About the Book
About the Author
Also by Anne Chisholm
List of Illustrations
Title Page
Editor’s Note
Part One
Growing Up: 1893–1915
Part Two
Building Love: 1916–1923
Part Three
The Erosion of Happiness: 1924–1932
Picture Section
Note on Sources
Select Bibliography


‘Your letters are a great pleasure. I lap them down with breakfast and they do me more good than tonics, blood capsules or iron jelloids’

Lytton Strachey

Dora Carrington was considered an outsider to Bloomsbury, but she lived right at its heart. Known only by her surname, she was the star of her year at the Slade School of Fine Art, but never achieved the fame her early career promised. For over a decade she was the companion of homosexual writer Lytton Strachey, and killed herself, stricken without him, when he died in 1932. She was also a prolific and exuberant correspondent.

Carrington was not consciously a pioneer or a feminist, but in her determination to live life according to her own nature – especially in relation to her work, her passionate friendships and her fluid attitude to sex, gender and sexuality – she fought battles that remain familiar and urgent today. She was friends with the greatest minds of the day and her correspondence stars a roster of fascinating characters – Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Rosamund Lehmann and Maynard Keynes to name but a few.

Carrington’s Letters introduces the maverick artist and compelling personality to a new generation for the first time with fresh correspondence never before published. Unmediated, passionate, startlingly honest and very playful, reading Carrington’s letters is like having her whisper in your ear and embrace you gleefully.


Dora Carrington was born in 1893 in Hereford. At seventeen she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, part of an extraordinary generation of painters including Mark Gertler and Paul and John Nash. She painted her friends, her house, her animals, her furniture and designed jackets for books published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. She was the long-time companion of writer Lytton Strachey, though in 1921 she married Ralph Partridge, who joined her and Lytton in a largely harmonious ménage à trois. In 1932, after the death of Strachey from cancer, she committed suicide, aged thirty-eight.

Anne Chisholm is a biographer and critic who has also worked in journalism and publishing. She has written biographies of Nancy Cunard, which won the Silver PEN Prize for non-fiction, Lord Beaverbrook (with Michael Davie) which was runner-up for the Hawthornden Prize and, most recently, of the diarist and Bloomsbury insider Frances Partridge which was shortlisted for the Marsh Biography Award. She is former chair and now vice president of the Royal Society of Literature.


Frances Partridge: The Biography

Beaverbrook: A Life (with Michael Davie)

Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life

Faces of Hiroshima: A Report

Nancy Cunard

Philosophers of the Earth


Letters and drawings

See Note on Sources for information about archives, collections and libraries.

Here ‘Hard at work drawing a rival “short hair”’

Here 4 April 1914, to John Nash, boat race

Here 29 January 1917, to Lytton Strachey, Lytton by the fire

Here June 1916, to Lytton Strachey, pugs

Here 1916, to Mark Gertler, self-portrait

Here 1917, to Noel Carrington, gum tree of debt

Here 1917, to Noel Carrington, Carrington as a Cossack

Here 10 August 1917, to Lytton Strachey, Carrington dressed as a page

Here 19 October 1917, to Lytton Strachey, Tidmarsh Mill

Here 9 November 1917, to Lytton Strachey, puppet dance

Here 20 October 1917, to Lytton Strachey, Tidmarsh Mill

Here 7 November 1918, to Lytton Strachey, Lytton’s scarf

Here 19 November 1918, to Lytton Strachey, Carrington in bed with flu

Here 20 January 1920, to Lytton Strachey, the four-poster bed

Here 15 July 1921, to Noel Carrington, Ralph in a striped jersey

Here 7 August 1921, to Gerald Brenan, Alix Strachey playing chess

Here 15 February 1922, to Lytton Strachey, Carrington’s cat throne

Here 14 June 1922, to Gerald Brenan, Carrington’s tombstone

Here Ham Spray house in the rain, letterhead

Here 1925, to Frances Marshall, owls

Here January 1927, to Julia Strachey, Carrington in bed

Here August 1927, to Julia Strachey, Carrington exploding

Here 17 August 1927, to Julia Strachey, a cat dressed up

Here 24 October 1927, to Lytton Strachey, horses and centaur

Here February 1928, Valentine

Here Summer 1928, to Poppet John, girl with a cat

Here Summer 1928, to Poppet John, girl and a tree

Here August 1928 to Poppet John, girl and an umbrella

Here March 1929, to Sebastian Sprott, cat with bandaged paw

Here March or April 1929, to Julia Strachey, Carrington under a beech tree

Here 6 November 1929, to Lytton Strachey, trees in the rain

Here 3 December 1929, to Lytton Strachey, a cat in the sunshine

Here 31 December 1930, to Lytton Strachey, Carrington eating like a cat

Plate sections

Unless otherwise mentioned, all paintings and drawings are by Carrington.

1. Self-portrait, aged seventeen, 1910 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

2. Drawings of her two brothers, Noel and Teddy Carrington, c. 1915 and 1912 (© Cecil Higgins collection; courtesy of Bloomsbury Workshop)

3. Carrington by Mark Gertler, c. 1912 (© Bridgeman Images)

4. Mark Gertler, 1912 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

5. Christine Kuhlenthal, 1919 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

6. The Cropheads: Carrington, Barbara Hiles (later Bagenal) and Dorothy Brett

7. Slade School picnic, 1912. Front row from the left: Carrington, Barbara Hiles, Richard Nevinson and Mark Gertler (both © Tate Images)

8. Tidmarsh Mill, 1918 (© Private Collection)

9. At Garsington, 1920: Michael Llewellyn Davies, Ottoline Morrell’s daughter Julian, Carrington and Ralph Partridge (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

10. Lytton Strachey reading, 1916 (© Bridgeman Images)

11. Ralph Partridge in 1919 and 1920 (both © Private Collections)

12. Ralph, 1920 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

13. Carrington and Gerald Brenan, August 1921 (© Tate Images)

14. Portrait of Gerald Brenan, 1921 (© National Gallery, London)

15. Portrait of Annie Stiles, Carrington’s cook-housekeeper at Tidmarsh, 1921 (courtesy of Bloomsbury Workshop)

16. Painted tiles, mid-1920s (courtesy of Bloomsbury Workshop)

17. Painted cabinet, also mid-1920s (© Portsmouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

18. Tulips in a Staffordshire jug, 1924 (© Bridgeman Images)

19. Cactus, c. 1924

20. Larrau in the Snow, 1922 (both courtesy of Bloomsbury Workshop)

21. Mrs Box, the farmer’s wife and Carrington’s landlady at Welcombe, near Bude in Devon, c.1919 (© Bridgeman Images)

22. Henrietta Bingham, 1924 (© Chatsworth)

23. Henrietta with Stephen Tomalin, at Ham Spray, 1924 (© Private Collection)

24. Portrait of Julia Strachey, 1928 (© Tate Images)

25. Possibly Julia Strachey, c. 1928 (courtesy of Bloomsbury Workshop)

26. Portrait of Stephen Tomalin by John Banting, 1925 (© Private Collection)

27. Bernard (Beakus) Penrose, at Ham Spray, 1929 (© Getty Images)

28. The trompe l’oeil window at Biddeston, painted for Bryan and Diana Guinness, 1929 (© Private Collection)

For Alison, Paloma and Tabitha

Carrington’s Letters


Any posthumous portrait of an individual, whether by an editor or a biographer, depends on the material available, which can never be complete. Around two thousand of the letters written by Dora Carrington between 1911 and 1932 have survived; many more have not, including all those to her family apart from her brother Noel, to her husband Ralph Partridge, to two significant lovers, Henrietta Bingham and Bernard (Beakus) Penrose, and all but a handful to her close and life-long female friends, Barbara Bagenal and Alix Strachey. The three most complete surviving letter series are the 155 or so written to Mark Gertler, over 500 written to Lytton Strachey and 434 to Gerald Brenan, which therefore form the core of any selection.

Although there is inevitably considerable overlap between my choices and David Garnett’s published in 1970, I made my initial choices without reference to his and have included as much as possible that is different and new. Letters unavailable to or unused by him include a number to John Nash, Christine Kuhlenthal, Noel Carrington, Peter Lucas, Poppet John and Roger Senhouse.

My aim has been to provide a clear, lively and readable account of Carrington’s doings and feelings in her own words, to unclutter the text and to allow her to tell her own story without too much editorial interjection but with context and guidance.

I decided from the outset that her idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation would distract and annoy the reader, so I have corrected her constant errors (which suggest mild dyslexia: ‘minute’ was always ‘minuet’, for example), inserted missing words and cleaned up her peculiar punctuation. She was in the habit of using frequent ampersands and sprinkling her pages with ellipses almost at random; I have removed most of these.

It was impossible to reproduce all the charming drawings she included in letters, and to alert the reader to a missing drawing seemed pointless. She often made visual puns out of names – so Waley was often a fish, and Henry Lamb usually a sheep and the Partridges small round birds; she added drawings to letters when she wanted to amuse, as when writing to Lytton Strachey, though not when she was deep in a tricky emotional relationship, as with Mark Gertler or Gerald Brenan.

All cuts in letters are marked with ellipses between square brackets. When an address or a date is missing, and they often are, I have tried to make an educated guess of my own or followed David Garnett’s edition.


It is eighty-five years since the death by suicide of Dora Carrington, artist and companion of Lytton Strachey. She was thirty-eight, and left behind her a small number of unfashionable paintings and a sad story of a great but unfulfilled love. Luckily, she also left behind her a great number of letters, which captivated, amused and moved the recipients at the time and which, re-read today, bring her out of the shadows and show her as she really was: one of the most original and emotionally courageous women of her time in her pursuit of love, art and the art of living.

My own discovery of Carrington’s story began some ten years ago when I was writing the biography of Frances Partridge, who took up with Carrington’s husband, Ralph. Carrington was the lynchpin of one of Bloomsbury’s two celebrated ménages à trois: at Charleston in Sussex Vanessa Bell lived with her husband Clive but loved Duncan Grant, while at Ham Spray in Berkshire Carrington lived with Ralph but loved Lytton Strachey. Both husbands were heterosexual; the two other men were both almost exclusively gay. As I investigated the emotional ramifications of the Ham Spray situation, although my focus was on Frances, I kept finding my attention being drawn to Carrington, not least when I read her letters, which were irresistibly open, fresh and moving. I came to realise that she was not, as has been the narrative for so long, one of the minor characters of Bloomsbury, but one of the most interesting and surprising.

Bloomsbury remains interesting to us today not just because we admire the work of its artists and writers, but because of the way they lived their lives. They disregarded social rules, acknowledging and accepting homosexuality and bisexuality and regarding sexual freedom and friendship as just as important for human happiness as marriage and parenthood. Carrington, who grew up uncomfortable with being female, who was attractive to men but increasingly attracted by women, who never wanted children and who deeply loved a homosexual man, was at the heart of these experiments in living pioneered by Bloomsbury. Virginia Woolf acknowledged this when she wrote in 1925 that ‘Lytton’s way of life, in so far as it is unconventional, is so by the desire and determination of Carrington.’

Although this unconventionality came naturally to Carrington, it would be a mistake to think it was easy for her. As her letters constantly show, she found her own nature difficult to understand and accept; her efforts to do so are strikingly relevant today, when gender boundaries are being explored and questioned. And the perennial struggle facing female artists – of how to balance their creative and their personal lives – remains as hard to solve now as it was then, as Carrington reveals in her letters.

As companion to a more famous man, Carrington, like many women before and since, lived in his shadow. Unmarried and from a modest middle-class background, her position in the social and sexual hierarchy after she openly began to share Lytton Strachey’s life in 1917 was always ambiguous – both central and insecure. She herself compounded this impression by building her life around his needs and wants, always putting him first. Doing so perhaps answered a fundamental need of her own. Even before she met him she wrote to a female friend: ‘It must be contentment to so arrange your life that only one person matters.’

The effects of this partly self-imposed secondary status have become her legacy. From time to time Carrington has been reconsidered: in the late 1960s Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey brought her to the fore, and led to the publication in 1970 of the first selection of Carrington’s letters by David Garnett, himself a part of Bloomsbury and an early admirer of hers. The letters were praised for their vitality and charm, but Garnett’s presentation emphasised her position as what he called ‘an appendage’ to Bloomsbury in general and Lytton Strachey in particular. He was mildly patronising about her art, her intellectual limitations and her social standing. According to him, the society hostesses who invited the great writer to their soirees and weekends would no more have included Carrington ‘than his housekeeper or his cook’.

Although she never stopped working at her painting, she became, after her promising start at the Slade, increasingly reluctant to submit her work for exhibition and sold very few paintings in her lifetime. Her artistic reputation suffered; she did not have a solo show until a small exhibition was mounted in 1970 to coincide with Garnett’s edition of her letters. Then in 1989 the American academic Gretchen Gerzina turned her doctoral thesis on Carrington as a painter, into a well-researched full biography. The book discussed her as a serious artist for the first time, someone whose work deserved as much consideration as her personal life. But because her art was not in tune stylistically with the better-known Bloomsbury painters Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, who were heavily influenced by the French post-Impressionists, notably Cézanne and Matisse, she continued to be underrated by scholars and curators. Even though she was described by Sir John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery from 1938 to 1964, as ‘the most neglected serious painter of her time’ she was only represented by one small painting, a portrait of E. M. Forster, in Tate Britain’s major exhibition The Art of Bloomsbury in 2000. The curator of that exhibition, Richard Shone, considered her ‘aesthetic temperament was fundamentally different’ from Fry, Grant and Bell and that her work was closer in style to that of her Slade contemporaries the Nash brothers, Mark Gertler and Stanley Spencer. He also wrote that he would gladly exchange all Carrington’s paintings for just one of her letters.

The only comprehensive exhibition of her work, at the Barbican in London in 1995, coincided with the release of the feature film Carrington, based on Michael Holroyd’s biography of Strachey and written and directed by Christopher Hampton. This show included most of her major paintings as well as examples of her work as a decorative artist such as bookplates, book covers and tiles, it also showed some short home movies filmed at Ham Spray evoking her surroundings and way of life, swimming in the river and riding her pony on the lawn. The year before Jane Hill had published the one substantial illustrated monograph on her work. All this raised her profile, and drew attention to her, but the film, though intelligent and moving, was in some ways misleading, even diminishing. The story it told was of Carrington’s devoted and ultimately tragic love for Lytton, and was structured entirely around her unsuccessful sexual relationships with three other men. Her success in running the household at Ham Spray, her many platonic but intense friendships with both sexes and her passionate physical love for one woman in particular were simply ignored. The film has helped to consolidate an oversimplified and inaccurate image which a fresh look at her letters will help to correct.

In the many photographs that Bloomsbury took of itself (the camera was one of its favourite toys) Carrington usually appears uncomfortable with being the focus of attention. Often, she drops her head or turns away from the camera. Nevertheless, for those around her she was always a vital, attractive presence, with a style and demeanour all her own. She would appear shy and diffident, with her light, breathless voice and pigeon-toed posture like a little girl’s, her thick blonde bob shielding her face and hanging over her keen blue eyes; but she was never insignificant. She struck several writers powerfully enough to find her way into their novels. She can be recognised, not always flatteringly, in books by Aldous Huxley, Gilbert Cannan, Wyndham Lewis and D. H. Lawrence, and the encounters prompting these fictional representations are to be found in her letters. For all her apparent diffidence, Carrington attracted and kept attention. Her friend Julia Strachey, Lytton’s niece, wrote of her as ‘so glowing with sympathetic magnetism and droll ideas for them all that there wasn’t a person of her vast acquaintance who did not get the impression that she was their very best friend. There wasn’t a lover, or a servant or a cat that did not preen him or herself on being the most favoured of the lot.’

Naturally secretive, hating to feel she was under scrutiny or anyone’s control, she needed to create private, intimate connections with those she cared about and, in the days when letters could arrive several times a day or even within the very same day, her correspondence enabled her to maintain these friendships. Bloomsbury valued emotional and intellectual intimacy highly and relished gossip and jokes; letter-writing was a crucial component of an intricate web of constant communication. ‘The humane art, which owes its origin to the love of friends’, was how Virginia Woolf, a great and brilliant correspondent herself, described it.

Carrington found that letter writing came naturally to her, unlike painting, which was always a hard struggle. Indeed, much of her creative energy went into her letters, which were frequently small works of art in themselves, with her delicate curly writing decorating the pages and sprinkled with many drawings, some tiny, some taking up much of a page. She drew portraits and caricatures of herself and Lytton and other friends and lovers, interiors of rooms and views of wild landscapes, and above all the flowers and birds she loved, as well as many cats, sometimes curled on the lap of a naked girl, and once or twice a small phallus in the margin to amuse Lytton. The fact that her spelling and punctuation were wildly inaccurate, with dots for commas, ampersands and random squiggles, only added to the effect. Virginia Woolf described them as ‘tearing like a mayfly up and down the pages’ and ‘completely like anything else in the habitable globe’. For Michael Holroyd, the great appeal of Carrington’s letters lies in their timeless emotional power: ‘Love, loneliness, beauty, elation and harrowing despair – these are what she wrote about with such freshness and immediacy that, fifty years later, the ink seems only just to have dried.’

In making this new selection of Carrington’s letters, my aim has been to provide a fresh portrait of her in her own words and to show her as I believe she was: a woman at the centre, not on the margins, of her world. A gifted and serious artist, she was above all as someone who quietly, with some difficulty but also much delight, built a life for herself, her lovers and her friends, outside the conventions of the time.



Growing Up: 1893–1915

No letters from Dora de Houghton Carrington’s childhood have come to light; the earliest to have survived were written when she was in her late teens. She always looked back on her childhood with distaste, describing it as ‘awful’, although her brother Noel, the only sibling to whom she remained at all close, called it ‘uneventful and certainly not unhappy’.

She put some of her memories and feelings about her childhood into a letter written to a lover in 1924 when she was thirty-one. She began by explaining that her mother’s family were socially inferior: ‘Her father was a sanitary inspector or something like that […] my mother’s mother said “ain’t” which I remember shocked me as a child […]’ Her maternal uncles ‘frankly weren’t gentlemen’. This sense of a class division in her own family lingered, and helped to alienate her from her socially anxious mother. She was born on 29 March 1893 in a house called Ivy Lodge in Hereford, the fourth of five children, with two older brothers, Sam and Teddy, an older sister, Charlotte, and a younger brother, Noel. Her father, Samuel, was sixty-one when she was born. He had retired from a long career with the East Indian Railways and married Charlotte Houghton, a family governess twenty years his junior, in 1888. Dora grew up adoring her large, powerful-looking father, whose travels and adventures in India she found thrilling and romantic, and at odds with her mother, whose religiosity and obsession with respectability she came to despise.

One of her earliest memories was of locking Noel out of the house and telling her parents he was lost. ‘I remember my intense pleasure at thinking I alone knew he was running round the outside of the garden trying to get in.’

Like most children, she went through a stage of being fascinated by her and her brother’s excretions, but her memories of watching them performed seem especially detailed and vivid. She was punished after cutting a hole in her dress ‘just there’: ‘I was then beaten on my naked bottom by a nurse with pale yellow frizzy hair rather like Queen Alexandra. I turned my head round as I lay on her knee and saw my bottom. I was mortified to see it. I thought very large, and pink.’ She wet her knickers a lot, and remembered having diarrhoea but being too embarrassed to ask to leave the room, ‘so I was constantly being punished, and was disliked by the nurses.’

She also recalled, before she was six, ‘having a character implanted on me. I was made to feel “good”. I had mixed feelings. I liked being praised. But I also disliked being made to be “good” when secretly I wished to do other things’. She was also not happy with her appearance. ‘I was called Dumpty because I was very fat and always falling down.’

The adult Carrington remembered herself as having been a child well aware of the social hierarchy, easily embarrassed by her body, who liked having secrets. All these traits, as she no doubt realised, were with her for life. Any pressure on her to behave in a certain way led to trouble, and often to lies and deceit.

Dora Carrington arrived at the Slade in the autumn of 1910 when it was in its heyday. Founded in 1871, and housed in dignified grey neoclassical buildings alongside University College in Gower Street, it combined a reputation for artistic excellence (former students included Walter Sickert and Augustus John) with social acceptability, particularly for the daughters of upper- and middle-class families where drawing and painting were traditional female accomplishments. There were three women students to each man; the emphasis was on draughtsmanship and the classical tradition, but at the same time it was considered less formal and stuffy than the Royal Academy.

It wasn’t long before she had made new friends, cut off her long golden hair and dropped the first name she had always disliked. Both were gestures of rebellion for art students of her generation, and from 1911 on she was always just Carrington. Her social horizons broadened: at the hostel off Gordon Square where she first lived, she met two other new Slade girls who became close and lasting friends, pretty dark-haired Barbara Hiles, the daughter of a businessman living in Paris, and the plain, slightly deaf and eccentric Dorothy Brett, daughter of the royal family’s trusted courtier Viscount Esher. They too chopped their hair off and dropped their first names, and were soon nicknamed the Cropheads. Carrington was not conventionally pretty, despite her thick blonde bob, cherry-blossom complexion and intensely blue eyes; but having grown up with three brothers she was not shy of young men, and was soon being pursued by several fellow students. She enjoyed their company, their admiration and especially their shared excitement about art, but was not interested in romance; she seems to have had an innate fear of sex, exacerbated by her upbringing. She and Noel both recalled how any acknowledgement of physical relations between the sexes was anathema to their mother, and Carrington grew up detesting the monthly reminder that she was female. She later admitted that she had always found the prospect of sex and childbirth disgusting and terrifying.

At the Slade, she soon fell into a pattern of behaviour: men were drawn to her, she responded eagerly to their admiration and friendship, but as soon as they wanted more, she pulled away. Tensions and complications inevitably ensued.

Three of her most talented male contemporaries fell in love with her: John Nash, Richard Nevinson and Mark Gertler. Paul Nash, the elder of the two Nash brothers, arrived at the same time as she did, in 1910, and spotted her at work in the Antique Room, drawing from casts of classical sculpture. She seemed to him ‘clever and good-looking to an unusual degree’. Nevinson and Gertler were already there, having arrived in 1909 and 1908 respectively, and were good friends; now Nash introduced her to his brother John, who was seriously smitten by her. Her disregard for convention and passion for art, as well as her slightly androgynous appearance and dress (she and Brett, when they could get away with it, liked to wear men’s corduroy breeches), drew these young men to her; when she proved shy and elusive they pursued her even more. Nevinson called her ‘a gorgeously egotistical, impulsive, unsettled youth’. It was at the Slade that Carrington’s lifelong tendency to fall into love triangles, playing rivals off against each other, first began. Both the Nash brothers were able to find their way out of love and back to friendship based on shared artistic interests, and both, before long, had married other girls; but it was very different with Nevinson and Gertler.

None of her letters to Nevinson have survived, nor any to Gertler at this point; but her friendship with the Nash brothers, and her life during and just after the Slade can be glimpsed through the letters she wrote to John Nash between 1912 and 1915.


To John Nash

1 Rothesay Gardens, Bedford
Saturday [n.d.]

Dear Jack,

You are going to to Florence! And you announce it calmly in a word. And again you tell with a coolness only found in Strand magazines, that M– has bought your Gypsies! Try & have a little enthusiasm about it. I know after selling so many pictures it must be hard. But surely one doesn’t go to Florence every afternoon. Is Paul going too? And can you speak Italian?

[…] I did a painting of my youngest brother, side view, which met with some approval in the family circle. But a great discussion still continues as to whether his nose is too long or his upper lip too short.

In a rash moment I was taken to a dance in my tiny native town the other night, by my brother. It was sad. For the village lads had quite forgotten me, & taken unto themselves new lasses. They gaze askance at my shorn locks – little did they realize who it was who was in their midst. No, sad it is to relate but I was not appreciated […]

Paul sent me a good book by Borrow.fn1 Which delighted me very much. I am just going to write to him so your letter must be curtailed somewhat. Today I return to London, which has made me very happy! I have done no work these hols of any worth, as the family do not encourage my efforts, & won’t let me use the study to paint in. I have a loud dress with a ballet frill round it, orange on purple, a little daring perhaps. But bright & cheerful. Paul, I hear, has run amuck in a near check suit. I hear of it with grief.

Well, I hope I shall see you soon. But I’ve got a great deal of work to do when I get back the first two weeks – But you must write & say when you will come & see us. I am in much haste.


The next letter was written from Brett’s father’s estate, the Roman Camp at Callendar in Perthshire, Scotland. Two other Slade friends, Ruth Humphries (later Selby-Bigge) and Constance (Cooie) Lane, were also there.

To John Nash

The Roman Camp
2 August 1913

Dear Jack,

I am sorry to have been so long answering your letters.

On Monday night I travelled up here. What a journey! Everything cold & noisy, & do you know of the hardness of a carriage seat, and the fear of a cockchafer on the ceiling, & trains that run in the night & shriek to each other in passing. A slothful clergyman & his sister disturbed my frenzied slumbers at Crewe & cuddled up in blankets & cushions spent a voluptuous night […] worn out I arrived at Callander at 6.30 on Tuesday morning. Gosh! But … the excitement of these big hills and forests and lochs. Humphries is here too. The house is pink outside with slate pointed towers, & the garden has many flowers of purple red & purple blue. More flowers, & more beautiful than if you thought hard you could imagine. We go out every day drawing on these big mountains, and one day Humphries & me swam in a big loch. The sun shining hot & all round towering mountains, & the water very deep and clear, and nobody else to be seen. The whole world was ours. Everyday is hot here. It is never even cool. From the top of the mountain one can get a most gorgeous view, of big lakes & these mountains sliding down to them, & a little river wending through coloured fields, pale green with new wheat & yellow with hay, and more distant mountains. But how hard to draw.

And when we return at 8 we have astounding dinners. Are you above grub? I hate ascetic people who pretend not to be interested. The strawberry & fruit ices are beyond all comparisons. Venison & ‘pasties of the doe’. Brett’s father is a nut, in his highland kilts and aristocratic demeanour […] We ran barefooted with big leaps across the fields through sleeping cows, till we climbed the slope to a cornfield. The moon was new, & shimmering, & the elms big clumps against the emerald purple grey sky, all the fields were dark green grey. 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, and behind a big dark wood […]

The strain of the perfect lady is rather much, as it is now almost a month since I was natural. But all day we can break out & shout and run on the hills […]

On Tuesday I am going away, right down to Hove, Sussex, with my family. Noel, the little brother, will be with me, and Pendennis his friend, who has a good head to draw. But it will seem smooth and slippery after this land. But a sea to swim in, so I shall be happy.

I am yours sincerely,



During the summer of 1913 Carrington and Cooie Lane worked on a cycle of frescoes commissioned by Lord Brownlow for his library at his nineteenth-century Gothic house, Ashridge, in the Chilterns. They stayed nearby in the Lanes’ cottage at Nettleden.

To John Nash

Tuesday [n.d.]

[…] Your pictures were good […] One day I shall ask politely a big landscape of fields & trees & figures from you to put up on my walls, and try & coerce Paul too. Alas! I am neither rich nor famous! would that I were dead for my design is indeed lamentable, and it fills me chock up with despair […]

At present we have not done much as all the time we have been working hard at our cartoons, drawing & painting them. Cooie Lane’s is best. She is doing sheep shearing. She sings whilst we work, lustily with much force old ballades & folk songs & Handel. The plastering is a joy to do […] But you have no idea how frescoeing wearies the brain.

I am yours,



To John Nash

Clearwell, Portland Avenue, Exmouth
4 April 1914, 11:00 in bed

Dear Jack,

[…] And now, good morning! I arrived here at 11 o clock on Monday night. On Tuesday I expored with Teddy & Noel who are splendid brothers. Teddy is at Cambridge, & Noel at Oxford. The country here surpasses all belief. The cliffs are huge, & towering & Indian Red in colour, & long reaches of smooth sand, & a cobalt sky, & a blazing hot sun. Which makes one’s face shine like a bronze from the shore looking over the cliffs you see the landscape trees & ploughed fields all wooded like a Francescafn2 landscape. Flowers grow here in abundance, and the garden is full of violets, white & purple & polyanthus, & primroses, daffs in great quantities & many others. On the cliffs yellow gorse & celandines grow. Going to the New Forest, until I return to London. Aren’t you glad I am coming back. It has made me enormously happy […] What pictures are you working at now? I did so like your Adoration. I think it will be very good. What work is friend Paul doing? I hope you are well. I saw the boat race last Saturday, it was rather amusing.

Although the surviving correspondence of Carrington and her Slade painter friends that summer gives no hint of approaching disaster, their lives, like millions of others, would be changed for ever by the outbreak of war in Europe on 4 August 1914. Carrington was preoccupied by a scheme, never realised, to collaborate with John and Paul Nash on the decoration of a church near Uxbridge with a fresco of Jacob’s meeting with Rebecca. She was, and remained, diffident about her work. Meanwhile John was trying to take their relationship further, but she was determined just to stay friends.


Before long, Carrington’s three brothers, Sam, Teddy and Noel, had joined up. Noel was wounded within a few weeks and brought home to recover. Mark Gertler, who had a weak chest, was eventually exempted as unfit; but Paul and John Nash and Richard Nevinson were all to serve at the front as war artists. The work they produced remains among the most powerful depictions we have of the horror and devastation of the First World War. Carrington’s letters contain very little about the war, which she appears at first to have supported, and nothing, apart from one brief impersonal reference, about her friends’ paintings from the front. She turned away from it as best she could, into her painting and her personal life.

To John Nash

Clearwell, Portland Avenue, Exmouth
Friday [summer 1914]

My Dear Jack,

Thank you for your long letter … & the rebuffs or reproof dealt out to the slothful, & ungodly. I am sorry I didn’t measure it right. But I only have an inferior old school ruler, so perhaps that is why. Nothing could upset my design! I will add to it breadth as you suggest. Thanks you also for your advice. I know Jacob was badly drawn, but I only had my brother for about 3 mins, to look at, & his face I was aware, was a failure […]

But no matter. I will also give him more suitable rayment & obviously bathing drawers. I am returning to London next Monday & will get a model & draw them better, as I simply find it impossible to draw anything with any regard to the truth, from memory. So if I let you have a fair copy by say, next Monday week, will that do? and a touch of colour about it […]

Thank you. I am quite happy – I only get sad intervals over the war, as I am sorry to admit it but I forget it often. Yesterday morning at 6.30 I went for a fine swim in the sea by myself as my youngest brother has gone back to London, to enlist. Tell Paul I am sorry he did not get through his medical, & give him & Barbara [Hiles] my love […] I cannot say with positiveness that I can frescoe in October, as so much depends on the war primarily, & other things. I’ve got to earn my living if I live in London, so if that fails I shall have to return home, and my people are leaving here to go to Hampshire in the middle of October. But to the best of my knowledge I could frescoe then.

But I hope you are well, & able to do some work. I have done practically nothing this summer. For most of the day I seem to spend picking apples & storing them, & picking beans, & making large pots full of blackberry jam. The blackberries here are the best in any land, the like of which have not been seen before. I want to see your work badly. So I hope you have done some. But who will buy? […] I expect I shall see you after you return from Cheltenham in London, then we could, with more satisfaction than is gained by writing, discuss the frescoe project. I tried to draw a field of Indian corn yesterday. For I have never seen such a wonderful sight before. But it was almost impossible to draw. Have you ever seen a field of it? Today it is raining hard. Did Paul do some very good work in the north? This is a stupid letter, I am sorry. But somehow it is difficult to write just now. My eldest brother was wounded only not badly I think. I hope he will get well enough to fight again soon.

Thank you for being so kind about my bad design. When I get more settled in my brain I will do something better, at least I trust so.

Now I will stop & remain


Even at night I see apples in my dreams & all day long I pick & eat them & realize the many resources of an apple, ie apple charlotte, apple stewed, A baked, A boiled, A turnover, A pudding, A fritters, A with cream & without, & in the streets they sell A’s for 2 lbs a penny! What shall she do with them?

To John Nash

c/o Mrs H. Game, 3 Primrose Hill Studios, Fitzroy Road, London NW

Dear Jack,

Now I have two letters to answer, & much to discuss & talk over. I hesitate to write, as there is so much to say …

Letter the first

The winter is bad, so my book tells me, to frescoe in owing to the fact that the wet & cold affect the plaster. But the fault to whom does it lie? Nobody but my erring self, so I can’t complain. But you asked me, so I tell you to the best of my knowledge, a hot summer or spring is the most favourable season wherein to paint in the frescoe.

I saw Sam, my brother, when he was in the hospital & listened to the gory & sanguinary accounts of the battles. It sounds so like Goya, who is a fine man withal at depicting battles & bullfights. Yes, I agree with you Cheltenham is of all English towns the most stagnant & over grown with seedy colonels & their wives – would that the Germans would erase it, & a few other of our cities, entirely to the ground, & lessen its inhabitants in their numbers.

I have been in London a little while now & am working hard on a beastly scholarship job, as we are poorer than ever now through this old war.

Letter the second

Yes farmyard scenes are the best, & the country. I know that definitely now & dislike this city London, with its ugly faces & hard pavements. I am neither well nor happy here, as I have a bad cold, & miss the summer, & my work is no good! I hope you have done some.

You must come to tea with Buntyfn3 when I go, & take your drawings to show me. Durer at the British Museum is sustaining, & keeps one from getting too depressed amongst these people who talk so constantly of the war. Well I shall be glad to see you again also. But do not be too angry if I fail over my design. Now I remain in haste,


By early 1915 Carrington had left the Slade and was living with her parents in a handsome old house in Hurstbourne Tarrant, a village near Andover in Hampshire, where she turned an outhouse into a studio and went for long walks exploring the nearby downs. Her pleasure in and need for country life grew stronger, and she began to dream of a place of her own with a congenial companion.

John Nash had recently taken up with Christine Kuhlenthal,fn4 another Slade friend and his future wife. This appears to have intensified Carrington’s feelings, not for him but for her. Her female friends were increasingly important to her, and she never liked to lose friends, male or female, to marriage, which she regarded with increasing distaste.


To Christine Kuhlenthal

Ibthorpe House, Hurstborne Tarrant, nr Andover, Hampshire
14 February 1915

Dear Christine,

I thank you for two letters. Which according to my habit & custom I will answer in turn […]

I loved your description of Garsington, it told me so much. But I am not jealous! Lady Ottolinefn5 has often kissed me, I am sure really she likes me better than Barbara also. Yes dear Christine I will write you a poem. But the inspiration has not yet arrived. Generally it comes in the bath. Awful, since I have no paper or pencil at hand & thus lose whole stanzas of valuable rhyming matter. But soon I will write you one & illustrate it […] Yes, yes I will come and live in a cottage, only do let us keep it a secret. Let us pretend we might not go. Like a ‘liaison’ in a book, we will stay a week in a cottage. I have thought already of heaps of things we will do […] would you be frightened to sleep in an empty ruined cottage in a wonderful bleak mountainous valley near here? Do come & live with me there a week in the summer. I discovered it by accident the other day Wednesday when I was on a walk about 9 miles from here. It was all in ruins except for two rooms; & it was quite alone on the side of a big bare hill. Christine, be brave & live with me there. Nobody would ever see us, or discover us. You must come. Even if the remaining roof falls in on us, we shall at least die together! and do not thousands of men die every day?

How pleased I was with your second letter. I was so happy you really liked my poetry … and also glad you do not like Barbara as much as me. She is friendly & kind. But don’t you wish she had just one vice. If only she wasn’t quite so smiling & cheerful. I also ward her off with my hand. I don’t know why. It is just because she is so easy & never unhappy. I feel she doesn’t play fair. It is not human to be continually bright & cheery.

But when I come up to London you must come & dance with me. I like best to dance out of doors, then one doesn’t run into the walls and easel. Our garden will be great, lovely yew hedges very thick, & then green mossy grass. Just behind my studio I am making a wild garden, all grass & wild plants, under the tall fir trees. On Friday it was like a summer’s day. A lovely golden sunshine shone all day, so I walked to Inkpen Hill, 8 miles away, where the country is as wonderful as you could wish for, and where I can sit in the deserted garden of the old empty house. I did tell you about it, did I not? a house which I dream of all day & I live in constant terror lest someone should take it before I can live there,. You will I am sure love it as much as I do.

In a field in the sunshine I saw such a pretty sight, two hares fighting. It was really the tragedy of an over ardent suitor & the reluctant lady hare, but it was a fine sight to see them wrestling on hind legs, twisting & turning somersaults, up again, & tearing in pursuit, & so on. They came quite close to me, & never saw me. It was indeed an earnest battle & all in the lovely sunshine. I am indeed so happy that I feel it cannot last long. Brett can say as much as she likes that the country makes one stodgy, but she is wrong. It is a thousand times more stimulating here. Does one ever see two hares fight in London? and the house at Old Combefn6, with its wonderful garden? […] Sam, my brother, is just writting a poem on the Slade. He is so happy because it rhymes. I have told him to send it to Brett to read to you. Do you like having her back at Slade again? she tells me she goes two days a week. Of course Barbara has usurped my place entirely. Even Gertler likes her better than me I’m sure, as she doesn’t have sulky or hilarious moods. I am reading Wuthering Heights again. How excellent it is […]

I wouldn’t go back to Slade for anything. Oh this freedom is wonderful! & nobody who cares whether I work or not or if I do whether it is good or bad. All over the garden plants are coming up, little green leaves. What will they turn out to be? – and tiny black lambs are being born in the fields, surrounded by hurdles. I wish I could make a hedge, & a hurdle. They look so satisfactory.

I wear great thick woolly stockings, heather mixture. Does this repulse you? […]

Write to me again soon won’t you, & tell me what you do.

I sold my New Englishfn7 picture. Oh I was so happy. What a good thing money is to be sure! I shall give you a big party in Brett’s studio when I come up.

Goodbye now.

Love from,


This is a stupid letter. But I cannot help it. Perhaps it is because I am growing stupider myself. Really I wanted to tell you what I was doing & also that I am glad we are friends.

Lady Ottoline Morrell, the flamboyant, emotional, generous befriender of artists and writers, had already taken up with Dorothy Brett and Mark Gertler and asked them to her London gatherings before 1915, when she moved to Garsington Manor near Oxford. They introduced her to Carrington, and before long she became keenly interested in the puzzling relationship between Carrington and Gertler.

Meanwhile, through Gertler and his friend the writer Gilbert Cannan, Carrington had also met the young David Garnett (who claimed to have been at once ‘powerfully attracted’) and the already well-known and controversial novelist D. H. Lawrence and his German-born wife Frieda.

To Mark Gertler

Ibthorpe House, Hurstbourne Tarrant, nr Andover, Hants
Sunday, April 1915

Dear Gertler,

Thank you so very much for Jude the Obscurefn8 it is good of you to give it to me. […]

What fun you all seem to be having in London. Did you all go that night to Lady Ottoline’s in fancy dress? or didn’t it come off? I felt for you. For if the atmosphere had been intense & learned it would have been truly tiresome. Brett, who by the way is fifty times a better correspondent than you!, sent me a little plan of your studio & told me all about it. It sounds splendid. I do hope you will take it. No No, the part about the Lawrences didn’t bore me. It was only I wanted to hear more about yourself & your work, instead of which you told me of the Lawrences! But I like his book Sons & Loversfn9 so much that I want to know him. Mrs Lawrencefn10 I admit tries me sorely […]

Since I last wrote I have been starting some work. I am just going to do a still life, in green, yellow, & orange, of apples, & some little orange pumpkins. Last night I did a drawing of my father. He’s rather a good head to draw. But he was suffering so much time at the time, that in the end I had to stop. In the cold weather his leg gets so stiff & hurts him terribly. My brother takes me rides sometimes on his motorcycle. It’s so exciting rushing through the air, with the cold wind hissing in one’s eyes & ears. The country round here is wonderful. Two days ago the snow came, & fell. It was a fine sight, all the hills & valley, became white, & the little bushes stood out in little spotted patterns all over the hills. And the river rushing on, looking quite green in contrast to the white snow. I am going to grow all sorts of wonderful flowers in my garden this summer. I have just been choosing the seeds. I hope you are keeping well, & taking care of yourself. It will be splendid to live so near the Heath won’t it. Think of it in the spring. You might be happy now.

Directly you tell me you are in your studio I will send you some leaves, to put in your vases. Yesterday morning I went rabbiting, to try & catch a rabbit for Brett. But we couldn’t catch one. It was too cold & they all stayed in their holes, & refused to come out. Next week I will try again. I am going to learn to make some puddings & good dishes to cook for you when I come back, as I am sure in time we will get tired of eggs on plates. Have you ever worked out the idea of Cain, a small man fleeing across a desolate country? Do go on with it sometime. Do you see much of Strachey?

Brett is so wonderful, I simply marvel more & more at her unlimited endurance of other people, & her kindness. I have just finished reading the old Ranee’s book on Sarawak.fn11 It was so interesting. She repeats some wonderful old legends that the Malays used to tell her. They were so inspiring to read.