Dora Carrington’s short life was marked by many different relationships, including those she had with various members of the prestigious Bloomsbury group. Her art is often overlooked in favor of exploring the history behind these relationships. However, the unique perspective harnessed by Carrington in her work is astonishing, especially when one considers the way these relationships informed her artistic expression. Much of Carrington’s art can be interpreted as an example of the female gaze, a term which exists in contrast to Laura Mulvey’s male gaze. Rather than depicting the feminine form for the gratification of the male gaze, the female gaze shows women as they are seen by other women, as interesting subjects worthy of full representation in art.
Dora Carrington’s Passionate Beginning: Standing Female Nude (1913)
When a young Dora Carrington arrived at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1910, she made quite the impact. Although women were not often allowed to paint from nude models in those days, exceptions were made at Slade. This was unusual for the time, so Carrington took full advantage of the life models available to her, spending countless hours perfecting her life and figure drawing skills. In her first year at the Slade School, she also largely ditched her first name Dora, choosing to be known as simply Carrington from then on.
In 1913, her hard work paid off when she earned joint first prize for figure painting at Slade for Standing Female Nude (2013). It is easy to see why this piece by Carrington was honored in this way, as it is a unique and masterful depiction of the nude feminine form. Though it is reminiscent of classical work in its coloring and composition, there is an undeniable highlight of the female gaze in this piece. Carrington’s perspective, which was unconventional at the time, combined with her technical skill to produce this stunning rendition of a female nude.
Technical Prowess: Female Nude Standing (1914)
Female Nude Standing (1914) is another example of the detailed life and figure drawing work Carrington produced at Slade. Composed of pencil on paper, this sketch was likely drawn from a live model during her sessions at the school. The inclusion of cellulite and the shaping of the hips and thighs are reminiscent of the work of Peter Paul Rubens, but again Carrington brings a feminine perspective to her work. This sketch is a celebration of the feminine and its subject’s individuality.
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Carrington chose to depict many parts of her body, including her face, in great detail in order to give a strong sense of the subject as a character. Her breasts are shaded and appear heavy on her form, which could be interpreted as a rejection of the classical depiction of femininity in art. By the time Carrington finished her studies at Slade in 1914, she would be a master of depicting the human form. She sketched and painted a couple of male models, but her primary interest and talent was the female form as is evident from her most prominent works at the time.
Carrington’s Gaze: Lytton Strachey and Portrait of Julia Strachey
After her graduation from the Slade School of Fine Art, Carrington maintained the social connections she had made during her studies. She became involved in the social circles of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of prominent English writers, philosophers, and artists. Though she never officially joined, Carrington was friends with many members of the group, including Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Vanessa Bell, and Katherine Mansfield. In a letter to her friend describing her time at Vanessa Bell’s Charleston farmhouse, Carrington said, “It was indeed a romantic house buried deep down in the highest and most wild downs I have ever seen. Duncan Grant was there, who is much the nicest of them, and Strachey with his yellow face and beard. Ugh!”
Carrington did not have a good first impression of Strachey, who was attracted to her androgynous appearance with her crophead haircut and tried to kiss her on a walk. She was disgusted by this advance and snuck into his room in the middle of the night to cut his beard off as revenge. Somehow amid this, the two of them realized a mutual attraction for each other and became inseparable, but platonic, life partners from then on. Carrington’s gaze is remarkable in her portrait, Lytton Strachey, from 1916. Strachey’s pose and the detail in which Carrington has depicted him is intimate and shows her appreciation and deep feelings for him. Even still, there is a platonic quality to the perspective of the work.
The way Carrington depicted Lytton Strachey contrasts with the way she depicted his niece, Julia Strachey in Portrait of Julia Strachey (1925). Carrington was good friends with Julia Strachey, a model and aspiring novelist. The two corresponded throughout the 1920s. In this portrait, Julia wears a silk headscarf and a glittery necklace and is depicted with an almost stern, sharp look on her face. Carrington’s gaze communicates a reverence and appreciation for both Julia’s feminine beauty and her sharp personality. The light, ethereal colors in this painting are very different from the cozy and intimate tones present in her portrait of Lytton.
Natural Intimacy: Naked Figure in an Apple-Loft
Though Carrington was bold in many aspects of her life, she was also painfully shy and reluctant to share her art much of the time. After she left Slade, she rarely signed or dated her work, leaving many questions in the artistic legacy she left behind. Naked Figure in an Apple-Loft is a sketch composed of pencil, pen, and black ink depicting two figures in an intimate moment overlooking farmland.
Though Carrington created many sensual portraits in her lifetime, she was also a master at depicting intimate moments that were not sexual. In this drawing, the two figures are nude and relatively androgynous with their feet touching slightly. They are surrounded by piles of apples and appear to be in conversation. It is unknown who Carrington is depicting here, as the sketch is undated, but it is possible that this was drawn in one of the many homes of the Bloomsbury group.
Sensual Reverence: Reclining Nude with Dove in a Mountainous Landscape
Because of the fact that her relationship with Lytton Strachey was largely platonic, Carrington had several affairs with both men and women throughout her life. Though none of these eclipsed her relationship with Strachey, many of them affected her deeply and were inspirations for her artwork. She had a particularly passionate affair with Henrietta Bingham, an American student studying at the London School of Economics. In a letter to a friend, Dora admitted, “I am very much more taken with Henrietta than I have been with anyone for a long time. I feel now regrets at being such a blasted fool in the past, to stifle so many lusts I had in my youth for various females.”
Henrietta ended up becoming the subject of Reclining Nude with Dove in a Mountainous Landscape (c. 1923-25), a striking example of the sensual reverence present in Carrington’s feminine gaze. This painting is representative of the pedestal Carrington seemed to put Bingham on in their personal lives. By all accounts their relationship was short lived, with Bingham ultimately breaking Carrington’s heart and moving on to another lover.
Queer Identity: Seated Female Nude
Both Lytton Strachey and Carrington’s lives were characterized by the exploration of a queer identity. While Strachey clearly identified himself as gay and spoke openly about homosexuality with members of the Bloomsbury group, Carrington was much less clear about her identity due to her attraction to multiple genders. Though she had been enamored with women such as Henrietta Bingham, she also had many love affairs with men throughout her life.
Though the Bloomsbury group was very open about relationships and sexuality, Carrington’s apparent attraction to multiple genders was confusing at a time when bisexuality was unheard of. This was further complicated by her deep platonic relationship with Strachey, which was so passionate that after Strachey passed away from stomach cancer in 1932, it was too much for Carrington to bear and she ended up committing suicide just six weeks later.
Perhaps some of the most intimate views into Carrington’s sexuality come in the form of undated sketches in her notebook. Seated Female Nude, an undated drawing, depicts a woman seated in an unconventionally sensual position. This piece is a stunning example of the feminine gaze, a depiction of the way queer women view other women. Carrington’s technical prowess in figure drawing combined with her unique perspective have created some of the most striking depictions of women in early twentieth century British art.