Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘omega workshop’

Carrington’s Letters — edited by Anne Chisolm

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 22, 2018 at 1:34 pm



Ah, the Bloomsbury crowd. There must be fewer people every year who covet details of their every ménage à trois. They produced one great writer: Virginia Woolf. The rest were hangers-on and lazybones.

‘The world is rather tiresome,’ wrote Lytton Strachey, one of the lesser figures, ‘…ladies in love with buggers, and buggers in love with womanisers, and the price of coal going up too. Where will it all end?’ This languid, elusive companion was to be the love of Dora Carrington’s life – and the source of much pain. She describes herself sitting ‘like a poached egg’ on his blue chair, soaking up his ‘unreality, and coldness’. Within weeks of his death in 1932, she shot herself with the gun she customarily used to hunt his dinner.

Carrington trained at the Slade but, under the cloying influence of the Bloomsbury crowd’s bent for decorative arts, ended up spending a good deal of her time producing pub signs, trompe l’oeil glass-paintings, book plates, tiles and lampshades for the Omega Workshop, and book covers she was never happy with for the Hogarth Press. But she was primarily consumed by her adoration of Lytton.

He tolerated this unexpected passion good-naturedly, and benefited from it hugely. Carrington tended to his every need for more than a decade and a half, including the excremental at times of severe illness. ‘Please start taking your Sanatogen instantly,’ she pleaded.

For his part, Strachey encouraged her to paint, and to read, in between jaunts to London where he badmouthed her to the ‘Woolves’ (Leonard and Virginia) and shared her letters with enemies. Indiscretion, betrayal and deceit were the Bloomsbury set’s meat and potatoes.

Introduced to us here by a sexploitative cover photo reminiscent of naturist magazines, Carrington first seems a bit of a flibbertigibbet who does not know herself. Like the rest of the Bloomsbury bunch, she’s a name-dropping, skinny-dipping, punt-hogging, house-hunting, knee-jerk Jew-hating snob, and a habitual, Trump-style, self-appointed evaluator of ‘attractiveness’.

She and Lytton sport sickening epistolary nicknames: he Count Lytoff, grandfather, Bugger-wug, Old Egotistical HumBug, and Toad in the Hole; she Doric, Mopsa, incubus, Pollypuss, your pen wiper, votre grosse bébé, and periwinkle Crinkle Crinkle.

With the complicity of other Bloomsburyites (and lectures on virginity from their patroness, Lady Ottoline Morrell), Carrington was treated as a skittish coquette and bullied, often simultaneously, by several needy, possessive men. Everybody wanted her to just grow up and be heterosexual.

But a long honest letter to Lytton on the eve of her marriage to her major oppressor, Ralph Partridge, transforms Carrington halfway through the book. Suddenly she’s the real deal, though abject – a thinking, feeling, breathing person.

Imagining that it’s all over now with Lytton (it wasn’t), she says their friends ‘all wondered how you could’ve stood me for so long…as I didn’t understand a word of literature and we had nothing in common intellectually or physically. That was wrong… I had one of the most self abasing loves that a person could have… How I adored every hair, every curl on your beard. How I devoured you whilst you read to me at night. How I loved the smell of your face in your sponge.’

She starts to come across as endearingly confused, dreamy, fun-loving, thoughtful, tender, clingy and curious. She’s better-read than they all made out too, mentioning Blake here, Rimbaud there – though Daisy Ashford was her favourite. Amongst visual artists, she valued Goya, Cézanne and Matisse.

The letters reveal a painterly eye. ‘Does one ever see two hares fight in London?’ she asks. She preferred a nine-mile walk in the country, ‘with only a half sucked acid-drop of a moon for company’. And, ‘Do you ever go out when everything is over at night? The corn field was greeny purple, & poppies making dark black red stains, and you grabbed at them, for they seemed only stains on the waving mane of wheat, and Lane’s nightdress shone a wonderful colour in the midst of the field.”

Self-critical, she’s a much better letter-writer than she realizes. She compares Lady Ottoline’s literary salon at Garsington to ‘a lunatic asylum at tea. Everybody equally enchanted.’ She characterizes nostalgia as a form of masturbation. She mocks D. H. Lawrence. And, though a pacifist, she wishes the Germans would bomb Cheltenham, ‘of all English towns the most stagnant and over grown with seedy colonels & their wives.’

Though she liked sex with women, she complains bitterly about being female herself, loathing menstruation and being ‘tied with female encumbrances, & hanging flesh.’ Explaining why Lytton was right for her, ‘Somehow it is always easier if I am treated negatively, a little as if I was not a female.’

Parturition revolted her, and she’s even more pained by the insouciance of mothers once it’s over, looking so happy ‘with a grub in the cot’ beside them. She despised her own do-use-the-proper-butter-knife mother too, writing of ‘the sordidness of her life & the lives of all these people who live in these neat little houses with closed windows’.

Bloomsbury freed Carrington from that, but ultimately disappointed her with its incestuous hypocrisies. She herself had a real talent for love, concluding that ‘if one wasn’t reserved, and hadn’t a sense of “what is possible” one could be very fond of certainly two or three people at a time.’ In her life and letters she threw a spanner into the conventions of sexual desire. Always worth doing.



(This review first appeared in The Herald on January 14, 2018)