Dora Carrington was one of the early twentieth century’s most unique yet overlooked artists. After studying at the Slade School of Fine Art alongside David Bomberg, Paul Nash, and Stanley Spencer, Carrington rarely exhibited and stopped signing and dating her work. Not only did this mean she was relatively unknown during her own lifetime, but to some extent, it has also made it more difficult – though not impossible – to get a retrospective sense of her career development. Moreover, she often chose to work in relatively ephemeral media, painting pub signboards and working with glass to create her “tinsel pictures,” some of which (according to Rebecca Birrel) she accidentally broke while busy caring for Lytton Strachey during his terminal illness (see Further Reading, Birrell, p. 79).
Never one to follow trends or to align herself with particular art movements, “her passionate interest in art was deeply intertwined with a suspicion of the forces that make up the traditional canon,” as Rebecca Birrell states (Birrell, p. 52). Rather, “she dwelled inside a world of her own,” Birrell argues, “composed of rich juxtapositions of eighteenth century British art, Spanish culture and folk practices” (Birrell, p. 53). Her work is rich and varied – and often idiosyncratic – as these seven examples demonstrate.
1. Female Figure Lying on Her Back (1912)
Along with such renowned artists as David Bomberg, Paul Nash, and Mark Gertler, Carrington entered the Slade School of Fine Art in 1910. Here, she specialized in life and figure drawing, taking advantage of the Slade’s policy of allowing male and female students alike to paint nude models. On the strength of Female Figure Lying on Her Back – which Carrington entered into a Slade contest, winning second prize – she secured a two-year scholarship. In 1913, she claimed joint first prize for her painting Female Figure Standing.
In Female Figure Lying on Her Back, Carrington paints in the style of the Old Masters, as was traditionally taught at prestigious art schools such as the Slade. The less precise delineation of the nude woman’s foot, however, along with the blankets on which she is lying, may point to a rather more Impressionistic influence. By placing the figure against a dark background, Carrington draws attention to the female form while also showing a masterful manipulation of light and shadow. The nude woman’s skin tone changes according to the light, and her face is averted, turning to the dark backdrop.
2. Hogarth Press Woodcuts (c. 1916-17)
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
After graduating from the Slade in 1914, in order to pay the bills, Carrington took on various commissions. One of these was to produce a selection of woodcuts for Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s new Hogarth Press. The two images shown here in the second image are included in a notebook of Carrington’s woodcuts and were included in the Hogarth Press’s first release, Two Stories by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The top woodcut was positioned at the beginning of Leonard’s story, “Three Jews,” and the lower woodcut prefaced Virginia’s story, “The Mark on the Wall.” Through this commission, she became acquainted with various members of the Bloomsbury Group, thus forging alliances that were to have a profound impact on the rest of her life.
3. Lytton Strachey (1916)
During her work at the Hogarth Press, Leonard and Virginia Woolf invited Carrington to stay with them and a group of friends at Asheham, their country house in Surrey, in 1915. Among the other guests was Lytton Strachey, who, during a walk along the South Downs, kissed Carrington, despite his homosexuality. Furious, Carrington decided to take revenge by sneaking into his room the following morning to cut off his red beard. However, waking before she had the chance to enact her plan, Strachey met Carrington’s gaze, and her resolve melted. From then on, the pair enjoyed a loving, though platonic, relationship.
A year after meeting, Carrington painted this portrait of Strachey. As with Female Figure Lying on Her Back, this portrait demonstrates Carrington’s attention to light and shadow. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, by enlarging Strachey’s hands, she is able to draw out the sensitivity of his long, delicate hands, which, though holding a book, could almost be clasped in prayer. The intimacy of the moment captured here, with Strachey in a reclining position, and the loose brush strokes make this painting a clear declaration of her love for Strachey.
4. Mrs. Box (1919)
Carrington met Mrs. Box, a farmer’s wife, during a holiday in Cornwall. She was impressed by the mental and physical strength required to live a life like Mrs. Box’s and so decided to paint this portrait of her.
As Rebecca Birrell observes, the sitter’s bonnet seems disproportionately large, and she “wears it like a crown” (see Further Reading, Birrell, p. 58). And indeed, there is an argument to be made here that Carrington subverts our generic expectations of the portrait genre, which has traditionally (though, of course, not exclusively) been used to commemorate the rich and powerful for posterity. In painting Mrs. Box, Carrington pays tribute to a Cornish working woman and to all the women who too often go unrecorded by history.
5. Iris Tree on a Horse (c. 1920s)
Iris Tree was a poet, actress, and artists’ model, and a friend of Carrington’s. A famous beauty, Tree was painted by Augustus John, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and Amadeo Modigliani. Needless to say; however, none of these artists portrayed her as Carrington does here.
Using oil, silver foil, ink, and glass, Iris Tree on a Horse is one example of Carrington’s “tinsel pictures,” which she gave to her friends. Far from being mere tinsel, however, Iris Tree on a Horse is a work of great skill. Working directly onto glass, “Carrington outlined her design, with a fine nib, in Prussian blue or black ink and filled in with a mixture of translucent and opaque paints,” as Jane Hill explains (see Further Reading, Hill, p. 121). Then, she applied silver foil and paper to the forms she had sketched directly onto the glass. “The art,” Hill states, “was in knowing how much glass to leave uncovered and how much work the silver papers should do” (see Further Reading, Hill, p. 122-123).
Tree is reimagined as a heroic knight, thus subverting gender norms. This is something Carrington took a personal interest in, having cast off her first name while at art school and taken to wearing trousers and garments that hid her figure. Moreover, as Rebecca Birrell points out, given the lack of distinguishing physical detail except for Tree’s bobbed haircut – which Carrington also shared – this could almost be viewed as a self-portrait, were it not for the painting’s title (see Further Reading, Birrell, p. 79). Judging from the condition in which it has survived, Iris Tree must have cherished Carrington’s whimsical portrait of her.
6. Farm at Watendlath (1921)
In 1921, Dora Carrington married Rex Partridge. Lytton Strachey continued to live with the couple, and, in fact, Carrington and Strachey’s relationship would outlast her marriage. In the summer of 1921, however, the newlyweds went on holiday to the Lake District with a group of friends. It was here that Carrington painted this depiction of Watendlath Farm near Keswick.
At first glance, Farm at Watendlath seems to depict a charming rural idyll, drawing on a naïve, folk style of painting. The hills beyond the house, however, have been enlarged and manipulated, some critics have argued, to mimic the curves of the female body. Their looming presence thus takes on a menacing quality for both the viewer and the two female figures in the painting. This would seem to be in accordance with Carrington’s own complicated views on her own gender and society’s perceptions of her as both a woman and an artist.
7. Spanish Landscape with Mountains (c. 1924)
It was during the holiday in the Lake District, which inspired Farm at Watendlath, that Carrington first met Gerald Brennan, a friend of her husband. Carrington and Brennan soon began an affair.
Most of the time, Brennan lived in the remote Andalusian Mountains of Spain – a situation that suited Carrington well, as it meant that, for the most part, their relationship was necessarily conducted at a distance. Thus she could maintain her usual life at home with Strachey and evade Brennan’s appeals for sex.
During the times when she visited him, however, Brennan’s home in the Spanish mountains also benefited Carrington’s art. Although she had always had a keen love of the natural world and landscape painting, the change of scenery allowed Carrington to explore new ways of painting the natural environment. Writing to Brennan, she states that the Andalusian Mountains “transport me into another world,” and it was this other-worldly quality that she sought to capture in Spanish Landscape with Mountains (see Further Reading, Boyall). Here, the forbidding plants in the foreground give way to hills in the mid-distance that seem to mimic the texture and appearance of human flesh.
In 1978, Sir John Rothenstein, then director of London’s Tate Gallery, pronounced Carrington “the most neglected serious painter of her time.” While Carrington’s fame was hampered by her own self-conscious reluctance to exhibit her work, this was also in part due to her well-founded suspicions that, as a female artist, critics and audiences may struggle to appreciate her art on its own terms without making reference to her gender. Her life and career were also cut tragically short when in 1932, just over six weeks after her beloved Lytton Strachey died of stomach cancer, she fatally shot herself in the chest, aged just 38. Yet she left behind her a rich and unique body of work, which continues to deserve our attention and admiration.
Birrell, Rebecca. Women Artists, Still Life and Intimacy in the Early Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2021).
Boyall, Jessica. “The paintings and passion of Dora Carrington.” https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-paintings-and-passion-of-dora-carrington (19 February 2020).
Hill, Jane. The Art of Dora Carrington (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).