Dora Carrington (1893 – 1932)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use:

As one of the more obscure affiliates of the Bloomsbury Group (see here for a recent post on fellow Bloomsbury artist/Virginia Woolf sibling, Vanessa Bell), Dora Carrington’s relaxed, expansive paintings have mostly eluded the critical gaze so fixed on other members of the collective. Perhaps, in part, this is due to her untimely death at the age of 38 – a result of a self-inflicted gunshot soon after the death of Carrington’s close friend Lytton Strachey, with whom she shared an intense, complex companionship. Regardless of the size of the artist’s output however, an idyllic sense of beauty remains. One skilfully attuned to notions of perspective and proportion.

‘Farm at Watendlath’ – 1921art-everywhere-top-ten-2

Throughout this momentous scene we are continually reminded of our own size in relation to everything else within the picture. So in contrast to the mother & daughter at the centre, we have the gigantic trees towering above them. Yet above the trees too, enormous rolling hills collect. Hills which themselves have a duo of tiny trees nestled in their folds, almost suggesting an equanimity and relative distance between the two couples.

Carrington employs curves here especially well, utilising them regularly to create a continual sense of building from smaller to larger: from the fork in the road at the bottom, to the twisted washing lines behind the farmhouse, to the brick walls gathering up the smaller ford, all the way to stooping drops of the bluffs so prominent at the back.

Regardless of this subtle patterning however, the detail in the painting technique in of itself is something to get lost in. The trees for example are tremendously well realised, with the branches on the left a delicate believable weave, whilst the pitch mass at the right is a revelation,  its small pockets of light dappling and breaking through the threshing blackness. The grass too is equally impressive, with Carrington using adroit washes to evoke grass both lush and waning.

With its heightened perspective looking both down on the viewers and up at the landscape, ‘Farm at Watendlath’ allows oddly, at least for me, an opportunity to imagine what it would be like at the top of the hill staring down at the gazers. The people at the bottom in a sense becoming just like us, staring at something quite unbelievable, yet so familiar and normal from afar.

‘Fairground at Henley Regatta’ – 1921fairground at henley regatta 1921oct13

A slightly askew work that holds value to me more for its skill than its spirit, ‘Fairground at Henley Regatta’ works because of its juxtaposition. With its stately sense of play enshrined within a slight wilderness which seems to encroach on the occasion from all angles.

The side growth for example, with its limbed exotic branches, delicately connects with the faux painted top of the carousel. I love the way in which the fiction of the ride blends with the facts of its environment. As the closer the top leaves of the ride get to the edge of the canvas, the more real they become. Though never pertaining to any reality, the slightly faded way throughout that Carrington suggests detail is to be lauded.

At times it almost feels like a Lowry painting, with the various busied figures all detailed in and amongst themselves.  A crowd gathers for example between two high sheets just before the swings, as to what or why, we’ll never know, but through their subtle placement and inward lean, we believe it. And behind all the commotion is arguably the most beautiful aspect of the painting, with the whispered brushwork of the back hedges executed marvellously. The small hints of a low wintry sun speckling the gaps.


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Vanessa Bell (1879 – 1961)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use:

A lesser known member of the influential Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell’s paintings are subtle wonders rather than bombastic projections. Airy medleys of the passing world around, which, through their suggestions of the multiplicity of perspectives possible within a single view, signal a kinship to the work of her sister, Virginia Woolf.

‘On the Seine’ – 1921 

(c) Henrietta Garnett; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In tones of deep sepia that never threaten to get above a mild brightness; this meditative, progressively hypnotic as you look at it painting, finds Bell playing expertly with reflection and depth. ‘On the Seine’ is a Matryoshka doll of a thing, a picture that peels deeply off into compelling inner segments through its weaving of bridges. The first of which giving way beneath its simple eaves to a second with an intriguing set of hollowed circles supporting the curve.

This insular, kaleidoscope effect, in which one bridge loops over another (and presumably another further on), evokes a real sense of levity. The water, imagined wonderfully through stammered brushwork, holds still, with the bridges seemingly floating weightless atop their own reflections rather than being cemented through the Seine. Even the leaves appear disembodied, hovering branchless above the crossing.

By reflecting the bridges against themselves this way, the delineation between what is surface and what is mere reflection becomes difficult at the forefront of the work and near impossible at its rear. The effect is one of second-guessing, a peaceful scene that is still abstracted slightly through an interesting visual twist.

Regardless of this however, there’s a real serenity to behold here. I especially love the fact that Bell posits the Seine not as the iconic Parisian river meandering past monuments, but a simple flow, one passing beneath bridges of nowhere in particular.

‘Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting’ – 1912

Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting 1912 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961

From an earlier period of Bell’s career when she was attempting to expunge as much detail as possible in favour of color and design, there is restrained Fauvist element to this painting. Whilst nowhere near as wild as that group, (Click HERE for an earlier article about a forgotten Fauvist, Raoul Dufy), the exaggerated palette succeeds in drawing our attention to the fact that is very clearly a painting, one of which is of people who are very clearly painting.

Frederick in an eased pose as he jots, his suit and beard more standout than his non-existent eyes. Jessie far more stooped, her canvas leant up against the bag for support. Though their own images are away from view, a picture behind Jessie suggests a previous work, one of either a man beneath a streetlamp or an ostrich.

It is the body language though that I love most about this work, the fact that without any facial expressions at all Bell still manages to imbue the two busy artists with so much character. Perhaps this was possible as Vanessa Bell knew the two personally. Whilst living in Asheham House, near Lewes in Sussex, in the summer of 1912, artists came to stay including, briefly, Frederick Etchells and his sister Jessie. Bell supposedly thought Jessie ‘a nice character…and very silent’ but found Frederick difficult, and their visit was a strain. Something unintelligible in this soothing image of inward contemplation.

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