Dora Carrington

Farm at Watendlath


In Tate Britain

Dora Carrington 1893–1932
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 611 × 669 mm
frame: 774 × 830 × 58 mm
Presented by Noel Carrington, the artist's brother 1987

Display caption

Carrington was part of a successful generation of graduates from the Slade School of Art in the early 20th century. She was associated with the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, who lived, worked and studied together in London. This painting shows farm near Keswick in the Lake District, where the newly-wed Carrington spent a summer holiday with her husband and their friends. Critics have suggested that the landscape was distorted to reflect the curves of the female body. The two small figures gaze towards the landscape, possibly contemplating their own femininity.

Gallery label, February 2019

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

T04945 Farm at Watendlath 1921

Oil on canvas 611 × 669 (24 1/16 × 26 5/16)
Not inscribed
Presented by Noel Carrington, the artist's brother 1987
Exh: Carrington, Upper Grosvenor Galleries, Nov. 1970 (19, repr.); Paintings and Drawings: Dora Carrington, Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, Feb.–March 1978 (13)
Lit: David Garnett (ed.), Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, 1970, pp.189–93, pl.11; Gerald Brenan, Personal Record 1920–1972, 1974, pp.29–32, repr. on cover (col.); Noel Carrington, Carrington, 1980, p.12, pl.9 (col.); Gretchen Gerzina, Carrington: A Life of Dora Carrington 1893–1932, 1989, pp.175–80, pl.5; Jane Hill, The Art of Dora Carrington, 1994, p.82, repr. p.77 (col.). Also repr: Judy Brittain, Patrick Kinmouth, Living in Vogue, 1984, p.144; Five Women Painters: Dora Carrington, Channel Four, 18.30–19.00, 16 Sept. 1989

This painting depicts Watendlath Farm where Carrington spent a holiday from 6 August to 10 September in 1921. The hamlet of Watendlath is five miles south of Keswick in the Lake District. The whitewashed farmhouse with an attached barn on its right side was probably built in the mid-seventeenth century. The barn in front of the farmhouse was built later. Watendlath Farm faces Watendlath Beck, which flows from Watendlath Tarn to Derwentwater. The Beck is depicted at the bottom edge of this painting. A stream known as Raise Gill rises in the rocky valley in the hills behind Watendlath Farm and joins Watendlath Tarn before it flows under the bridge visible in this painting. The fellside to the left of the Raise Gill valley is called Great Intake. The fellside to the right is called Wythburn Gate, a name probably taken from a footpath which ascends it to cross the fells to Wythburn. The trees on the left of the painting are Scots pines and those on the right are sycamores.

At the time of Carrington's visit in 1921 Watendlath Farm was owned by a Mr and Mrs Wilson, the farmer and his wife, and rooms were rented out to visitors. The National Trust, which now owns the farm, has renamed it Steps End Farm. The exterior of the farm is largely unchanged although the barn in front of it was converted about thirty-five years ago into a single-storey house. Other small changes since Carrington's visit include the addition of a stone parapet to the small bridge and the replacement of the fence to the right of the farm's porch by a drystone wall. The bushes behind the fence have gone.

In the summer of 1921 Carrington was living at Tidmarsh Mill House, near Pangbourne, Berkshire. She had moved there at the end of 1917 with her companion, the biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey (1880–1932). She acted as housekeeper and cook for Strachey, and the time left over from this was devoted to painting. In 1919 she became friends with Ralph Partridge and in 1920 he moved into Tidmarsh Mill House. He proposed to Carrington and they were married in London on 21 May 1921. In the period 1917–21 Carrington painted mostly portraits and landscapes. The portraits were mostly of friends, although a few were commissioned. The landscapes were of favourite places. Carrington was reluctant to exhibit her work in public and her paintings hung in her own home or in the homes of friends.

After a brief honeymoon in Paris, Carrington and Partridge joined Lytton Strachey in Italy and then returned to Tidmarsh around 21 June. During the rest of June and July Carrington and the writer Gerald Brenan, a close friend of Ralph Partridge from their army days, became attracted to one another. Partridge invited Brenan, along with Lytton Strachey and his brother and sister-in-law James and Alix Strachey to join him and Carrington on their holiday at Watendlath during August.

Carrington and Lytton Strachey arrived at Watendlath Farm on 6 August 1921. They were joined later that day by James and Alix Strachey. Ralph Partridge visited a friend, Alan MacIver, in Liverpool and tried to persuade Carrington to join him there. She reluctantly agreed and was in a boarding house in Liverpool on 9 August. Then she and Ralph travelled to Watendlath, and a few days later Gerald Brenan arrived. Also renting rooms at the farmhouse were ‘two very plain young North country ladies’ and a ‘North country man in tweeds’ (Gerzina 1989, p.176). Carrington wrote to Brenan on 7 August, before his arrival, giving him an idea of the place with an accompanying sketch of the sitting room:

Our daily life is dominated by Mr Wordsworth as we call the amiable stuffed ram who is attached to the wall above the window. Lytton sits muffled in overcoats reading ‘Family Life’ by C.F. Benson looking infinitely depressed, Alix plays chess with an invisible James ... They take twenty minutes over every move, and never speak... It is black night outside and rains.

(Garnett 1970, pp.189–90)

The weather was cold and rainy but Carrington liked the countryside and began to make sketches both indoors and outdoors. She painted a portrait of Gerald Brenan in the barn, which was left unfinished when he left Watendlath on 30 August. Carrington wrote to him the same day: ‘I've fetched your picture from the barn. Now there is no reason to ever go there again. I was sorry not to show it to you. I don't want you to see my work unless it's to my satisfaction’ (ibid., p.193).

From this evidence, it is clear that Carrington painted the portrait of Brenan while at Watendlath. It also appears that Carrington painted two landscapes of Watendlath scenes. Whether they were painted in situ, however, is unclear. The two paintings are ‘Watendlath, Cumberland’ (private collection Spain, ex-collection Gerald Brenan) and T04945. Parts of an undated letter from Carrington to Gerald Brenan are quoted in the catalogue of her exhibition at the Upper Grosvenor Galleries in 1970 (p.6):

The evening was still so lovely that I sat and drew a white cottage and a barn with an arrangement of tree and hills, sitting on a little hill until it grew too cold... Really this is an astounding place for pic tures. The trees are so marvellously solid, like trees in some old Titian pictures, and the houses such wonderful greys and whites, and then the formation of the hills so varied.

Carrington used the word ‘drew’ in this letter rather than the word ‘painted’ and it was her normal practice to paint her landscape pictures in her studio from drawings made on the spot. It may therefore be the case that both Watendlath paintings were painted in her home at Tidmarsh from drawings made on holiday. She must have written the letter to Brenan after he left Watendlath on 30 August, which would indicate that the drawing or painting was made after that date. She left Watendlath on 10 September, which is therefore the latest possible date for the work. Gretchen Gerzina (1989, p.179) states that after Brenan departed, ‘Carrington began painting a landscape from the window of Alix's room, and another one outside of the farm’, but gives no documentary evidence to support this.

The painting ‘Watendlath, Cumberland’ (repr. Hill 1994, p.83) shows the whitewashed farmhouse seen from behind. The trees are therefore reversed, with the Scots pines on the right and the sycamore on the left. In the foreground is a walled field which contains three sheep. At the left is a stone barn. Since this barn was beyond the bridge it may not have been visible from the viewpoint from which Carrington set up the composition of T04945. However, she may equally have decided to omit it from the painting. Gerald Brenan became the owner of ‘Watendlath, Cumberland’ at an unknown date. He described Watendlath and this painting in his autobiography (1974, p.30):

Watendlath is a white farmhouse lying in a high mountain valley a little to the south of Keswick. Three or four giant larches and a bosomy sycamore stood around it (the picture Carrington painted of it still hangs over my bed) and just above it there is a shallow lake or mere, fed by a burn. In those days it was very isolated, for trippers in this secluded valley were rare.

A third work from this trip is ‘Lakeland Landscape’ (private collection, London), a watercolour which bears no relation to T04945 and is thought by its owner to depict Wastwater lake.

A prominent feature of T04945 is the pair of female figures dressed in white standing in front of the barn. The identity of these figures is not known; they do not conform to any of the visitors at Watendlath Farm during the period of Carrington's stay. It is thought by Gerzina (1989, pp.179–80) that they are imaginary and that Carrington included them for both formal and psychological reaons:

Most striking about the picture are the hills and mountains, which are highly suggestive in the female voluptuousness of their rolling curves. The two female figures stare back at these curves, hand in hand. She rarely painted children - partly because she knew few who would sit for her - so it is notable that one of the two figures is a child. In a more directly Freudian sense, she selected women at different stages of their lives directly contemplating their own femininity. At a time when her sexuality and sense of romance were divided between two men, she seems to have chanelled much of those feelings into her art and, given the turmoil of her sexuality, this painting probably conveys something of Carrington's own sexual feelings. The female figures are tiny and utterly dwarfed by the sensual background, suggesting a sense of intimidation by her own womanhood.

Gerzina adds (ibid., p.180) that Carrington addressed the idea of investing the landscape with a notion of female sensuality in another work of slightly later date, ‘Mountains Seen from Yegen, Andalusia’, 1924 (oil on canvas, repr. ibid., pl.7). Gerald Brenan set up home in Yegen, a remote mountain village in Andalusia, and Carrington visited him there in December 1923. Back at Tidmarsh in February 1924 Carrington painted some Andalusian landscapes, one of which was ‘Mountains Seen from Yegen, Andalusia’. Her treatment of the mountains in this painting is acknowledged, by those who knew the geography of the area, to have been quite imaginative. Frances Partridge, the second wife of Ralph, described the mountains in this painting as ‘like knees under bedclothes’ (Hill 1994, p.136 n.39).

Supporting this idea, a local Lake District historian, Joy Martin, wrote to the Tate Gallery on 16 September 1989 indicating that Carrington had distorted the Watendlath landscape in a creative manner. ‘She has squeezed the front barn. She exaggerates the humps on the skyline and smoothes the rocky cleft of Raise Gill.’

Carrington did not exhibit T04945 during her life-time. On her death in 1932 many paintings were left in her home and studio at Ham Spray House, near the village of Ham in Wiltshire, where she had moved in July 1924. Ralph Partridge gave a number away to friends of Carrington and to her brother Noel Carrington. This is likely to have been the occasion when Noel Carrington acquired T04945. In the 1980s it hung in his home and was photographed on the wall of his sitting room when Vogue magazine did a feature on his home. Noel Carrington wrote to the Tate Gallery on 21 January 1988 about T04945 and stated: ‘I left it to the Tate as most representative of her best work and that at the prime of her life as an artist.’

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

You might like

In the shop