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Carrington, Dora de Houghtonfree

(1893–1932)
  • Frances Partridge

Dora de Houghton Carrington (1893–1932)

by Mark Gertler, c. 1912

by permission of Luke Gertler; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Carrington, Dora de Houghton (1893–1932), painter, was born in Hereford on 29 March 1893, the second of the two daughters and fourth of the five children of Samuel Carrington, railway engineer, and his wife, Charlotte Houghton. When the family settled in Bedford, Dora went to Bedford high school, whose records show that her skill in drawing was soon noticed. 'I had an awful childhood', she wrote later, probably because she 'hated' her strict, fussy mother, a former governess. However, she was devoted to her more unconventional father, who agreed that she should go to art school, and in 1910 she became a student under Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Fine Art. This new and fertile soil rapidly developed her character and painting style. Among her fellow students were John and Paul Nash, C. R. W. Nevinson, Dorothy Brett, and, most important of all, the gifted young Mark Gertler, who fell deeply in love with her. She was an attractive and popular figure with her large blue eyes and her shock of thick hair bobbed in the fashion she had set—she also set that of using her surname alone. Lady Ottoline Morrell described her as 'a wild moorland pony'. Moreover, her individual sense of fun and fantasy made her an enchanting companion, though a neurotic strain was also apparent. Carrington worked hard, and with dedication, winning a scholarship. Her oil paintings were much influenced by Gertler in their careful, smooth technique, three-dimensioned effect, and dense, rich colour. Her skill as a draughtsman appears in innumerable witty pen-and-ink illustrations to her letters. However, her lack of confidence was shown in her reluctance to exhibit or even sign the work she sent to the London Group, where it was seen and admired by André Derain. When she left the Slade in 1914 she had many new friends. Virginia and Leonard Woolf commissioned her woodcuts; Roger Fry sought her help in restoring a Mantegna for Hampton Court; Aldous Huxley put her in a novel (as Mary Bracegirdle in Crome Yellow).

Carrington's fateful meeting with the essayist and biographer (Giles) Lytton Strachey (1880–1932) caused a coup de foudre which grew into lifelong love for him, despite his homosexuality. The pair set up house at Tidmarsh Mill, Pangbourne, Berkshire, and their relationship developed regardless of love affairs on both sides and Carrington's marriage in 1921 to Reginald Sherring Partridge (1894–1960; always called Ralph from 1919 onwards), who joined the ménage. He was the son of Reginald Partridge, of the Indian Civil Service. In 1924 Ralph Partridge and Strachey bought Ham Spray House in Wiltshire, where a studio was made for Carrington and a library for Strachey. This peaceful working life ended in 1931 when Strachey became ill. He died of cancer in January 1932, leaving his companions grief-stricken. Carrington never wavered from her suicidal intentions, and despite all efforts to deter her, shot herself at Ham Spray House on 11 March 1932.

Carrington left striking portraits of Lytton Strachey (1916, NPG), E. M. Forster (1920, NPG), Gerald Brenan (c.1921, NPG), and others; and landscapes, still lifes, and glass pictures, as well as a large number of brilliant and amusing letters. First brought to the attention of the public through Michael Holroyd's two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey in 1967, interest in her work grew with the publication in 1970 of her letters edited by David Garnett, and the biography of her by Gretchen Gerzina in 1989. Her work became much sought after. In 1995 the film Carrington, written and directed by Christopher Hampton and starring Emma Thompson as Dora Carrington, won the special jury prize and Jonathan Pryce (as Lytton Strachey) the best actor award at the Cannes film festival. In the same year ‘Carrington: the exhibition’ was held at the Barbican Art Gallery, London.

Sources

  • M. Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: a critical biography, 2 vols. (1967–8)
  • Carrington: letters and extracts from her diaries, ed. D. Garnett (1970)
  • N. Carrington, Carrington: paintings, drawings and decorations (1978)
  • G. Gerzina, Carrington: a life of Dora Carrington, 1893–1932 (1989)
  • personal knowledge (2004)

Archives

  • BL, diary and commonplace book, Add. MS 65159
  • Tate collection, corresp. and papers [photocopies]
  • BL, letters to Poppet John, Egerton MS 3867
  • BL, letters to James Strachey and Alix Strachey, Add. MS 65158
  • BL, corresp. with Lytton Strachey, Add. MSS 62888–62897
  • King's AC Cam., letters and postcards to G. H. W. Rylands
  • King's Cam., letters to W. J. H. Sprott
  • Tate collection, letters to Christine Nash
  • Tate collection, letters to John Nash
  • Tate collection, letters to Margaret Waley and Hubert Waley
  • U. Sussex Library, letters to Virginia Woolf

Likenesses

  • E. McNaught, pastel drawing, 1911, Slade School of Fine Art, London
  • M. Gertler, portrait, 1912, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1920, Hult. Arch.
  • L. Strachey, photographs, 1920–1929, Hult. Arch.
  • F. Partridge, photographs, 1927–30, Hult. Arch.
  • photographs, NPG

Wealth at Death

£9510 18s. 11d.: probate, 1932, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]