SIDEBAR: Who was Carrington?

No one, it is fairly certain, would have been more dismayed by the present hoopla about Dora Carrington than Carrington herself. She was an extremely reclusive artist, described by a friend as being "as self-deprecating as a domestic pussy cat, almost incapable of self-praise." Yet here she is, the subject of a major film. What kind of artist was she? And, ultimately, how good? The first point to emerge is that, except socially and amorously, she had very little to do with "Bloomsbury."

In art Bloomsbury was a Matissy outpost of Paris represented by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Carrington, on the other hand, was part of a distinguished generation at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, who graduated just before the First World War. Her contemporaries included Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler—whose long and painful affair with Carrington is reduced to knockabout farce in the film—and C R W Nevinson. The Nash brothers, Paul and John, were also associates. It is with these more independent and, for the most part, more romantically English painters that she belongs.

In sheer raw talent, Carrington was probably as well endowed as any of them. Her celebrated portrait of Lytton Strachey from 1916 is a wonderful picture—vivacious and subtle at the same time. It makes an interesting comparison with Gertler’s (even stronger) portrait of Carrington herself. In both cases, of course, the painter was amorously obsessed with the sitter.

The pictures she executed at Hurstbourne Tarrant in 1916 have that sense of a mysterious revelation in landscape that goes back to Samuel Palmer. The sharp contours of her masterpiece, Tidmarsh Mill (1918), remind one of John Nash and Stanley Spencer. This does not mean Carrington was a derivative artist, just that they were all working on parallel lines. The difference between her and the others is that she didn’t sustain her promise. The later paintings tail off and some—for example the portrait of Julia Strachey from 1925 -- are decidedly weak.

In the final years before her suicide in 1932, she seems almost to have given up painting—although it is a little hard to tell, as one of the many sad things about Carrington’s life is that so much of her work has disappeared. Clearly she was a little lost in the world. Perhaps she lacked the necessary confidence and drive to push forward as an artist. Perhaps the difficulties of being a woman painter in those days and the complication of her private life wore her down. Maybe she suffered from a combination of all these factors. It is not in any case unusual for a talented artist to founder like this. To succeed needs character and luck as well as talent.

A ‘Triangular Trinity of Happiness’ was the way Dora Carrington described her early life with her husband Ralph Partridge and the writer Lytton Strachey. But, as Virginia Woolf foretold, Carrington’s marriage was riskier than most, the boundaries of the menage shifted, like ice floes, to accommodate lovers who came and went, but the pivotal focus of Carrington’s life remained her all-abiding passion for Lytton. The tale of their lives together is one of the most fantastic and poignant love stories this century.

Against all odds ‘Carrington’ (as she preferred to be known) and Lytton formed a platonic allegiance which weathered intensifying complications and became a ‘marriage’ for life. Each had an aura about them and each helped shape the age in which they lived. When they met in 1915, Lytton was thirty-five and physically frail; Cambridge-educated and one of the group of friends that came to be known as old Bloomsbury. He was a writer, but yet to publish ‘Eminent Victorians’ - an iconoclastic set of satirical biographical essays which would make his name; and his friends considered him the most brilliant of them all. He was also homosexual.

Carrington had been a prize-winner, and one of the most popular and conspicuous students, at the Slade School of Fine Art. She was twenty-two, in rude health, and the first woman in London to crop her corn- coloured hair short enough to reveal the furrow in the nape of her neck. She was also involved in a volatile relationship with the painter Mark Gertler; their reputations went before them and art students of the time considered them a God and a Goddess. But in loving Gertler there was an innate menace to Carrington’s freedom and it became the first of her troublesome relationships.

Lytton first met Carrington at Asheham House, the Sussex country home of Virginia Woolf, and was instantly attracted by her androgynous appearance. Asheham was sunk in its own mysterious, little hollow in the Downs and was an oddly beautiful house with tall Gothic windows. It was here that the start of their mutual fascination began.

They discussed physical relations, even gave them a try, but Carrington could never really resemble a well-nourished youth of sixteen; Though she was petite, several heads shorter than Lytton and had a quirky way of dressing. Lytton was bohemian-looking and emaciated. They were stared at in the street, whether together or apart.

Carrington’s short hair excited hostile yells and Lytton’s unfashionable beard provoked ‘goat’ bleatings. They were undoubtedly a curious looking couple but as Lytton described, their relationship testified to the fact that there are "A great deal of a great many kinds of love" and that they had found a kind that suited them. That they formed a loving relationship astonished even their non-conformist friends. Virginia would later joke to her sister Vanessa about one evening at Tidmarsh Mill (where Carrington and Lytton set up their first home together in 1917) when they quietly withdrew, "ostensibly to copulate," but were found to be reading aloud from Macaulay.

These friends, most of whom had known each other from university days at Cambridge, became known as the Bloomsbury Group—comprising among other—Keynes, E M Forster, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant: economists, philosophers, writers and artists. They continued to meet in Thoby Stephen’s house in Bloomsbury’s Gordon Square and came to include Thoby’s sisters, Vanessa and Virginia. Many years later, Carrington puzzled over the "quintessence" of Bloomsbury and concluded: "It was a marvelous combination of the highest intelligence, and appreciation of literature combined with a lean humour and tremendous affection. They gave it backwards and forwards to each other like shuttlecocks, only shuttlecocks multiplied as they flew in the air." She might have added that their code for life depended upon pacifism, personal relationships and aesthetic sensibilities; life based on freedom, idiosyncrasy and sexual libertinism.

Carrington’s ability for "plural affections" came to include the writer Gerald Brenan, with whom she began an intimate correspondence when he moved to Spain. Brenan was her husband Ralph’s best friend; he also later became her lover. Carrington told Brenan that she was in love with the romantic life of Shelley. Within six months of demobilization Brenan had found himself a peasant house in the Andalucian mountains where he could eke out his war bonus and work his way through the 2000 books he had shipped in tea chests and so, for Carrington, Shelley lived on in Gerald.

But although Brenan’s philosophy was that love shared needn’t mean love divided, he came to want Carrington conclusively and he, like Gertler, was capable of aping Othello. Forced to choose, Carrington chose Lytton and looked to satisfy her Shelley-like cravings for adventure elsewhere, experiencing some of the most perfect pleasure she had known with the seafaring Beacus Penrose on his Brixham trawler, the ‘Sans Pareil’.

In Lytton, Carrington had found a light of mind she reverenced but, more importantly, he was the only person with whom she need never be anything other than herself. In the winter of 1932, after months of anxiety, Lytton died of an inoperable stomach cancer. Lytton had always been Carrington’s ‘moon’ and with his death, Carrington’s own light went out. For some years Carrington had spiritually existed in a maelstrom.


CARRINGTON: The Actors and Their Roles

"Carrington loved painting people...and there were as many ways of painting portraits as there were faces." - Jane Hill, "The Art of Dora Carrington."

The art of casting CARRINGTON was to capture the essence of the people in Dora’s world: as the painter herself took liberties, transforming the spirit of her subjects from one artist’s medium to the next, so the film makers were able to take theirs. But first, of course, came the casting of the mercurial Dora Carrington herself. And only one actress, Emma Thompson, was seriously considered for the role. Christopher Hampton calls it "a completely logical choice," having wanted her from the very first time the project was mooted with Mike Newell at the helm.

"I think Emma has a sort of candour and openness which is not distant from Dora’s character but aside from that it is also something completely different for her," he says. "I was just so happy about how simple she was able to be; so that it doesn’t feel like a performance at all. She just is this person, and that’s very affecting."

Fascinated by Dora Carrington from the moment she first read for the role - something she calls "a journey into the unknown" - Thompson is inclined to agree.

"The story is so complex with Dora as this central emotion running through it, that too much complication would have made a mosaic of the story rather than what it is which is this flow of feeling and, really, of love," says Thompson.

The actress—who, among other subtly portrayed traits, adopted Dora’s characteristically awkward pigeon-toed stance for the role—started to build up a picture of the artist from her days as a young student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Unfamiliar with her character—"One of the reasons it was such a challenge was that she’s really not like me at all, and I’m not like her," she says. "Her nature is totally different to mine." Thompson exhaustively researched the stages through which Carrington reached her extraordinary relationship with Lytton Strachey and completely changed the pattern of her life: partly, it seems because it moved her from an artistic environment into a much more word-based intellectual one, and partly because it provided her with the emotional freedom that she craved.

"She is a highly complex individual," Thompson sums up, "deeply affected by her background and parents, and full of contradictions; having both a tremendous confidence and charisma, and sensual quality, and a kind of self-loathing, particularly physical. Also she was an artist and somebody who wanted to live beyond the pale in some way, and so her life is a rebellion against everything we’ve ever taken for granted about women. It makes her very mysterious and people’s impressions of her were deeply affected by what they wanted from her.

"She was curiously a life force in that sense, rather than somebody who presented a constructed character, and, I think, inchoate all her life, in the most interesting way. But, of course, that caused her tremendous pain because it is very difficult to face life when you haven’t solidified yourself in any way. Nothing is sure and you can’t rely on anything and, of course, the last person she could rely on was Lytton."

The highly distinctive Lytton Strachey is played by Jonathan Pryce, brought into the project at an early stage by producer John McGrath and whose technical brilliance helped him to bring off a tremendously challenging characterization. (When Pryce left RADA, the first part he ever played was written for him by McGrath, and the pair have stayed in touch ever since.)

"Lytton was a very bizarre figure and Jonathan was very anxious to work out precisely how far along the line to eccentricity to go, and I think pitched it absolutely right," notes Christopher Hampton. "The way he played it was as somebody that seemed like a real person as well as being eccentric and all the touches he brought to it add up to a fabulous performance."

"He was a hugely interesting man in a very interesting period with an extraordinary story," notes Jonathan Pryce. "And the really great thing about him is that there are so many sides of him and so much material on him that it becomes very easy to capture some essence of the man without having to play him just one way. It was a great opportunity to show what people are really like which is all things to all men. His eccentricity was all part of the joy of it—it’s a great actor’s part and a great part to act, and I felt very comfortable inhabiting his persona."

One of Lytton’s more mundane but nevertheless more distinguishing characteristics was his voice, a high pitched, sing-song intonation thought too distracting to be aped. "So what I did was to model him vocally on two people that I thought would be relevant," explains Pryce. "One was the precise, considered, slightly arch way of speaking of Malcolm Muggeridge (entirely by coincidence, Muggeridge had been a friend of Strachey’s acquaintance Mark Gertler), and the other was Ned Sherrin, and that slightly camp, humourous way that Ned sometimes lapses into two people who, like Lytton are also astute and intelligent and can, I think, be quite acerbic in their speech."

Indeed, it does seem that Pryce as Lytton gets all the best lines. "That was remarked upon after the first screening," laughs Pryce. "I was standing with Christopher and someone said, ‘You’ve got all the best lines, Jonathan’ and I said, ‘Well, I had a wonderful writer,’ and Christopher and I simultaneously said, ‘Lytton Strachey’."

With Pryce and Thompson on board, casting director Janey Fothergill was introduced to the production team by Christopher Hampton to help him search out the other faces needed to complete the final picture.

"Janey really understood Christopher and brought in exactly the right kind and range of people that she knew he could work with," says John McGrath. Hampton was particularly keen that the other key men in Carrington’s circle should have a life of their own.

"Not only are they very different kinds of actors, but I chose them physically to be very different," says the director, "I just wanted them to be, as they were in life, very distinct and distinctive."

Steven Waddington takes the role of Carrington’s lover and, later, husband, Ralph Partridge—a Major at the age of 23 and a veteran of the war.

"Steven’s was the most difficult part to cast because he’s the only one who isn’t an artist, kind of Mr. Normal in the middle of this bohemian world and I think it’s a performance of tremendous dignity and incredibly touching," says Hampton. "I didn’t see anyone else for the role. I saw Steven in "The Last of The Mohicans" and "Edward II" and thought that’s who I want, someone big and dependable. He’s sort of like Trevor Howard, and fabulous."

"The thing that interested me most was the development of his character," says Waddington. "When we first meet him he’s this pragmatic practical soldier but after spending time with Lytton and Carrington he eventually reveals a more humane side. It’s a very long journey, and the thing that scared me most of all was playing someone who existed and then dealing with the dilemma of how far you go to be like that person and how much to leave to dramatization. I had a chat with Emma about it and we decided it’s better to take the essence of the character and go with what’s in the script."

Rufus Sewell takes the part of the turbulent young painter Mark Gertler. "Gertler was pretty and wild, and rather poetic and trouble, all of which Rufus is so he was a pretty obvious choice," says Janey Fothergill. "Rufus is very passionate," Hampton agrees, "and used to work himself up into the most terrible states sometimes. He always pitched every scene just right but you knew what you had to do was to keep going until he really delivered the whole thing."

"I didn’t get the character from reading books but more from what he did in his life; things he said, the letters he wrote, the paintings he worked on," says Sewell. "It’s not a deliberate, self-conscious thing but you’re just trying to get a sense of the person. I’ve never played anything like him before but it really appealed to me because he was so unusual and beautifully written and I could really understand him."

Samuel West plays Ralph’s best friend, and Carrington’s lover, Gerald Brenan. "He prepared himself meticulously" recalls Hampton, "and achieves that very difficult thing which is to appear first in the film being rather diffident and shy and then to gradually reveal his attractiveness as the story goes on."

"He was definitely the hardest to cast," says Fothergill, "because he’s so hard to pin down, but in the end Sam so clearly understood Brenan and the script that, though it was the toughest decision, it was also one of the most satisfying."

West, who followed in his character’s footsteps and took to the hills of Yegen in Spain where Brenan spent much of his life, clearly took the role to heart, carefully researching every detail of Brenan’s character and life to the extent that even Hampton admits the actor knew far more about Brenan than even he did.

"He was idealistic, deeply troubled, sexually quite odd, lonely, masochistic and very, very strong-willed," observes West. "And I think he made an honest attempt to live his life to the full. I very much admired his strength of feeling and the insight he brings to moments when he was most happy; and there are some moments in the film which I will never forget simply because of some of the things he said about them. I suppose that’s why this level of research isn’t too much because Gerald himself was such a self-interested person, and I hope some of that comes across."

Rounding out the main cast was Penelope Wilton as the flamboyant Lady Ottoline Morrell, an actress who epitomizes Fothergill’s ideal for the people that Carrington "paints."

"To a degree they all had to be slightly eccentric without being caricaturely so, which is where Penny Wilton is so good because she has exactly that quality," she concludes. "And they definitely had to be intelligent and out of the ordinary and originals—and when you see the actors you can immediately see that they are."


CARRINGTON From Script to Screen

Carrington marked Christopher Hampton’s first project to go into production for five years following his Oscar and BAFTA awards for his 1988 screenplay Dangerous Liaisons. It’s history, however - a tale of ecstatic highs and terrible lows - stretches back even further than that.

Carrington was inspired by Michael Holroyd’s book, "Lytton Strachey," a biographer, pacifist and homosexual campaigner and the writers and artists who inhabited his world. Hampton first read the biography in the late 1960s and was immediately struck by the singular figure of the dazzling but tragic young painter Dora Carrington, who became Strachey’s constant companion of 17 years.

"Lytton was a figure who in some ways was like Oscar Wilde," says Hampton, musing on his decision not to focus his script on Strachey, "but Dora Carrington seemed to me to be an unprecedented figure. Here was this woman who fell in love with this man who was 15 years older than herself and homosexual, and who went to live with him, and then couldn’t live without him. It really is one of the most unusual stories about a relationship, and one of the most unforgettable love stories that I know."

By shifting the focus of his story away from Strachey and on to Carrington, Hampton also skirted round the issue of the Bloomsbury Group, who had such a powerful influence on the literary and artistic life of England at the beginning of this century. Though the characters at its epicentre—Clive and Vanessa Bell, Mark Gertler, Duncan Grant—make their appearance in the film, as well as others who do not—Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf—it is because Carrington was known to all of them, as opposed to being one of them.

"What I’m saying here is that the film isn’t about the Bloomsbury set at all, it’s about Carrington, and the people who were central to Carrington’s life aside form Lytton were not Bloomsbury people," insists the director.

"I wanted to concentrate on her and the people close to her," he continues, "first because at the time I hadn’t really written anything with a woman as the central characters and, then, because I was very interested in writing about an artist to whom life was more important than art. It’s one of my favourite projects and I was always slightly bewildered that it could get so far off the ground and then obstinately stick there." In fact, Warner Bros.—then interested in the Bloomsbury milieu—first commissioned a script in 1976. "I got $30,000 as an advance, which seemed to me to be a stupendous amount of money at the time, and just decided to take a year to write it," says Hampton. "Apart from anything else, it was the most enjoyable year of my professional life. It was one of those wonderful summers in the 70s, and I just hung a hammock up in the garden and worked the film out for a year. It’s very rare since then that I’ve had so much time to spend on a project."

When Hampton delivered his script to Warners 12 months later, the idea had clearly lost its initial appeal. "Naturally, by the time I’d written it the person who commissioned it had been fired and they hadn’t a clue what to do with it," laughs Hampton. A plan to shoot it under director Herbert Ross failed to materialize and a complex chain of events ensued. Over the next 10 years, the script was developed by a number of interested parties, with various directors attached, but it was finally bought by Thames TV for their film- making arm, Euston Films, who explored the possibility of a film project with Mike Newell penciled to direct. When Thames lost its broadcasting franchise in 1992, Carrington once more ended up on the shelf.

Enter producer Ronald Shedlo, who happened upon the Carrington script whilst staying with his old friend Christopher Hampton. In 1992, Shedlo brought in producer John McGrath, and together they worked with French financiers and Channel 4 to reenergize the script with Mike Newell at the helm. That initial package collapsed but was rejuvenated, again with French support but this time from Philippe Carcassonne and Francis Boespflug of Cinea and Pyramide. After 10 months of negotiations to secure the rights to the script from Euston Films, Dora Productions—as the company formed between Shedlo, McGrath and Hampton then became—took an 18 month option to buy. Mike Newell remained on board, and two crucial elements of the casting were secured—Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce.

With the added lustre of these two names, Carrington continued apace. But, in February 1993, McGrath learned that the financing package had fallen apart. At the eleventh hour, Carcassonne pitched the project to PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and the Dutch giant came through—with the entire budget plus the vital input already pledged by the French.

"We had the budget, we had the stars, we had the start date," recalls McGrath. "I called Mike Newell to tell him." "That’s the good news." said Mike. "Here’s the bad."

Unfortunately, Newell had just finished shooting "Four Weddings And A Funeral" and was offered a project in Hollywood. The film makers were unconvinced by other contenders for the role of director.

"So I sort of backed into it really," says Hampton, who at first refused the task but was finally persuaded by a combination of elements: first Philippe Carcassonne calling from France where the notion of the auteur reigns supreme, and "by strange coincidence" Emma Thompson phoning the next day with the same point of view. Fortunately, PolyGram too agreed. "I just couldn’t quite believe that they would put that much money into a first-time director," admits McGrath, "but they did and I have to say without any bullshit or flattery, they have been wonderfully supportive throughout."

After 17 long years in the pipeline, Carrington stated shooting on June 26, 1994, in Venice and then at Shepperton Studios and on location in the UK for nine weeks.