earlier in her life, devoted herself to domestic duties and caring for Strachey. This decision also meant sacrificing time for her own artistic pursuits.
In 1925, Carrington’s circle of acquaintances expanded to include Julia Strachey, the niece of Lytton Strachey and a novelist who had been a Parisian model and art student at the Slade. Julia visited Ham Spray House often and briefly became one of Carrington’s lovers, despite being married to Stephen Tomlin. Carrington captured Julia’s likeness in an oil painting titled Portrait of Julia Strachey (1925). In a more intimate and private piece, Carrington expressed her sexual attraction to Julia through a pencil drawing.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Carrington’s artistic career was on the rise. She became closely associated with the Bloomsbury Group, and her work was exhibited alongside that of other prominent writers and artists, such as Virginia Woolf. Carrington’s artistic style evolved during this time, and she experimented with different media, including textiles and ceramics. Despite her growing success, Carrington continued to battle with her mental health and personal relationships.
In 1926, Carrington’s life took a turn for the worse when Partridge started living openly in London with Frances Marshall, only returning to Ham Spray on weekends. This caused mounting sadness in Carrington, who felt neglected and abandoned.
However, in 1928, she met Bernard Penrose, a sailor and Partridge’s best friend. Being with “Beakus” brought renewed creativity to Carrington, and her letters from that time were filled with illustrations. Unfortunately, Penrose wanted Carrington to make a commitment to him exclusively, which she couldn’t do because of her relationship with Strachey. The affair, her last with a man, ended poorly when Carrington became pregnant and had an abortion.
In November 1931, Strachey fell seriously ill with either typhoid fever or ulcerative colitis, causing great concern for those close to him. As his condition worsened day by day, Carrington, who had struggled with bouts of depression, tried to end her own life by asphyxiating herself in the garage at Ham Spray the following month. Thankfully, Partridge intervened and saved her.
As Strachey lay dying, he expressed a poignant regret, saying, “I always wanted to marry Carrington, and I never did,” a sentiment his biographer described as “not true; but he could not have said anything more deeply consoling.” When Strachey passed away, he bequeathed Carrington a substantial sum of £10,000.
Strachey, Carrington’s beloved companion of seventeen years, passed away on January 21, 1932, at 52.
Carrington’s world shattered with Strachey’s passing, and her depression only deepened with each passing day. Friends and loved ones rallied around her, trying to keep her occupied and lift her spirits, but the darkness seemed to swallow her whole. It wasn’t long before she reached her breaking point.
Desperate to escape her pain, Carrington borrowed a gun from a neighbour supposedly to shoot rabbits in the garden. Instead, she pulled the trigger and took her own life on March 11, 1932, just weeks before her 39th birthday.
Carrington doubted her artistic abilities and often felt her work fell short of her own standards. Her perfectionism and self-criticism led her to undervalue her own creations. Despite this, she poured her heart and soul into every piece she created, striving to achieve a level of perfection that always seemed just out of reach.
Carrington painted the people and places bringing her the greatest joy and solace. Her works include The Mill at Tidmarsh (1918), which captured the idyllic beauty of her beloved mill house and the surrounding countryside. She also painted intimate portraits of those closest to her, including a Portrait of Jane Maria Grant, Lady Strachey (1920) and a Portrait of Annie Stiles (1921), each a masterpiece of emotional depth and expressive power.
Carrington also designed fireplace tiles, bookplates, and inn signs such as the one for the Black Swan (1917). She even discovered a new technique for patterning on leather, demonstrating her extraordinary talent and ingenuity. But her greatest delight was in creating decorative treatments for her friends and for the homes she loved, such as Tidmarsh and Ham Spray. Her last painting was a stunning trompe l’oeil work on the front of her neighbours Brian and Diana Guinness’s house in May 1931.
Some people in Carrington’s life belittled her habit of illustrating her letters, dismissing it as a frivolous waste of time. But her illustrations were a form of art, as was made clear when her letters were finally published in 1970. Those who failed to appreciate her talent as a designer missed out on a true gem, one whose brilliance only became fully evident after her untimely death.
Carrington’s talent as an artist was not fully recognized during her lifetime. She never had a solo exhibition, and her work was largely unknown to the public. However, decades after her tragic death, her brother Noel organized the first major exhibition of her work at the Upper Grosvenor Galleries in London in 1970. This exhibition finally gave the public a chance to see Carrington’s paintings, drawings, and decorative works, and appreciate her unique style and emotional depth.
Another exhibition was held at the Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford in 1978, also curated by Noel. This exhibition was even more comprehensive in coverage and showcased Carrington’s impressive body of work. Despite the delayed recognition, Carrington’s art has since gained admiration and continues to inspire artists and art lovers today.
In 1995, the Barbican Art Gallery in London hosted a retrospective of Carrington’s work. However, despite the belated acclaim she has received, Carrington remains a tragically neglected figure in the art world. As Sir John Rothenstein, the former Director of the Tate Gallery, lamented in 1978, “Dora Carrington is the most neglected serious painter of her time.”
In 1995, the Barbican Art Gallery in London held a major retrospective exhibition of Carrington’s work. Two of her works are now included in the prestigious Tate Gallery.
Carrington’s life and legacy have been immortalized on the big screen in two films. Emma Thompson played the artist in the 1995 biographical film Carrington, directed by Christopher Hampton, and based on Michael Holroyd’s book Lytton Strachey. Jessica Kate Meyer portrayed Carrington in the 2003 Spanish film Al sur de Granada, based on Gerald Brenan’s autobiographical book South from Granada.
In 2017, Chatto & Windus published a collection of Carrington’s letters, edited by Anne Chisholm, offering readers a glimpse into the intimate thoughts and experiences of this complex and talented artist.
Her legacy as an artist and a trailblazer for the LGBTQ+ community continues to resonate today.
About the Authors
Troy Wise is currently a PhD student at UAL Central St Martins and teaches fashion and graphic design at London College of Contemporary Arts. His background is in marketing and is founder and co-editor of Image Amplified. He lives in, and is continually fascinated by, the city of London.
Rick Guzman earned his most recent MA at UAL Central St Martins in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries. He currently holds two MA’s and an MBA in the New Media, Journalism and International Business fields. Co-editor at Image Amplified since its start, he lives in London, is fascinated by history and is motivated by continuing to learn and explore.
Lytton Strachey–The New Biography” by Michael Holroyd, 1994, p. 678