Travelling by sailing ship from New Zealand to Britain in the late nineteenth century typically took over three months, much of which was spent close to the ice of the Antarctic and rounding the infamous Cape Horn. Heaven help those artists who tried to flourish in the British colony of New Zealand at the time, particularly a young woman such as Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947). One answer, as I’ll show in this and tomorrow’s sequel, was to move to Europe to paint.
Hodgkins was born in the city of Dunedin on South Island, New Zealand, in 1869 (coincidentally the year that the Suez Canal was opened), into a prosperous and artistic family. She started exhibiting in 1890, and three years later became a pupil of the influential Italian teacher Girolamo Nerli. In 1895-97, she attended the Dunedin School of Art and Design, then becoming a teacher herself. When her father died in 1898, she started to save money to finance a trip to Europe to extend her training.
In 1901, she sailed to London, stopping at Sydney, Colombo in Sri Lanka where she became seriously ill, and Marseille, France, by which time she had recovered sufficiently to spend a day ashore. She took several classes in drawing and sketching soon after her arrival, then later in the year visited Paris, Les Andelys and Arles in France, and Rapallo in Italy. She became a close friend of another New Zealand painter, Dorothy Kate Richmond, who became her travelling companion.
The following year, she continued her travels, visiting the Italian Riviera, London, Penzance in Cornwall, Dinan in Brittany, and Tangier in Morocco at the end of the year. Several of her paintings were exhibited in London, and a large watercolour developed from her sketches of Morocco was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London – the first by any New Zealander.
In 1903, after visiting Belgium and the Netherlands, she returned to Wellington, New Zealand, where she established a teaching studio and was engaged briefly. In late 1904, another large watercolour was her first work purchased for a public collection in New Zealand. Two more of her paintings, this time of Dinan, were exhibited at the Royal Academy.
She returned to Europe in 1906, holding her first solo exhibition in London the following year, before moving on to Paris in 1908. She kept up her whirlwind series of visits to Italy, the Netherlands and France. One year later (late 1909) she became the first woman to be appointed as an instructor at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, where she taught watercolour. Among her pupils in France in 1911 was the Canadian painter Emily Carr.
In 1912, she sailed back to Melbourne in Australia, and for the next year toured and exhibited in Australia and New Zealand, returning to Italy at the end of the year, to spend the winter on the island of Capri. Hodgkins’ frenetic travel came to a halt with the outbreak of the First World War: she was caught in France at the time, so returned to England and settled in Saint Ives in Cornwall.
Hodgkins found herself out of place in Saint Ives, where the prevailing style was far more traditional – of the kind she had outgrown over the previous decade. Loveday and Ann: Two Women with a Basket of Flowers (1915) gives a good idea of how ‘modern’ she had become, in its combination of double portrait and floral still life.
The war years saw her complete quite a few portraits in oils, including this of Mrs Hellyer from about 1916. Although she had learned to paint in oils before first setting off for Europe, until about 1915 most of her work had been in watercolour.
At the end of the war, she started to rent a studio in Kensington, and made friends with Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, two progressive British painters who were to prove influential to her work, and the success of her career in Britain.
The Edwardians from about 1918 is another good example of her early figurative work.
In the period after the war, many basic items were in short supply in Britain. Even fuel was hard to come by, and Hodgkins found her studio in London was too cold for herself, let alone her models. By this time, she was also running short of money, so she returned to Cornwall and sub-let her studio for a higher rent that she was paying.
The nineteen-twenties were hard years for Hodgkins, during which she had to teach intermittently to make ends meet. She managed to resume her travel, but now was more confined to England and France. In 1924, she tried to obtain support from her family in New Zealand, and started planning to return, but in 1925 worked for a major calico printer in Manchester, so decided to remain in Europe. Her fortunes changed in 1928, when she started at last to achieve critical acclaim, receiving praise from the art critic of The Times newspaper, for instance. Next year, following her introduction by Cedric Morris, she was elected to the leading group of British avant garde artists, Seven & Five.
Both of her paintings which I have been able to locate from about 1929 are still lifes: above, Still Life Eggs, Tomatoes and Mushrooms, and below Vase of Flowers. The latter is a good example of one of her favourite compositional devices, a still life in the foreground of a window, which in turn frames a distant landscape.
Hodgkins spent the winter of 1929-30 at La Gaude, near Vence, on the Mediterranean coast of France between Nice and Antibes. When she returned to London in the Spring, she signed a contract with a London gallery to supply paintings. Although the terms were inevitably more beneficial to the dealer than the artist, this enabled her to spend the summer painting at East Bergholt, Suffolk: Constable country.
The two paintings that I have to show from that summer have near-identical titles: above is Flatford Mill (1930), now in the Tate Gallery, London, and below is Flatford Mill, Suffolk (1930), now in a provincial gallery in Eastbourne. Both show countryside which will be familiar to anyone who has seen John Constable’s landscapes of more than a century before, but Hodgkins wasn’t tempted to revisit his compositions, not in the slightest. Both are from elevated viewpoints, looking down on the mirror-like surface of the water from the treetops. Everything about them is original and innovative.
Hodgkins spent the first half of 1931 in the south of France, then returned to London before spending the following winter in the village of Bodinnick-by-Fowey in Cornwall.
Hodgkins painted Wings over Water during the winter of 1931-32. It shows a view from her rooms in Bodinnick. Carefully placed in the foreground is a still life consisting of three large seashells with floral and plant arrangements. Sitting on the fence in the middle of the view is her landlady’s parrot, beyond which is the expanse of the River Fowey. She probably painted this after making an elaborate drawing of the same motif, but there are numerous pentimenti suggesting that she was still resolving its geometry and composition as she was applying paint.
Later in 1932, with the closure of the London gallery to which she had been contracted, she signed a new contract with the Lefevre Gallery, which brought her a steady annual income of £200. She could afford to overwinter in Ibiza.
The Complete Frances Hodgkins – online catalogue and resources from Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler (eds) (2019) Frances Hodgkins European Journeys, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 09418 1.