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The Strange Love Life of Dora Carrington

John Simkin

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Dora Carrington went to the Slade School in 1910. According to Frances Marshall: "She (Carrington) was an attractive and popular figure with her large blue eyes and her shock of thick hair bobbed in the fashion she had set... Moreover, her individual sense of fun and fantasy made her an enchanting companion, though a neurotic strain was also apparent.... Her oil paintings were much influenced by Mark Gertler in their careful, smooth technique, three-dimensioned effect, and dense, rich colour." Ottoline Morrell, who got to know her during this period, described her as "a wild moorland pony".

Mark Gertler and Christopher Nevinson both became closely attached to Carrington. According to Michael J. K. Walsh, the author of C. R. W. Nevinson: The Cult of Violence (2002): "What he (Nevinson) was not aware of was that Carrington was also conversing, writing and meeting with Gertler in a similar fashion, and the latter was beginning to want to rid himself of competition for her affections. For Gertler the friendship would be complicated by sexual frustration while Carrington had no particular desire to become romantically involved with either man."

On 12th June 1912, Carrington wrote to Christopher Nevinson. The letter has not survived, but his response to it has. It starts: "Your note came as a horrible surprise to me. I cannot guess what has happened to make you wish to do without me as a friend next term." It seems that Carrington had complained about the intimacy of his letters. He added: "I swear I will never speak a word to you as your lover... I promise you I will be a great friend of yours nothing more and nothing less and if you want to get simple again I am only too willing to do the same."

Carrington also received a letter from Mark Gertler asking her to marry him. When she rejected this proposal he wrote a further letter on 2nd July, suggesting: "Your affections are completely given to Nevinson. I must have been a fool to stand it as long as I have, without seeing through you. I have written to Nevinson telling him that we, he and I, are no longer friends." In the letter he argued, "much as I have tried to overlook it, I have come to the conclusion that rivals, and rivals in love, cannot be friends."

Nevinson continued to plead with Carrington to remain his friend: "I am now without a friend in the whole world except you.... I cannot give you up, you have put a reason into my life and I am through you slowly winning back my self-respect. I did feel so useless so futile before I devoted my life to you." He also wanted a return of Gertler's friendship: "I am aching for the companionship of Gertler, our talks on Art, on my work, his work and our life in general. God how fond of him I am. I never realised it so thoroughly till now."

Mark Gertler now wrote to Christopher Nevinson: "I am writing here to tell you that our friendship must end from now, my sole reason being that I am in love with Carrington and I have reason to believe that you are so too. Therefore, much as I have tried to overlook it, I have come to the conclusion that rivals, and rivals in love, cannot be friends. You must know that ever since you brought Carrington to my studio my love for her has been steadily increasing. You might also remember that many times, when you asked me down to dinner. I refused to come. Jealously was the cause of it. Whenever you told me that you had been kissing her, you could have knocked me down with a feather, so faint was I. Whenever you saw me depressed of late, when we were all out together, it wasn't boredom as I pretended but love."

However, Carrington refused to begin a sexual relationship with Gerter during this period. Vanessa Curtis has argued: " Although passionate towards Gertler when discussing art, Carrington, at eighteen, had not yet had her sexuality awakened; her upbringing had taught her to repress her innermost feelings. She was looking for a platonic soul mate, but what she found was a man who was highly sexed and constantly irritated and frustrated by Carrington's lack of passion. The heartbreaking letters that passed regularly between them pay sad testimony to the anguish that this long relationship caused."

Dora Carrington left the Slade School in 1914. Her lack of confidence meant that she was reluctant to exhibit or even sign her work. However, she had some important friends who tried to help her career. Virginia Woolf commissioned her to produce several woodcuts for Hogarth Press and Roger Fry provided work restoring a Mantegna for Hampton Court.

Frances Marshall met Carrington in 1914. "Her unique personal flavour makes her extraordinarily difficult to describe, but fortunately she has painted her own portrait much better than anyone else could in her letters and diaries, which no-one can read without recognising her originality, fantastic imagination and humour. Her poetic response to nature shines from her paintings, and from letters whose handwriting was in itself a form of drawing.... Physically, her most remarkable features were her large, deepset blue eyes and her mop of thick straight hair, the colour of ripe corn. Her movements were sometimes almost awkward, like those of a little girl, and she would stand with head hanging and toes turned in; while her very soft voice was also somewhat childish and made a first impression of affectation. Her laugh was delightfully infectious."

Aldous Huxley fell in love with Carrington during this period. "Her short hair, clipped like a page's, hung in a bell of elastic gold about her cheeks. She had large blue china eyes, whose expression was one of ingenuous and often puzzled earnestness." Although she enjoyed his company she was not looking for a physical relationship with Huxley, who put her in his novel Crome Yellow (Mary Bracegirdle). In the novel Huxley recreated his many discussions with Carrington. She explained what she was looking for in a man: "It must be somebody intelligent, somebody with intellectual interests that I can share. And it must be somebody with a proper respect for women, somebody who's prepared to talk seriously about his work and his ideas and about my work and my ideas. It isn't, as you see, at all easy to find the right person."

Carrington met Lytton Strachey while staying with Virginia Woolf at Asheham House at Beddingham, near Lewes, she jointly leased with Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell and Duncan Grant. The author of Virginia Woolf's Women (2002) has pointed out: "Attracted to Carrington from the moment he first laid eyes on her, he had boldly tried to kiss her during a walk across the South Downs, the feeling of his beard prompting an enraged outburst of disgust from the unwilling recipient. According to legend, Carrington plotted frenzied revenge, creeping into Lytton's bedroom during the night with the intention of cutting off the detested beard. Instead, she was mesmerized by his eyes, which opened suddenly and regarded her intently. From that moment on, the two became virtually inseparable. Initially, Strachey's friends viewed the idea of Carrington and Lytton as a couple with repulsion; it was considered extremely inappropriate. Even though it was evident almost from the start that they were to enjoy a platonic relationship rather than a sexual one, the relationship was the talk of Bloomsbury for several months. They were a curious looking couple: Lytton was tall and lanky, bespectacled and with a curiously high-pitched voice, Carrington was short, chubby, eccentrically dressed and with daringly short hair."

In 1917, Dora Carrington set up home with Lytton Strachey at Mill House, Tidmarsh, in Berkshire. Julia Strachey was a regular visitor to the house. She later described the woman who was living with her uncle: "Carrington had large blue eyes, a thought unnaturally wide open, a thought unnaturally transparent, yet reflecting only the outside light and revealing nothing within, just as a glass door betrays nothing to the enquiring visitor but the light reflected off the sea."

In 1918 both Strachey and Carrington began an affair with Ralph Partridge. According to his biographer, Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum, they created: "A polygonal ménage that survived the various affairs of both without destroying the deep love that lasted the rest of their lives. Strachey's relation to Carrington was partly paternal; he gave her a literary education while she painted and managed the household. Ralph Partridge... became indispensable to both Strachey, who fell in love with him, and Carrington."

Frances Marshall was a close friend of Dora Carrington during this period: "Her love for Lytton was the focus of her adult life, but she was by no means indifferent to the charms of young men, or of young women either for that matter; she was full of life and loved fun, but nothing must interfere with her all-important relation to Lytton. So, though she responded to Ralph's adoration, she at first did her best to divert him from his desire to marry her. When in the end she agreed, it was partly because he was so unhappy, and partly because she saw that the great friendship between Ralph and Lytton might actually consolidate her own position."

Carrington married Ralph Partridge in 1921. She wrote to Lytton Strachey on her honeymoon: "So now I shall never tell you I do care again. It goes after today somewhere deep down inside me, and I'll not resurrect it to hurt either you or Ralph. Never again. He knows I'm not in love with him... I cried last night to think of a savage cynical fate which had made it impossible for my love ever to be used by you. You never knew, or never will know the very big and devastating love I had for you ... I shall be with you in two weeks, how lovely that will be. And this summer we shall all be very happy together."

In 1924 Partridge and Strachey bought Ham Spray House in Ham, Wiltshire, where a studio was made for Carrington and a library for Strachey. Julia Strachey, who visited her at Ham Spray House, recalls: "From a distance she (Carrington) looked a young creature, innocent and a little awkward, dressed in very odd frocks such as one would see in some quaint picture-book; but if one came closer and talked to her, one soon saw age scored around her eyes - and something, surely, a bit worse than that - a sort of illness, bodily or mental. She had darkly bruised, hallowed, almost battered sockets."

Lytton Strachey died of undiagnosed stomach cancer on 21st January 1932. His death made her suicidal. She wrote a passage from David Hume in her diary: "A man who retires from life does no harm to society. He only ceases to do good. I am not obliged to do a small good to society at the expense of a great harm to myself. Why then should I prolong a miserable existence... I believe that no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping."

Frances Marshall was with Ralph Partridge when he received a phone-call on 11th March 1932. "The telephone rang, waking us. It was Tom Francis, the gardener who came daily from Ham; he was suffering terribly from shock, but had the presence of mind to tell us exactly what had happened: Carrington had shot herself but was still alive. Ralph rang up the Hungerford doctor asking him to go out to Ham Spray immediately; then, stopping only to collect a trained nurse, and taking Bunny with us for support, we drove at breakneck speed down the Great West Road.... We found her propped on rugs on her bedroom floor; the doctor had not dared to move her, but she had touched him greatly by asking him to fortify himself with a glass of sherry. Very characteristically, she first told Ralph she longed to die, and then (seeing his agony of mind) that she would do her best to get well. She died that same afternoon."

Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: "Glad to be alive and sorry for the dead: can't think why Carrington killed herself and put an end to all this." However, ten years later she followed her example and killed herself.


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