From Blooms­bury to Taos

Painter Dorothy Brett

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Michael Abatemarco I The New Mex­i­can

Painter Dorothy Brett

The ill will be­tween painter Dorothy Brett, art pa­tron and so­cialite Ma­bel Dodge Luhan, and Frieda Lawrence, the wife of au­thor D.H. Lawrence — ill will that would even­tu­ally lead to Brett and Luhan con­coct­ing a hare­brained scheme to steal D.H. Lawrence’s ashes — had been brew­ing for some time. The Lawrences first vis­ited Luhan in Taos in 1922 at Luhan’s in­vi­ta­tion and came again in 1924, this time with Brett in tow. Lawrence, Frieda, and Brett had come from Eng­land with the in­ten­tion of es­tab­lish­ing a lit­er­ary and artis­tic Shangri-La called Rananim. Luhan, en­am­ored of Lawrence and hav­ing met his at­trac­tive and lady­like wife be­fore, was al­ready nurs­ing a jeal­ous re­sent­ment to­ward her. Ac­cord­ing to Brett’s bi­og­ra­pher Sean Hignett, Luhan trans­ferred that re­sent­ment to Brett, whom Luhan de­scribed in her 1932 book Lorenzo in Taos as “an amus­ing and at­trac­tive grotesque,” adding that “her eyes were both hos­tile and ques­tion­ing as she came slowly up to me, ex­am­in­ing me, cu­ri­ous, ar­ro­gant and English.” Fur­ther­more, Brett, who was par­tially deaf, used a small brass trum­pet as an ear­piece to bet­ter hear con­ver­sa­tions, which added to her odd ap­pear­ance.

Over the course of that April visit, Brett took to dressing in her own in­ter­pre­ta­tion of cow­boy style, sport­ing, along with her pock­et­book, an an­kle-length coat, a wide-brimmed som­brero, and a stiletto she kept tucked into her boot. “It seemed to give her great sat­is­fac­tion, for she had se­cret fancies about as­sault,” wrote Luhan about the knife. An as­sault, of sorts, did come, but it was prob­a­bly ac­ci­den­tal; Brett was cut­ting Luhan’s hair with a pair of scis­sors one evening and clipped off the top of her host’s ear.

De­spite this in­aus­pi­cious start to their friend­ship, Brett set­tled that same year in a small cabin on a 160-acre tract of land on Luhan’s ranch out­side of Taos. The land had been of­fered to the Lawrences by Luhan, prob­a­bly in an ef­fort to keep D.H. close. Luhan made the deal in ex­change for one of Lawrence’s manuscripts. It was there at Lobo Ranch (later to be re­named Kiowa Ranch, and fi­nally, the D.H. Lawrence Ranch) that Frieda, who was at first amused by Brett’s ado­ra­tion of her hus­band, at least when in Luhan’s com­pany, be­came, ac­cord­ing to Hignett, in­creas­ingly an­noyed with her con­stant pres­ence. On a trip to Mex­ico with the Lawrences, an of­fi­cial at the Mex­i­can con­sulate in El Paso mis­took Brett for Lawrence’s wife, fur­ther fray­ing Frieda’s taut nerves.

Dorothy Eugénie Brett (1883-1977) was one of four chil­dren born into the aris­to­cratic English fam­ily of Regi­nald Baliol Brett, the 2nd Vis­count of Esher. Her mother, Eleanor Van de Weyer, was the daugh­ter of a Bel­gian am­bas­sador. Her sis­ter Sylvia would grow up to be­come the Ra­nee of the king­dom of Sarawak in Bor­neo when she mar­ried Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke, the last of the White Ra­jahs, the dy­nas­tic monar­chy that founded and ruled the king­dom. Brett, known as Doll to her fam­ily, en­rolled at Slade School of Fine Art at Univer­sity Col­lege London in 1910, against her par­ents’ wishes. She had no for­mal training but did have a tal­ent for paint­ing and draw­ing. Slade ac­cepted her on a six-month pro­ba­tion­ary ba­sis at first, and she was de­ter­mined to be­come an artist. Her fa­ther even­tu­ally bought her a stu­dio in Kens­ing­ton. Brett had an in­de­pen­dent spirit and took to wear­ing boys’ trousers and cut­ting her hair short while in school. Her par­tial deaf­ness, the cause of which was never di­ag­nosed, was pro­nounced by 1915, although friends sug­gested that her con­di­tion was more a case of se­lec­tive hear­ing. “It may very well be true,” she recorded in her mem­oirs. “My deaf­ness be­gan at the time when I did be­gin to meet the en­gag­ingly fright­en­ing in­tel­lec­tu­als who made up the world of paint­ing and lit­er­a­ture.”

Through an ac­quain­tance­ship with Lady Ot­to­line Mor­rell, a pa­tron of writ­ers and artists, she was in­tro­duced to mem­bers of the Blooms­bury Group, a cir­cle of artists, writ­ers, and in­tel­lec­tu­als that in­cluded Vir­ginia Woolf, art critic Clive Bell, and E.M. Forster. She met the Lawrences in 1915. D.H. Lawrence was al­ready

keen on es­tab­lish­ing Rananim, his ideal com­mu­nity, only it was meant to be in Florida, not Taos. He took the name of the in­tended utopia from a He­brew dirge he gleaned from Rus­sian­born trans­la­tor S.S. Kotelian­sky, one of sev­eral writ­ers he courted in hopes of found­ing his idyll. “Rananim, in early 1915, re­ceived lit­tle sup­port and much mock­ery from the cho­sen dis­ci­ples,” Hignett writes. In the end, only Brett would fol­low when Lawrence moved to es­tab­lish his dream in the San­gre de Cristo moun­tains, where, Hignett writes, “Utopia had a brief and bick­er­ing ex­is­tence.”

In Taos, Brett turned her brush to the sub­ject of re­gional Pueb­los, in­spired by the Na­tive dances and ren­der­ing her sub­jects in brightly col­ored and tightly fo­cused com­po­si­tions. MaLin Wil­son-Pow­ell, art his­to­rian and cocu­ra­tor of the Har­wood Mu­seum of Art ex­hi­bi­tion Ma­bel Dodge Luhan & Com­pany: Amer­i­can Moderns and the West, along with Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus Lois P. Rud­nick, writes that Brett’s paint­ing Tur­tle Dance is claus­tro­pho­bic, with­out any open space. Brett, not un­like Taos So­ci­ety of Artists co­founder Ernest Blu­men­schein, was at­tracted to pat­terns and rhythms and, thus, the Pue­blo dances ap­pealed to her eye. She called the works based on them her “Cer­e­mo­ni­als.” In the es­say “Ma­bel Dodge Luhan: A New Way to See and New Things to Say,” in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log, Wil­son-Pow­ell writes that Brett’s pal­ette changed to pas­tel hues in the 1930s when she be­came ob­sessed with Bri­tish con­duc­tor Leopold Stokowski, an­other of Luhan’s many guests and ben­e­fi­cia­ries, and painted his por­trait numer­ous times.

In 1930, D.H. Lawrence died at the age of forty-four in Vence, France. Brett hoped to pur­chase the ranch, but Frieda planned to keep it and trans­fer Lawrence’s re­mains there, with plans to com­mem­o­rate him with a small tem­ple. The spot Frieda chose was the same one Brett had in­tended to use for a new cabin for her­self. Brett was forced to find a new lo­ca­tion nearby and chris­tened the cabin “The Tower Be­yond Tragedy,” named for a line by poet Robin­son Jef­fers. Brett was stricken by Lawrence’s death, writ­ing to pho­tog­ra­pher Al­fred Stieglitz that she spent the en­tire sum­mer with a loaded re­volver in her lap. That fall, she be­gan work­ing on her mem­oir Lawrence and Brett.

Brett and Frieda, mean­while, were still bick­er­ing. Frieda had not yet re­turned to Taos af­ter her hus­band’s death. In let­ters she ac­cused Brett of an af­fair. When she did re­turn the fol­low­ing spring, she brought her fu­ture hus­band, An­gelo Ravagli, an of­fi­cer in the Ital­ian Ber­saglieri. When she saw this, Brett told Luhan she had just re­al­ized her great­est ro­man­tic mis­take. “What Brett meant, of course, was that, in her eyes, the li­ai­son of Frieda and the Cap­i­tano pro­vided yet more ev­i­dence that it was only Frieda’s con­niv­ings that had hin­dered the course of real love and kept Brett and Lawrence from their true ro­man­tic des­tinies,” Hignett writes. By 1934, how­ever, Brett, Luhan, and Frieda Lawrence were all on friendly terms again. But the de­ba­cle over D.H. Lawrence’s ashes proved the peace would be short-lived.

Hignett was told that the ashes, which Ravagli had trav­eled to France to ob­tain, were ac­ci­den­tally left on the train sta­tion plat­form in Lamy. That was one story. An­other story was that the poet Wyt­ter Byn­ner in­ad­ver­tently over­turned the urn while at dinner at La Fonda in Santa Fe and re­filled the urn with the ho­tel’s fire­place ashes. There were also ru­mors that Luhan and Brett each did the same af­ter se­cretly scat­ter­ing the ashes in Taos, but the truth, while dif­fer­ent, still re­mains a com­edy of er­rors.

Brett wished to see Lawrence’s re­mains buried be­neath a large pine tree that the au­thor had loved. In­stead, Ravagli built an os­ten­ta­tious chapel to house them. Brett was crit­i­cal of Frieda over this, as she felt Frieda should have treated the ashes more re­spect­fully. She ex­pressed her con­cerns in a let­ter to Una Jef­fers, Robin­son Jef­fers’ wife, un­aware that Luhan and Frieda were con­fid­ing in the same source. Brett sug­gested to Luhan that they steal the ashes. Luhan went so far as to re­cruit an ally and had ev­ery in­ten­tion, it seems, of fol­low­ing through. Luhan let the plan slip, how­ever, while cut­ting Frieda’s daugh­ter Barby’s hair. Luhan’s plans were fur­ther com­pro­mised by Una Jef­fers, who was re­lat­ing Luhan’s and Brett’s let­ters to Frieda. Frieda re­sponded by writ­ing Luhan and Brett an­gry let­ters of her own, and in­ter­ro­gat­ing Brett to get her to ad­mit to the scheme. But “true to Bri­tish diplo­matic tra­di­tion,” wrote Luhan, “she de­nied ev­ery­thing.” Still, Luhan put the blame on Brett in order to pro­tect her co­con­spir­a­tor, a friend named Daniel Crispin.

Two years af­ter the in­ci­dent, Brett and Frieda were still no longer speak­ing (although they would even­tu­ally re­sume their friend­ship). The ques­tion of what to do with D.H. Lawrence’s ashes was, by then, a moot point. Ravagli had mixed them with ce­ment for a con­crete al­tar slab for Lawrence’s shrine, to be, as Hignett writes, “im­mov­able, for ever.” Brett and Luhan boy­cotted the cer­e­mony com­mem­o­rat­ing Lawrence at the shrine.

Re­mains of the day: Dorothy Brett, circa 1924, cour­tesy Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press; Ma­bel Dodge Luhan, Frieda Lawrence, and Brett on Frieda’s porch, 1938, Yale Univer­sity

Left, Dorothy Brett: San Geron­imo Day, Taos, 1965; right, Boy and Horse, 1941, oil on board; top, Feather Dance, oil on can­vas

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