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Dora Carrington and the Bloomsbury Group

The Bloomsbury Group

Around the turn of the twentieth century a group of Bohemian intellectuals composed of artists, writers, and economists formed a kind of clique, where they lived freely, more or less, according to their own rules and eschewed the repressive, conformist social mores of the day. They were called the "Bloomsbury Group" and most of them were from upper middle class families and had met through university networks. The group included such luminaries as writers Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, the economist Maynard Keynes, artist Vanessa Bell (sister to Virginia Woolf) and art critic Clive Bell but its central figure was writer Lytton Strachey, author of the best-selling books "Emminent Victorians" and "Queen Victoria", biographies that combined razor wit with psychological insight.

There were also number of figures who belatedly connected with the Bloomsbury Group or hovered around the edges, and among these was Dora Carrington, who was, though she would never admit to the title, an artist... and a talented one at that. Her works have a boldness, originality and impressive vibrancy that strikes the viewer immediately.


Dora Carrington, (who prefered to drop the Dora and just be known as Carrington) was a complex character, full of contradictions yet she held a mysterious fascination for many of her contempories. DH Lawrence based at least two of his characters on her - Minette Darrington, from Women in Love and Ethel Case from the short story None of That. According to her biographer, Gretchen Gerzina, she was an 'enigmatic figure':

Her life was a series of unresolved, opposing tensions and its consistency lay in her ambivalence to many of the problems she faced; she loved truth but constantly lied: she rejected her lovers but constantly lured them back; she was happiest when she painted but her painting frequently depressed her.

From A Life of Dora Carrington, (John Murray Ltd. 1983)

A talent for art had been picked up early by her family and teachers and in 1910 she was sent off to London's Slade School. At Slade she revelled in the freedom from her straightlaced Victorian mother and as she was, by default, unconventional, she took to the avant garde atmosphere like a duck to water. Carrington was the first among her friends to crop her gold hair in a bell shaped bob, a style that wouldn't hit the mainstream for another decade: she was a modern woman, at the forefront of the winds of change that were sweeping the early part of the 20th century and would usher in new perspectives on art and living.

The Mill at Tidmarsh, where Carrington and Lytton Strachey Dora Carrington

The Mill at Tidmarsh, where Carrington and Lytton Strachey Dora Carrington

Dora Carrington with Lytton Strachey

Dora Carrington with Lytton Strachey

Loving Friends

The Bloomsbury group were an incestous lot, in as much as their relationships tended to revolve around the group or with those on the periphery. Dora was attractive to men and had many intense relationships, yet she remained fiercely loyal and devoted to Bloomsbury's central figure Lytton Strachey, who was himself a homosexual. Strachey was, in fact the only man Carrington would remain powerfully, eternally loyal too and many have found their relationship hard to fathom. What was the attraction to a gay man, thirteen years her senior?

Strachey was a sophisticated, highly intelligent, witty and charismatic figure - an individualist who flaunted convention with a degree of confidence that was hard to resist. By the time she had met him, Carrington had already rejected the constricting Victorian morality of her mother, having felt a greater emotional connection to her much older father (he was 61 when she was born), a retired civil engineer with the East India Railway Company, who had spent most of his life abroad and was also an unconventional figure. Whether or not this had any bearing on her relationship with Strachey, is impossible to say but what is certain is that Strachey became the lynch-pin of her existence and for whatever reason, the one person whose life became profoundly interwoven with her own.

Dora in an artistic pose with a statue

Dora in an artistic pose with a statue

Art and Love

Although she clearly possessed a gift for art, Carrington lacked confidence in her work, possibly because she was at the epicentre of a signifant pocket of talented individuals or perhaps because of her sex - it was after all, the early part of the 20th century and even among enlightened intellectuals and artists, there was still a certain degree of sexism.

An accomplished painter in portraits and landscape , Carrington drew quirky, amusing pictures on her letters to friends and was interested in all sorts of design..using anything that came to hand, old tins, signs, furniture to indulge her passion for decorative arts. For a time she also sold had painted tiles to supplement the small annuity her father had left her. Yet in her own lifetime her art was never given a great deal of attention and it was only decades later, long after her death, that her work began to be appreciated on a wider scale.

Strachey however, had encouraged her to paint and to exhibit her works, which she was loth to do. In many ways they had an idyllic arrangement; Strachey provided Carrington with a paternal friendship, encouragement and a literary education and she in turn gave him love, devotion and took over the house keeping affairs. Both had relationships and peccadillos with other people - they had a wide circle of friends, contacts and acquaintances from which to form dalliances - but it never affected their core relationship.

Carrington's Portrait of Lytton Strachey

Carrington's Portrait of Lytton Strachey

Carrington and her cat

Carrington and her cat

The End of Everything

At the time of Lytton Strachey's death in 1932, Carrington was in a relationship with political activist, Ralph Partridge but still primarily devoted to Strachey and in a complex turn, Strachey had become enamoured with Partridge himself. The three shared a house together in Tidmarsh known as The Mill, where Carrington and Starchey had lived before Partridge came on the scene. As Strachey's biographer, Stanford Rosenbaum noted, it was: A polygonal ménage that survived the various affairs of both without destroying the deep love that lasted the rest of their lives. Later the threesome would move to another house, called Hamspray.

However, enduring happiness was not to be, for when Lytton Strachey died in 1932 of an undiagnosed intestinal cancer, Carrington was distraught she threatened suicide. Her loving friends begged her to give it time; to wait and see how she felt in two months. Strachey had left her £10,000, a considerable sum for the time and she could have lived a very comfortable life on it. Touchingly, on his deathbed Strachey had said "I always wanted to marry Carrington and I never did." and while his friends maintain this wasn't true, it was a wonderfully consoling and generous thing to say to one who, in the end, could not be consoled.

Carrington acquiesced and waited the two months but when the time had expired she shot herself, apparently unable to go on with what seemed like a now purposeless existence. Whatever it was that bound her to Lytton Strachey, even after his death it exerted its force. It was it seems, more powerful even than her own will to live.

Circus Horses by Dora Carrington

Circus Horses by Dora Carrington

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Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on July 07, 2011:

Hi I haven't seen that film yet (been meaning too).

They were a very radical group, that's for sure! Thanks very much for the comment.

Mohan Kumar from UK on July 07, 2011:

This is a wonderful tale of a fascinating period and a group of intellectuals who chose to tear up the rule books in a time of free thought and emerging rebellion against prudishness and stiff upper lip. Well written, Jane really well drawn and captivating.

I wonder if you've seen the film CARRINGTON starring Emma Thompson as the eponymous heroine and Joanathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey. It was critically well received story of their relationship. It won a few awards in 1995 and well worth a watch.

voted up, of course and brilliant!

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on June 23, 2011:

You're not far off the mark there RH!Soho is a kind of descendant of the Bloomsbury ethos.

Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on June 20, 2011:

Very interesting - and all the way to the last line!

Bloomsbury Group kind of reminds me of Soho.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on June 19, 2011:

Lol Rod, I think I'll get away with 'cause it's *art*.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on June 19, 2011:

If you are looking to me to complain about the photo, Jane, I am afraid you will have to look elsewhere.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on June 18, 2011:

Anaya, I haven't given Virginia Wolf a fair chance by any stretch. It might have been a bit ambitious to launch into The Waves. Mrs. Dalloway sounds like a better option, so thanks for that!

Yes, the nude photo gives us some indication of her personality. I'm surprised someone hasn't complained about it..given Adsense's delicate moral sensibility about such things. Heheh

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on June 18, 2011:

Rod, good point about the French. I suppose White liked to think he was writing for an "educated elite"...which has its place no doubt. It was just annoying because it broke up the flow of the story.You don't hear much about Patrick White these days...could it be he's out of vogue with the literary set?

I completely understand about Thomas Carlyle...not that I've read him but I get the drift!

Anaya M. Baker from North Carolina on June 16, 2011:

As a big Virginia Woolf fan, I knew a bit about the Bloomsbury Group, but not Carrington. Thanks for the info and insight on a fascinating character. I love the nude photo of her with the statue...considering the time a woman would have to have some guts to pose like that!

To those who didn't like The Waves- I've never read it, but I hear it borders on the edge of unreadable. I'd recommend Mrs. Dalloway for a first try at Woolf-- it's experimental, but still digestible :)

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on June 15, 2011:

Jane, it was true that an educated person living in the 19th Century would speak French as well as their native tongue and their writing would reflect this. In the 20th Century, when White was writing, this was definitely not true. The occasional French word that has still common use in English I am fine with but not rheems of the stuff. To me White is better than a sleeping pill and a glass of warm milk.

There was a Scottish writer of the 19th Century who was a master of the German language. This was at a time when Germans were popular and there was an agreed common heritage between Britain and the German people. You might say before the trouble started.

Anyway Thomas Carlyle used to drive me crazy in 19th Century lit.with his long passages in German or a mix of German and English. I lived in the margins where you have the translations. What I came away with was a knowledge that Teufel means Devil in German. I have thought of using a character named Doctor Teufel in a future story. What's more, Carlyle was not popular among readers of his day who got lost in all the German.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on June 15, 2011:

Rod, White is very convoluted. I mean I'm sure he has passages of brilliance but you have to wade through so much heavy molasses to get there.

I had to read "The Aunt's Story" for English Lit. Talk about bleak..but that wasn't the worst. In one section, for great rheems of text he wrote in French! Like we all speak fluent French right?!

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on June 15, 2011:

Same here Jane. Hawke, when he was prime minister, also had problems with Patrick White. Yes, talk about overly descriptive, White was in a league of his own.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on June 14, 2011:

Rod, yes I like things to be readable.I use to have a lot of trouble with Patrick White too.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on June 14, 2011:

Hi dahoglund..I'm not that familiar with their works either. They're as famous for their lifestyle as their achievements.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on June 14, 2011:

Yes, The Waves is a challenge and no mistake. I don't care for that sort of writing myself.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on June 14, 2011:

I am not very familiar with the works of the members.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on June 14, 2011:

Hi're always so nice to me. Thankyou! She was an unusual character and I found her relationship with Lytton Strachey pretty intriguing.


Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on June 14, 2011:

Hey Rod...thanks. I really like Carrington's work too. You're right about EM Forster too..Passage to India was a great book.

I haven't read any Virginia WoOlf (thanks for that)....well, I did try to read The Waves once but I couldn't go through with it...:)

drbj and sherry from south Florida on June 13, 2011:

Jane - this was absolutely, positively mesmerizing. I didn't want your outstanding 'Carrington story' to end. You pulled me in and wouln't let go. Bravo, m'luv.

Rated UP in capital letters.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on June 13, 2011:

I vote up. I love the writing of E M Forster. He can bring distant places such as India and Egypt to life.

I love the Carrington art you have shown us. Obviously she was a first class artist who had a marvelous understanding of the dynamics of color and also the human form.

I am not keen on Virginia Woolf (I think you will find this to be the correct spelling). In The Wave the woman showed her contempt for full stops to the point where she almost drove this reader crazy. She was and is not the easiest of novelists to read.

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