But who was she? There are no papers, diaries or archives. There are a few letters – for example in the Bernard Leach archive and the archive of the Royal College of Art (RCA) – but they’re professional and impersonal. Her books were like that too. She was a woman of firm opinions but she put nothing of herself into her writing. She’s typical of many women artists, important in their time but leaving no trace. I wanted to know something about her as a person.
The first clue I got was from a niece, who asked me “Do you know about her friend?” Her friend was Catherine Brock, also an artist, with whom she lived from 1912, when she came from Stoke-on-Trent to London on a scholarship to the RCA, until Catherine’s death in 1944. Catherine left everything to her. In the holiday snap above, taken in about 1940, Catherine is in the centre and the cheerful, confident-looking man on the left is Gilbert Harding Green, Dora’s colleague and friend, whom everyone called HG. There’s a fourth person, the one who took the snap; I’ll come to him in a minute.
On the first page of a commonplace book Dora wrote out Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, which clearly expresses her feelings about Catherine’s death:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
When Dora met HG in the late thirties her family were relieved that she’d found a man friend at last; but HG was gay and the person behind the camera above must have been his partner. That year, HG, his friend, Dora and Catherine went on holiday together, probably posing as two heterosexual couples for respectability’s sake. HG and Dora took many holidays together - she died in 1968 shortly after returning from a holiday with him in Sorrento. In the end, her relationship with HG confused her family because they didn’t know quite what it was.
Dora converted to Roman Catholicism early in life, perhaps in the slipstream of the Catholic literary revival. Her work in the 1920s included a stained glass of St Joan and a mosaic of St Catherine of Siena, and, although the saints are revered by Protestants as well, her interest in them is significant. Joan of Arc, a famously powerful woman, had recently been canonized, and Catherine is an obvious namesake. Bernard Moore, the art potter from whom she learned about ceramic decoration, was a Catholic; among her colleagues at the Central School of Arts and Crafts the silversmith M.C. Oliver and the calligrapher Irene Wellington were Catholics; and although the advocates of eastern spirituality among the studio potters had the loudest voices, there were several Catholic potters – David Leach, Ray Finch, Kenneth Clark and Ann Wynn Reeves.
Of Catherine Brock we know even less than Dora. They had the same background, Stoke-on-Trent families connected to the pottery industry, and they probably met at Hanley art school. Catherine trained at the Slade and there’s a painting by her of the young Dora (drawn with affection but not very good), and that’s about it.
Dora died in 1968 and left nearly everything to HG, but there’s almost nothing left. Was there attrition with each subsequent bequest until her papers fell into the hands of people who had never heard of her? Or did Dora herself destroy everything personal? It’s possible: a devout Catholic in a lesbian relationship in an intolerant era might well have wanted to keep her life private.
But don’t jump to conclusions. According to HG, Dora was in love with the sculptor John Skeaping, or had a relationship with him that didn’t work out. Skeaping came to teach at the Central in 1931, the year he separated from Barbara Hepworth. In 1934 he married Morwenna Ward. But there’s no correspondence with Dora in the Skeaping archive and this tale of HG’s is a will o’ the wisp.