The lack of public acceptance of her work in Carrington's lifetime was partly due to her obsessive secretiveness and insecurity, so that she hated showing it. Moreover, she didn't fit easily into any one school, and her acutely self-critical nature meant that her paintings rarely lived up to her own expectations. She often gave them away as tokens of friendship, and many disappeared. For years after her death she appeared as a minor figure in the stream of biographies and memoirs about that oddly mesmeric coterie the Bloomsbury Group, in which she is mainly recalled for her unaccountable passion for Lytton Strachey, - openly homosexual and 13 years older than her - with whom she set up house and stayed for their lifetimes. After his death she shot herself, when she was only 38.
Yet really from the 1990s gradually her following increased - she would be amazed by the prices her surviving paintings reach today in the big auction houses - and the mid-1990s saw a brilliant biography
biography by Jane Hill; a new collection of her letters; and the quiet good feature film
starring Emma Thompson (good as she is she couldn't hope to do complete justice to Carrington) and Jonathan Pryce as Lytton.
Dora Carrington enrolled at the Slade in 1910 and was considered one of its star students, along with Mark Gertler (with whom she had a long and painful relationship), Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. She soon dropped her first name, preferring - like other women artists of the time - to be known by the androgynous "Carrington". She had already revolted against her bourgeois background, and taken to the gipsyish life of students and artists, when at 22 she met and fell irrevocably in love with Lytton Strachey, who was attracted by her bobbed hair and ambivalent appearance (she never came to terms with her womanly body).
At first Lytton's Bloomsbury friends were aghast at this unexpected allegiance; Virginia Woolf acidly described an evening when the couple had retired early, apparently for a night of passion, to be found placidly reading Macaulay aloud in her bedroom. But they were seduced by her ingenous originality and by her deliciously funny letters, embellished with sketches of cats and caricatures, which were "completely unlike anything else in the habitable globe", as Virginia Woolf told her.
The Bloomberries were also impressed by her nestmaking talent, which offered a happy solution to the problem of where Lytton should live. Her creativity was loving lavished on Tidmarsh Mill, Berkshire and later Ham Spray, Wiltshire, the two houses she found and decorated for Lytton and herself. Elaborate sponging, brushwork and stencilling techniques were used on the walls and furniture ("I started a decoration of the cellar door yesterday. It looks exquisite. A vineyard scene with Boozing Youths, and a fox contemplating the grapes," she bragged to Lytton in 1925; and every object was chosen by Carrington's faultless sense of colour and detail, from Lytton's counterpane to the cracked but exquisite porcelain.
On visiting Ham Spray Richard Hughes, the author of A High Wind in Jamaica, was struck by "the extraordinary beauty of the inside of the house - a beauty based on little original architectural distinction ... he (Lytton) looked as if he had been designed as the perfect objet d'art to go with the background of the house."
As time went on Carrington, in particular, had to make major compromises for the sake of their menage: she would marry the athletic, goodlooking Ralph Partridge, whom she didn't love, and reject his close friend Gerald Brennan, whom she adored, so that the household would survive. Her (and their) attempts to deal in a civilised manner with "a great deal of a great many kinds of love" were sometimes comic, sometimes agonising. Sometimes she would take refuge in travel, her artist's eye seizing on what was novel and strange.
Despite Lytton's spectacular success with two iconoclastic histories, Eminent Victorians and his biography of Queen Victoria, Carrington was often short of money, and took on all manners of decorating commissions for friends and for patrons. Her decorative art was in a seperate tradition from the Omega workshops, and from Bloombury's country seat at Charleston House, decorated with vigorous slapdash brio by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.
Her own work owed more to the stylised influences of English and European folk art: her motis, done with wit and delicacy, were circuses, sailors, fairgrounds, nymphs and cherubs, shells and swags, animals and flowers, and scenes of the countryside that she loved. Her restless inventiveness embraced woodcuts, book illustrations, inn signs, decorated tiles, glass pictures, murals and painted china, lampshades and furniture.
Meanwhile, Carrington loved Lytton for his abilty to live entirely within himself, self-sufficient in his life spent reading and writing, with walks and trips to the post office and visits to friends. But that pre-supposed an adoring "Doric" to cook, housekeep, garden, and entertain a stream of visitors for him. Regular resolutions to do nothing but paint lose out against more pressing demands on her time. "There are so many things for me to do. A lampshade to design, a dresser to paint yellow; Lytton's bed also to paint. Two wood cuts to make and at least 40 letters to write before Christmas ..."
In his wonderfully entertaining 1979 edition of Dora Carrington's letters and diary extracts (out of print), her friend David Garnett commented: "The greatest of her, or perhaps I should say of our, misfortunes was that the men she loved and lived with after her breach with Mark Gerler cared little for painting ... There was nobody to work with her as Duncan Grant worked with Vanessa Bell. In her isolation it [her psychological block] increased, and she became discouraged. I think that this was the greatest harm that Lytton did her, except by dying when he did."
Source: Anne Boston, Country Living Magazine, June 1994