Monday, November 5, 2012

Great Bedfordians: Dora Carrington

Dora Carrington by David Litchfield 2012

Unrequited love and Dora Carrington unfortunately go hand in hand, and no I'm not talking about her relationship with the homosexual writer Lytton Stratchey, but about her relationship with Bedford and in particular me. 

I love Dora Carrington. There, I've said it. It's been like this for years. We went to the same school you see, spent time in the same art room, walked along the same corridors, admittedly at slightly different times, me in 1993 her in the 1903. But whilst I remained happily in Bedford she couldn't wait to get away.

The Carrington family moved to Bedford, like many others, for the good but inexpensive schools. Originally living on De Parys they moved to Rothsay Gardens and remained there until all five of the Carrington children were educated. Art was always appreciated in their house, Dora's mother would bring home illustrated catalogues from the Royal Academy and there were reproductions of Millais, Velazquez and Alma Tadema hanging on the walls. At school Dora excelled at drawing and when she was 17 her teachers recommended that as there was no art school in Bedford for her to continue her training she should apply to the Slade School of Art in London.

Entering the Slade in 1910 was the beginning of Carrington's life, on outward appearance the dutiful daughter of Victorians, inwardly was a different story. She had found living in Bedford repressive and unbearable and within her first year at the school she started to rebel against her upbringing. She cut her hair into a short crop and began to make her own clothes in the style of the artist Augustus Johns muse Dorelia. She also dropped her Christian name, saying she found it vulgar and sentimental. Forever more she would be known simply as Carrington.

This new Carrington did not fit in on her rare trips back to Bedford, having explained her cropped hair to her parents as being necessary for a fancy dress party she wrote of attending a dance 'where the village boys had quite forgotten me, and taken unto them new lasses. They gaze askance at my shorn locks - little did they realise who it was in their midst! No, sad it is to relate but I was not appreciated'.

Her fellow students at the Slade were to become some of the brightest stars of the British art world; Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, CRW Nevinson and Mark Gertler were all amongst her friends. But whilst they went on to have glittering careers, hers stalled after she graduated, and for a time she was known more for her associations with the group of artists and writers known as the Bloomsbury group, than for her work.

This was due to a number of reasons. The year Carrington entered the Slade was a year of great change in British art. The first Post-Impressionist exhibition was held in London, introducing the work of Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso to England for the first time. This new art was against everything that traditional art schools like the Slade believed in. Artists like Carrington whose talent for drawing perfectly suited the Slade’s ideal of what an artist should be, found themselves torn between the new style of art and what their tutors where asking of them. For Carrington this confusion in her talent was further entrenched when she approached the art critic Roger Fry, who had organised the Post Impressionism exhibition for advice about her work, and he discouraged her from a career as a serious artist.

This and a lack of confidence in her own work led her to being described ‘as the most neglected serious painter of her generation’.

These days her work is exhibited in all the major galleries, there has been a film of her life starring Emma Thompson, and sales of her work increase in value yearly. Nowhere is she more appreciated than in Bedford, the paintings The Higgins have in their collection are amongst the most requested and talks on her are always packed with people travelling long distances to hear about her work.

I like to think that although she left us as soon as she could, she would be pleased the town that where she was once not ‘appreciated’ now consider her as a Great Bedfordian.

Victoria Partridge
Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art

Thanks to: 
David Litchfield for his lovely illustration
Article reproduced from November issue of the Bedford Clanger newspaper

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