In the first of these two articles about the life and work of the New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947), I showed examples of her paintings up to 1932, a period in which she struggled and finally succeeded in establishing herself among the foremost painters in Britain. After her return from Ibiza in 1933, she was invited by Paul Nash to join his new avant garde group Unit One, which was the origin of the Surrealist Movement in Britain. She agreed, but quickly realised their differences, and left after just a few months.
The following year, she was in Cornwall again, and stayed at Corfe Castle in Dorset. She exhibited once more (as she had done annually since 1929) with the Seven & Five group, but it then decided to become more abstract. Throughout her career, Hodgkins steadfastly refused to move towards abstract painting, so resigned from the group.
Sabrina’s Garden was most probably painted in the studio in 1934, developed from a detailed pencil drawing which Hodgkins had made in Bridgnorth during August 1932. She had originally intended painting in Norfolk with her friend Hannah Ritchie, but they were so disappointed with its flat landscape and “lifeless outlook” that they went to Bridgnorth after the first two days of their trip together.
She has arranged a still life on the table, and added two ghostly figures at the left; otherwise, much of the composition is rooted in the drawing, which is now in Christchurch Art Gallery.
Spanish Peasants is a tiny oil sketch which Hodgkins made in 1934, of two Spanish women carrying large loads.
In 1935, she continued to travel, particularly with Cedric Morris. He noted that her eyesight had deteriorated badly; she was now in her late sixties, but continued to paint avidly. The Weir (c 1935) may have been painted during one of those excursions, and appears to be a plein air sketch showing fish leaping upriver over a weir.
Most of Hodgkins’ best-known works from later in her career are oils, but she continued to paint in watercolour and gouache. The Lake, from about 1930-35, is thought to be a recollection of the River Severn seen at Bridgnorth, a town in which she taught and painted on several occasions between 1926-32. She probably made drawings in front of the motif in about 1932, which she worked up later in the studio, much as she had done with Sabrina’s Garden above. The resulting painting wasn’t exhibited until 1940, though.
Its foreground still life is laid out on a wrought iron table with a blue top. The objects are hard to distinguish, though. Behind is the lake, in which there are two canoes and several other objects. At the lower right is a large stone goblet in which flowers are growing.
In 1937, Hodgkins had her most successful exhibition to date, at the Lefevre Gallery, which elicited highly favourable reviews.
Tanks, Barrels and Drums from 1937 is an unusual outdoor still life composed from various containers commonly encountered on farms, including traditional wooden barrels, riveted tanks, and moulded tanks formed like large pots.
Hodgkins’ eyesight may have been poor, and she was certainly growing old, but nothing could stop her from painting, nor from travelling incessantly. In February 1938, she left Worth Matravers in Dorset for a motoring holiday with Rée Gorer, which took the pair as far as Saint Tropez, on the French Mediterranean coast. Later that year, she had another motoring holiday, this time to Wales.
The Painted Chest from 1938 is another composite of still life and outdoor view. Standing on top of the painted chest are two jugs and a vase, the latter containing flowers. In the distance is what appears to be a laid-out vegetable and flower garden.
Houses and Outhouses, Purbeck (1938) shows a jumble of old outbuildings in a field by the more distant houses on its skyline. Gathered by the outbuildings is a seemingly random collection of household junk, forming an outdoor still life, with different forms and material textures.
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Hodgkins was recognised in two signal invitations: the first, from Sir Kenneth Clark, the director of London’s National Gallery, was to exhibit in the British pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York; the second was to exhibit in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, alongside five other major artists. Sadly, her paintings were never shipped because of the war, but the following year were exhibited in London instead.
Portrait of Kitty West, painted in watercolour and gouache in 1939, shows the artist and wife of author Anthony West. Hodgkins became good friends of the Wests in 1937, and painted their double portrait after staying with them in August of that year. She returned to holiday in Wiltshire, where the Wests lived, in 1939, when she is presumed to have painted this portrait of Kitty (1910-99). Her style shows the influence of Matisse, whose work she greatly admired.
Cheviot Farm (1938-1940) shows an interesting collection of objects of different forms in a farmyard, apparently in the Cheviot Hills, spanning Northumbria and the southernmost part of Scotland.
By 1940, Hodgkins had largely settled in Corfe Castle. The following year her health took a knock: she had to undergo surgery for stomach ulcers. In 1942, she was granted a civil list pension, and agreed to be the subject of one of the books in the Penguin Modern Painters series, which had been commissioned of Myfanwy Evans, wife of John Piper and a friend.
Broken Tractor is a gouache from 1942, believed to have been painted when Hodgkins was living at Corfe Castle. This is another farmyard, and another lexicon of form and texture.
Although known as the Isle of Purbeck, this part of the English Channel coast of Dorset is actually a peninsula. In Purbeck Courtyard, Morning from 1944, Hodgkins shows the small yard behind tight-packed buildings, glowing red in the morning sunlight. In the centre foreground is a large cat basking in the sun.
At the end of the war, Hodgkins was seventy-six and her eyesight was failing. She remained at Corfe Castle, escaping only to Wales for a holiday. Her work was exhibited in London, with that of Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. In 1946 she travelled to London for a major retrospective exhibition of her work at the Lefevre Gallery, which was an outstanding success. She grew increasingly frail, and died in Dorchester, Dorset, on 13 May 1947, aged seventy-eight.
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.