Thursday, February 5, 2015

Carrington: A Life by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

I've been curious about the artist Dora Carrington (1893-1932) for awhile, especially since reading Love in Bloomsbury by Frances Partridge last year. It seems that people either loved Carrington (as she preferred to be known) or disliked her. She led a complicated and exciting life which ended much too soon when she committed suicide after the death of her beloved Lytton Strachey. I was thrilled to find this biography, Carrington: A Life by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (1995). My plan this past weekend was start this biography, but then I found it impossible to put the book down.

Here are the things that surprised me most about Carrington:

1. Carrington was more on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and not at the forefront as I'd thought. Her association with the group came mainly from her relationship with biographer Lytton Strachey, one of the original Bloomsbury Group members. Carrington never felt like she really fit in with the group and was a bit intimidated because she hadn't had a formal education, but an art school education. Also, she was a little insecure about her own art because of the big names in the group like noted art critic and artist Roger Fry and artist Duncan Grant. And it's clear through Virginia's Woolf's writings that it took awhile for her to warm up to Carrington, possibly because Woolf was a bit jealous of Carrington's close relationship to Strachey.

2. I'd assumed that Carrington's relationship with Strachey was an unrequited kind of love on her part. That's how their relationship is often portrayed. But their letters to one another show that it was definitely a two way street. Even though they didn't have a physical relationship, Carrington loved him for being the one person in her life she could tell everything to; he wasn't judgmental and loved her no matter what. They gave each other companionship, and Carrington created a loving home for him at their house in Tidmarsh, and later at their second home in Wiltshire called Ham Spray (a hideous name for a house!). It was also surprising to find that Strachey encouraged Carrington with her art and even supplemented her income at one time so that she could concentrate on her painting. 

3. Carrington was ahead of her time in many ways. She went against everything that had to do with women's fashion during the Jazz Age--she wore trousers long before it was fashionable for women. When she was in art school, she began cutting her hair in her trademark bob before it was the style for women. She didn't take part in the suffragette movement but had strong ideas about having a career over marriage and children. Carrington mentioned in her letters the importance of a woman having a room of her own before Virginia Woolf wrote about it. 

4. Much of her artwork hasn't survived. When she got tired of what she'd painted, or if she didn't like it, she'd paint new work over the canvas of the older work. Roger Fry told Carrington that she didn't have a future as an artist because her work was too different. The style of the day was Post-Impressionism. Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were spending their time in the Mediterranean, painting in that style. Carrington valued Fry's opinion and never really got her confidence back after that. (My biography of Roger Fry has now moved to the bottom of my TBR pile.)

5. Dorothy Parker had a quote about the members of Bloombury that they "lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles." The same could be said about Carrington and her unconventional love life. Her relationships with men usually ended up in a love triangle with her at the center. Leonard Woolf thought this was by Carrington's design because she loved being pursued. But it also seemed like she was reluctant to break off one relationship for fear of hurting the person's feelings, so she allowed one relationship to drag on while she began another. Then there was the delicate balancing act that she found herself in when she married Ralph Partridge, and he moved into the home she shared with Strachey. 

Carrington and her friends, lovers, and acquaintances come alive in this biography. Carrington's letters are full of originality through her distinctive writing style and sense of humor as well as her drawings which she included in her letters. Carrington: A Life provides an interesting look at an enigmatic, passionate, and underrated artist who lived her life as she wished, and what a life it was.

I highly recommend Carrington: A Life. This biography would be of interest to anyone who likes reading about the lives of writers and artists in England during the 1920s and 1930s or anyone who enjoys reading about Bloomsbury.

 This photo is from Wikipedia and was taken at Ham Spray
Left, Carrington; in the background, Saxon Sydney-Turner; middle, Ralph Partridge; and Lytton Strachey on the right

1 comment:

  1. She DOES sound interesting and I would probably like her because I, too, am a bit intimidated by the Bloomsbury Group! I tried reading a bio of Virginia Woolf but it name-dropped SO MANY people and places I didn't have a clue about that I couldn't hold much interest. Sad