Richard D North

It is likely that painters and sitters have often revealed more of themselves than they intended

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Twenty-five years ago someone gave me David Garnett's book of extracts from Carrington's letters and diaries. Considering how public her thoughts and actions had become, it was curious to feel a personal connection to her, and how much of her enigma remained. I shall now go and pay homage to the house in Hereford where she was born.

One felt a little invaded by the bio-pic now doing the rounds: the ordinary perils of voyeurism being compounded by possessiveness. The film was badly flawed by leaving her relations with women conspicuously alone. Still, it tells a good story, and will have been worthwhile if it made people go to the Barbican to see Carrington's work. As with Rex Whistler, until his work was shown last year, she was at risk of being known more as a personality than a painter. She shared with Whistler a real Englishness, a passion for cartooning and decoration.

I take issue with the exhibition's assertion that apart from the famous portrait of Lytton Strachey her "finest portraits are of women of character...". To this possibly male gaze, her paintings of women are poor compared to her men. One fears an agenda is showing.

This is not to say that I don't enjoy the modern interpretation industry. At a symposium on the Dynasties show at the Tate, an intelligent American woman academic took us on a tour through the symbolism in the portrait, "Elizabeth I when Princess". The 14-year-old is shown in gorgeous and costly clothing. A religious book is held in clasped hands and covers her genital area. It was suggested that either she or the painter was saying that here was a woman declaring that her gynaecological and genealogical equipment was safely under the control of a demure, thoughtful, religious and alert mind.

All day, there was a running spat on whether this sort of unravelling could be supported by anything like fact. It was conducted between various English, middle-aged and largely male voices and other, largely younger, Continental and American, often female, voices.

Charles Nicholl (one of our Hereford scribblers) gave a paper on a stately portrait of Robert Cecil. In discussion, it fell to Charles to point out that since the medieval mind simply adored allegory, it was legitimate to dwell on hidden meanings in the paintings of the time. They were quite likely to include puzzles, puns and "messages" for the astute viewer to enjoy.

That's surely right. Nor would it necessarily be wrong to do a psychological number on historical paintings. It is likely that painters and sitters have often revealed more of themselves than they intended.

Still, it is always good to hear the no-nonsense Anglo-Saxon view. This says that for all we know, here was a young woman proud both of her first grand gown and her learning. Pushing the analogy, it might as well be a portrait of Princess Diana in Versace, holding a Walkman. Even if we pile on some more serious meaning, the painting might be seen as reminding people both that the powers-that-be had thought well enough of her to give her the apparel of a princess who was valued and that she was indeed intelligent enough not to be manipulated into being a threat.

Unfortunately for the thesis, the portrait actually includes symbols of sexual abstinence: Elizabeth is also shown as having breasts, which we never see in later portraits. In other words, the signals are at best mixed, and may not even be there.

I shall go on devouring catalogues and symposia hoping to see better, but will remember that lots of discussion is little more than gossip with a PhD after its name. It says as much about its writers as they do about the paintings.

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