Noel Carrington

Noel Carrington, portrait by Dora Carrington. c.1912. This work, produced when Dora was at the Slade, is an excellent example of the academic style of drawing that she had developed there. She often persuaded Noel to sit for her on visits home to Bedford.

Noel Lewis Carrington (1895 – 11 April 1989). Carrington was the son of railway engineer Samuel Carrington and Charlotte (née Houghton), and brother of the artist Dora Carrington, he was one of five children. Carrington was born in Hereford in 1895 but in 1903 the family settled in Bedford. He was educated at Bedford School and later at Christ Church, Oxford, sister Dora helping him cram’ for his interview. He entered Oxford in 1912 going up to read history while becoming an active, athletic student, rowing for his college.

Noel and Dora Carrington at Seaford 1912

Meanwhile Dora had won a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art joining a remarkable group of artists – Paul and John Nash, Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer William Roberts and Edward Wadsworth.

‘What impressed me with her and her friends like Gertler and Paul Nash was their absolute dedication to their art as their life’s work.’

In 1914 Carrington enlisted, training at a camp near Weymouth before experiencing the horrors of the trenches at Ypres. A sniper put a bullet through his elbow and he spent a year in hospitals or at home convalescing. A further period of service in France followed, processing documents dealing with the fate of young soldiers accused of desertion. On a visit home in 1917 he and Dora discovered the village of Ham where Dora was to return with Lytton Strachey in 1924.

In the 1920s Carrington went out to India on behalf of Oxford University Press to establish a branch office there. In Bombay he was given the task of proof reading and, if needed, a bit of editing. Moving to Calcutta he was given more rewarding work, learning every aspect of the publishing business – editing, choosing pictures, paper, binding and also accounts.

Noel got Dora to illustrate his Stories Retold edition of  Don Quixote for the Indian market. Their father, Charles Carrington, had been a railway engineer in India in the nineteenth century. Noel Carrington’s unpublished memoir of his six years in India is in the Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library.

Returning home from India in 1923 Carrington secured a post at Country Life. He settled in Hampstead which was already gaining a reputation as a place for the avant-garde. Carrington had two spells with Country Life from 1923 to 1928 and also 1935 to 1940.

In 1924 Carrington was invited to a meeting of a society by neighbour Philip Alexander. The meeting was attended by about 30 men and women at Queen Square, Bloomsbury. It was at this meeting that Carrington met Alexander’s youngest daughter Catherine who had been a student at the Slade School of Fine Art. A romance bloomed. Dora wrote of Noel’s new lady, ‘Very lovely, a Perugino angel with a wide forehead and golden hair.’

The Society holding the meeting that night was the Design and Industries Association (DIA), a group that met to discuss and promote good design. Carrington soon became a member of the DIA and he soon became involved in editing and producing their publications. The DIA magazine Design for Today was launched in 1933 edited by Carrington.

Noel and Catherine married in 1925, They had three children, Paul, Joanna and Jane, and lived in Hampstead until soon after 1945 when they moved to Lambourn, Berks. to farm at Long Acre.

From left: Ralph Partridge (married Dora), Noel Carrington and Catherine Carrington. It was through Noel that Dora met Ralph Partridge.

Sadly in 1932 Dora Carrington killed herself on 11 March with a gun borrowed from a friend. This was just two months after the love of her life Lytton Strachey died of stomach cancer.

In 1933 a collection of Russian Children’s picture books landed on Carrington’s desk. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917 there was also a revolution in Children’s Books. Pravda declared in 1918 ‘The children’s book as a major weapon for education must receive the widest distribution.’ There followed an explosion of children’s picture books between 1918 and 1931, nearly 10,000 titles written by close to 500 authors were published. These picture books were attractive, colourful, with clean lines and typographical experimentation……indeed revolutionary ! Sadly by the early 1930’s the zealous, puritanical approach to socialism would sweep through Russian society and culture. Fairy stories were banned and children’s books became more propagandist and ‘heroic’.

In 1923 Carrington commenced his first of two spells at Country Life interspersed by a short time at the Kynoch Press based in Birmingham. Returning to Country Life in 1935 Carrington now had the position and influence to commission and edit some of the most remarkable children’s books of the 20th Century. Mervyn Peake’s ‘Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, Kathleen Hale’s ‘Orlando the Marmalade Cat’ and Eric Ravilious’s ‘High Street’ are just three of the stand-out publications.

Eric Ravilious’s High Street published in 1939.

Before leaving Country Life Carrington commissioned Eric Ravilious to design the Beautiful Britain Calendar 1939.

In 1939 times were changing, war beckoned and Carrington had a meeting with a new publisher Allen Lane. Inspired by the Russian children’s picture books Carrington started on a sixteen year journey as Penguin Editor of Puffin Picture Books.

The first Puffin Picture Books appeared in December 1940 – War on Land, War at Sea, War in the Air and On the Farm. The Puffins were an instant success with both children and adults. A teacher of evacuated children stated: ‘A boy who was so recalcitrant having never admitted to being able to read, suddenly on seeing the Puffin farm book asked to be allowed to read it to the class.’

The first four Puffins.

The print run was in tens of thousands, paper was strictly rationed to publishers but Lane was fairly successful in dealing with the Paper Controller. Between August and December 1941 seven new titles appeared. The steady stream continued in 1942 with ten new titles.

Other early Puffins 1941.

Stanley Roy Badmin was recommended to to illustrate Village and Town which was published in July 1942. Carrington commented: ‘I shall be interested to see the response to Village and town….the most ambitious and beautifully printed Puffin to date, which carries the child through centuries of English building to problems of reconstruction.’

The book remained in print for a decade running to many printings. The Puffins flourished in the post-was years. Carrington purchased Long Acre Farm at Lambourne, Berks and in 1947 he and the family moved there from Hampstead. The war side-lined a number of artists who could have been commissioned to illustrate Puffins. Edward Bawden was one such serving as an official war artist. Serving in France and evacuated from Dunkirk before being posted to Libya, Sudan, Cairo, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Later from Cairo he was transferred to the RMS Laconia in Durban on 27 August 1942, the ship was torpedoed and sunk, on 12 September 1942. Bawden spent five days in an open lifeboat before being rescued by a French ship and held prisoner in a Vichy internment camp in Casablanca for two months before the camp was liberated by American troops. he returned to Iraq in 1943 before returning home to Great Bardfield in 1944. A period hardly conducive for illustrating Puffins !

Bawden, did , however, produce a series of drawings and lithographs for ‘The Arabs’ published by Puffin in 1947. Writing to Carrington in July 1946 Bawden commented: ‘ The book is getting on slowly…. I work upon the lithographs for a few hours every day, but because of the fine detail I find the work rather a strain on the eyes. In all I have finished one-fifth of the drawings but these include some of the most elaborate ones such as the two double spread.’

Bawden illustrated the book., the text was by Robert Bertram Serjeant, nicknamed ‘Bob’. Serjeant was a Scottish scholar, traveller, and one of the leading Arabists of his generation.

The popularity of children’s post-war model making saw Triang, Hornby, Meccano and Airfix competing for the must-have Christmas and birthday presents. Carrington launched a new penguin series, the Puffin Cut-out Books. Carrington’s earlier attempts at publishing activity books for children never got off the ground. In the early years of the war Carrington and Eric Ravilious were discussing the publication of a large colouring book based on submarine interiors. Difficulties of production saw Ravilious abandon the idea and he then concentrated on self publishing his submarine lithographs. The Puffin Cut-out series was short-lived culminating with Treasure Island, 1953.

At this time Carrington also continued his work with the DIA and became a governor of the Central School and a member of the Council of Industrial Design. Carrington retired from Puffins in 1956. By the end of the 1950’s TV programmes such as Blue Peter and Crackerjack were beginning to take over children’s leisure time. The final Puffin Picture Book ‘Seashore Life’ was published in 1965. Lane and Carrington also shared an interest in farming. After Carrington retired the two corresponded re’ farming until Lane’s death in1970.

In the early sixties Carrington plied his energy into his writing handing over care of the farm to his son Paul. He also set about resurrecting the reputation of his sister Dora editing her letters and helping to organise the first major retrospective of her art work. This was such a success that the film ‘Carrington’ followed in 1995.

Carrington died aged 94 on 11 April 1989, Catherine passed away in 2004. Daughter Joanna Carrington (1931-2003) became a successful artist.

Noel Carrington

Graham Bennison March 2023.

I have to acknowledge that a great deal of this information came from ‘Drawn Direct to the Plate’ by Joe Pearson published by the Penguin Collectors Society ISBN 978 0 9558395 3 6.

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The blog re Dora Carrington can be found here

Joanna Carrington: Painter and teacher, daughter of the publisher Noel Carrington and niece of the artist Dora Carrington. She studied with Cedric Morris at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, in Suffolk, with Fernand Léger in Paris and at Central School of Arts and Crafts. She went on to teach at Hornsey College of Art, Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art and at Byam Shaw School of Art. Her book Landscape Painting for Beginners was published in 1979. Among her many solo shows was one at New Grafton Gallery in 1982, where in 1991 she shared one with her husband Christopher Mason, later ones including Thackeray Gallery, 1997. Lived mostly in France, in the early 1990s settling in St Savin, Vienne. Gauguin, the Nabis, Bonnard and Matisse were important influences.

6 thoughts on “Noel Carrington

  1. So interesting, thank you very much. I love reading about the lives of people during the period between the wars. Born in 1945, I feel a sense of that time……

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Puffins are a treasue from the ‘days before our disembodiment’ by the digital media. They speak so clearly of a world when one drew and lettered on paper standing up with ones body and mind as one.


  3. Once again a fascinating insight into the life of another person linked to the Great Bardfield artists. I do enjoy them because:
    1. I am inherently nosey and fascinated by the lives of this group of people
    2. Always pleased to learn something new…which I did.

    Thanks, Graham.


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