Paul Levy

Loving in triangles

Dora Carrington’s ménage à trois was at the heart of the Bloomsbury story, as her vivid correspondence makes clear

Dora Carrington (1893–1932) was at the heart of the Bloomsbury story. As an art student, she encountered the love of her life, the homosexual biographer Lytton Strachey; and this pair of Edwardian virgins actually managed to consumate their relationship in 1916. She loathed her given name, and insisted on her new friends, such as Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant and the entire large clan of Stracheys using her surname alone.

Whatever her merits as an artist, the dramatic story of her life with the Bloomsbury group, and death by her own hand, is so enthralling that it was made into a film, in 1995, with Emma Thompson playing the title role. Like her frustrated suitor and fellow Slade student, Mark Gertler, she painted at least one masterpiece. In Carrington’s case, this was the National Portrait Gallery’s portrait of Lytton Strachey. Painted in 1916, when Strachey was in his mid-thirties, it shows him in profile reclining, reading a book, with his fine hands and long fingers and every whisker of his full red beard lovingly detailed. How you rate Carrington as a painter is largely a matter of taste; but though probably mildly dyslexic, she was a superb writer of letters.

This first came to attention when Michael Holroyd quoted some of them in his pioneering two-volume biography of Strachey, and was made gratifyingly clear in David ‘Bunny’ Garnett’s 1970 selection of her heavily illustrated letters and extracts from her diaries. There were problems with his editing, in that he seems not to have had full access to her often passionate letters to one of her lovers, the Hispanist Gerald Brenan; and he omitted some good letters to Gertler and others. Moreover, many recipients of Carrington’s letters were still alive in 1970, and Garnett would not, for example, have wanted to embarrass Frances Partridge by publishing vituperative letters about her, written when Frances was starting her own affair with Carrington’s husband, Ralph Partridge.

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