The Russian-born sculptor and painter, Dora Gordine, matched her extraordinary life with a body of work that spanned sensitive portrait busts and impressive public commissions. Inspired by the peoples and culture of Southeast Asia from early in her career, she spent five years living and working in what was then known as British Malaya. Settling in Britain before the Second World War, she soon gained a critical reputation as ‘very possibly becoming the finest woman sculptor in the world’. In 2005, the leading modern sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro, paid tribute to her art, by describing it as ‘withheld, slowed down, as is the art of Maillol’, and adding that ‘when we place her work against that of the much more successful academic Sculptors of the time it is a million miles better’ (in Sara MacDougall and Rachel Dickson (eds), 2006, page 17).
Dora Gordine was probably born in the Latvian port of Liepāja, in the Russian Empire, on 8 June 1895, the youngest of the four children of the middle-class Jewish couple, the Latvian, Morduch Gordin and his Lithuanian wife, Emma Ester (née Schepshelewitch). However, during her lifetime, she claimed to have been born in St Petersburg in 1906, and encouraged the mystery that surrounded her origins.
In 1912, the Gordin family moved to Tallinn (then known as Reval), in Estonia, and settled in an apartment at 21B Tatari Street.
Dora is likely to have been influenced by members of the Art Nouveau artistic movement, Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia). These included the painter, Ants Laikmaa, who ran an art school from his rooms on the top floor of 21B Tatari Street, and the sculptors, Jaan Koort and Anton Starkopf. While she may have studied with these artists, it has also been suggested (by Jonathan Black, May 2016) that she trained alongside her friend, the Leipājan sculptor, Natalie Mei, in Petrograd and Helsinki, in the years 1915-17. In April 1917, she contributed two works to an exhibition organised by the Estonian Art Society.
Dora’s father, Morduch, probably died in 1915. Between 1916 and 1918, she was married to Vladimir Rolov, a Russian-Jewish businessman based in the Latvian port of Ventsplis (then known as Vindava). (See Jonathan Black, May 2016.)
Later in 1917, the Russian Bolsheviks seized control in Tallinn. Early in 1918, the Bolsheviks were overthrown by Estonian Nationalists, but their control of the city was very short lived, as it was soon occupied by the German Army. Following the Armistice of 11 November 1918, the Germans withdrew and the Nationalists returned to power. However, the Estonians then had to fight the Soviet Western Front in order to gain their country’s independence. Dora’s brother, Leopold, was actively involved in the war, and for a while she worked as a nurse.
Early in October 1919, the Gordin family moved into an apartment at 4 Narva Road, and Dora used an adjacent one as a sculpture studio. In 1920 and 1921, she took part in exhibitions held by the ‘ARS’ Group. She also taught at an art school founded by Jaan Koort in 1921, numbering the Jewish sculptor, Jeguda Leiba, among her students. By 1922, Dora, her mother and elder sister, Anna, had successfully applied to become Estonian citizens.
By the autumn of 1924, Dora had left Tallinn, and have travelled, via Berlin, to Paris. There she settled in a room with a studio at the Maison des Etudiantes, 214 Boulevard Raspail, in Montparnasse. She studied a course in French civilisation at the Sorbonne, and began to make the acquaintance of significant cultural figures, including the sculptors, Antoine Bourdelle and Aristide Maillol.
In the spring of 1925, Dora worked part-time as a painter on a mural for the British Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which was held in Paris. Then in the May of that year, she exhibited for the first time in the French capital, showing a bronze at the Salon des Tuileries, under the name ‘Gordine’. It is said that she thought that the addition of an ‘e’ at the end of her surname would make her sound more Russian, though she gave her nationality as Estonian. When she exhibited again at the Salon in 1926, her submission of Chinese Head (Dorich House Museum) received enthusiastic reviews.
During the late 1920s, Dora Gordine travelled freely between Tallinn, Paris, London and Berlin. In 1926, she began to work for David Gourlay, of the Wayfarers’ Travel Agency, by bringing parties of school children from Paris to London. (Her brother, Leopold, had married an Englishwoman, and was already living in the British capital.) Through Gourlay, she met his future wife, the physiologist, Janet Vaughan, and through her entered Bloomsbury circles. As a result, she also met the Hon Richard Hare (1907-1966), the second son of the Earl of Listowel, who was then studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, and would develop a career in the diplomatic service. He proposed to her, but she refused to marry him until she had established herself professionally. (He would eventually become her third husband.) With the help of Gourlay and Vaughan, she persuaded the Leicester Galleries to mount a solo show of her work, which took place, with great success, in October 1928. Among those to see the show was the industrialist and collector, Samuel Courtauld, who was a friend of Vaughan’s father. He bought Mongolian Head and then donated it to the Tate Gallery.
On her return to Paris, Dora Gordine commissioned the Modernist architect, Auguste Perret, to design a ‘maison-atelier’ for her at 21 Rue du Belvedere, in the fashionable suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. While it was being built, she went to Berlin to participate in ‘Junge Künstler’, a joint exhibition with two other artists, held at the prestigious Galerie Alfred Flechtheim in September and October 1929.
Dora Gordine then left for the British colony of Singapore, arriving in January 1930, and settling in a studio on land belonging to the Sultan of Johor. She told a journalist that she was fascinated by ‘the naturally graceful movements of the Eastern peoples’ and her experience of Southeast Asia would have a strong effect on her work. She soon met Dr George Garlick (1886-1958), Deputy-Chief Medical Officer for the State of Johor and a friend of the Sultan, and in the September she married him in a civil ceremony. As a result, she renounced her Estonian nationality and became a British citizen. In 1931, she accepted a commission to decorate the interior of Singapore’s new town hall with five bronze portrait heads representing the peoples of British Malaya. During the year, she travelled through the region, also to Cambodia, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar). Later, she accompanied her husband to China, visiting Shanghai and then Peking, where he participated in a medical conference. While living in Johor Bahru, she and her husband received a visit from Richard Hare. In July 1933, the Leicester Galleries, in London, held a second solo show of her work. It demonstrated the influence of Asia on her work and consolidated her reputation as a sculpture of significance.
In June 1935, Dora left the State of Johor for England. On arriving in London, she renewed her contact with Richard Hare, and began to divorce herself from Dr Garlick. Richard bought her a plot of land in Kingston Vale on which was built a highly individual house to her design. Completed in October 1936, it was named ‘Dorich House’ as a conflation of their given names. They married at Chelsea Registry Office during the following month, and settled at the house, making it the centre of a circle of distinguished artists and sitters.
From 1937, Dora Gordine exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy of Arts, and was involved in a number of commissions and other significant projects. These included the commission of portrait heads for the new premises of the Royal Institute of British Architects, in Portland Place; the purchase of a cast of Seated Baby for the new Maternity and Child Welfare Centre, in Bessborough Street, Pimlico; and the purchase of a cast of Walking Male Torso for the new Senate House of the University of London. In April 1938, she was elected an associate the Royal Society of British Sculptors, at the same time as Frank Dobson and Maurice Lambert. Then, in the November, she held a third successful solo show at the Leicester Galleries. Reviewing the exhibition in the Observer, Jan Gordon described her as ‘very possibly becoming the finest woman sculptor in the world’ (6 November 1938).
The outbreak of the Second World War slowed the development of Gordine’s artistic career. She lost access to her favourite foundry – Valsuani in Paris – and found bronze scarce to come by, as the result of rationing. Only in 1944 did she begin to work with the leading London foundry, Morris Singer Company, and then exhibit her latest work in bronze at the Royal Academy. Between 1942 and 1956, she was nominated on three occasions as an associate of the Royal Academy. Those nominating her included the etcher, Malcolm Osborne, and the sculptors, Alfred Hardiman, Gilbert Ledward and Charles Wheeler (the last of whom was President of the RBS 1944-49, and President of the RA 1956-66). By the end of the war, her husband, Richard, a fluent Russian speaker, had become Director of the Ministry of Information’s division for Anglo-Russian relations.
In October 1945, Gordine held a fourth solo show at the Leicester Galleries. A review in The Times described her as ‘having much ability’ while being ‘eclectic in her inspiration’ (6 November 1945). Soon after, she produced one of her best-known public works, a low-relief plaque portraying Sun Yat Sen, the first President of the Chinese Republic, for display on a wall in Warwick Court, Gray’s Inn, on the site of a house in which he had once lived. By contrast, she was then commissioned to produce The Crowning Glory as a trade symbol for Eugène Ltd, ‘perfecters of the permanent wave’, and it was launched at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia in March 1947. During 1947, she produced Happy Baby, a cast of which would be installed at Holloway Prison’s new maternity ward in 1949.
In October 1947, Dora went to the United States for the first time, in the company of Richard. He had turned to the study and translation of Russian literature, and was taking up a research fellowship at Stanford University, in California, in preparation for a book on the subject. Following its publication, in 1949, he would become a lecturer in Russian literature at the University of London.
While in California, Dora continued to work, producing portrait busts and lecturing on art. In 1949, following her return to London, she would be elected a fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors and hold a fifth solo show at the Leicester Galleries. In 1953, she was a founder member of the Society of Portrait Sculptors and, in 1957, elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Dora remained highly active and worked on some major projects. In July 1956, a cast of her bronze, Mother and Child (1956), was installed in the entrance of the International Committee of Mothers for Disarmament and Against War in West Berlin, and remained there until the committee broke up in 1958. In 1961, she was commissioned to produce the bronze relief, Power, for the interior of the administration block of Esso’s new refinery at Milford Haven, in Pembrokeshire. Her last major commission, also called Mother and Child, was intended for the entrance of the new Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital, Sutton, Surrey, and was unveiled by the Queen on 20 May 1963.
Dora’s husband, Richard Hare, died in September 1966, at the age of only 59. Already in her early seventies, she then lived a somewhat reclusive life, and in 1972 stopped producing original work altogether. She died at home, at Dorich House, on 29 December 1991. The house and its contents were left in trust to Kingston University. Some of the Russian art objects that Dora and Richard had collected were sold at auction by Phillips in 1994 to help finance the transformation of the house into a museum to display both Dora’s work and the remaining items of the collection.
Her work is represented in the collections of Dorich House Museum (Kingston University) and Tate.
Jonathan Black, ‘Dora Gordine’, Paper given to the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, May 2016, https://eprints.kingston.ac.uk/id/eprint/36577/3/Black-J-36577.pdf;
Jonathan Black and Brenda Martin, Dora Gordine: Sculptor, Artist, Designer, London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2008;
Michael R Gibson, ‘Gordine [Gordin], Dora (1895-1991)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2010, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/64479;
Sara MacDougall and Rachel Dickson (eds), Embracing the Exotic: Jacob Epstein and Dora Gordine, London: Papadakis Publisher in association with the Ben Uri Gallery, 2006