Anne Boston, David Boyd, Slightly Foxed Issue 41

Catlike Carrington

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On New Year’s Day 1917 Carrington noted in her diary that her portrait of Lytton Strachey was finished; knowing her achievement, she hugged it to herself. ‘I should like to go on always painting you every week, wasting the afternoon loitering, and never, never, showing you what I paint . . .’ Today her loving tribute is on display in the National Portrait Gallery – an exception for this ambitious yet secretive painter, whose work rarely appears in public collections.

In the tsunami of Bloomsburiana launched by Michael Holroyd’s masterly biography of Strachey (1969), Dora Carrington mostly plays a bit part outside the core group of radical artists and thinkers, through her all-consuming attachment to Strachey, who was at its epicentre. Months after painting his portrait she famously defied her family, besotted suitors and the terrifying consensus of his friends to set up home in the country with the stork-limbed, semi-invalid, flamboyantly homosexual Strachey, seventeen years older than herself. The ménage lasted until his death in 1932. Six weeks later she shot herself.

Succeeding eras have imposed radically different perspectives on this elusive, compelling figure, as I find returning to her now. Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence and Rosamond Lehmann all tried to capture her in fiction. In her short lifetime she was patronized by Bloomsbury’s intellectuals as Lytton’s doting cook/housekeeper; Holroyd’s Strachey revealed her strange originality; the feminist 1970s and ’80s redeemed her as a talented artist hampered by the failure of Strachey and Ralph Partridge, who married her, to encourage her as a painter. At last, a wonderful 2013 exhibition of work by Carrington and her contemporaries at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, based on David Boyd Haycock’s book A Crisis of Brilliance (2009), definitively reinstated her as central to an explosion of talent at the Slade School of Art before the Great War.

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About the contributor

Anne Boston is the author of Lesley Blanch: Inner Landscapes, Wilder Shores and editor of Wave Me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War.

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