The Haunting

Frances Hodgkins and Jenny Wimperis


It must have embarrassed writer and art historian Eric H. McCormick. How could his iconic Frances Hodgkins reveal herself to be so coarse? After all, she had the ingredients of heroic stature. Superb episodes in an extensive body of work, with international rather than purely domestic implications, fame and recognition (though tardy in coming), and a van Gogh-type saga of single-minded determination, of passion for art, maybe a little madness, and poverty - Yes - especially poverty. It is the ultimate test of creative integrity and commitment - that 'in sickness and in health' that has embedded in it romantic notions of garrets, and candles, and burning male genius shining in the gloom, spluttering tentatively with each onset of wind which picks its way around shutters and through cracks and inside transforms itself into the draughts and dereliction that threaten to snuff out brilliance. There it is - the perfect image of creative martyrdom - but the bubble is burst by the harsh voice of Frances Hodgkins, who barks out like a fishwife, statements full of vitriol and angst. The subject of Hodgkins' outburst and incarnation of her bête noire is the innocuous seemingly pathetic figure of Ann Jane (Jenny) Wimperis (1844-1929).

Dunedin from hillslope
above Forbury Road
Watercolour on paper,
217 x 240 mm.
(Collection of the Hocken
Library, Dunedin)

'The very worst has happened. . . [Miss Jenny] is now with me,' wrote Hodgkins desperately to her mother in 1906. This was one of a group of embargoed letters that she sent around this time. 'Please,' she begged, 'don't show my letters to anyone than yourselves.' Her caution was well placed because her communication continued:
. . . . a more depressing & tiresome little woman you can scarce imagine. . . I found her in a small room in Venice doing most of her own cooking, looking a picture of abject misery & poverty & helplessness. . . I persuaded her to go to a very good pension I knew of . . . departed for Chioggia . . . But in 4 days she turned up here & means to stay as long' as I do & she is a very serious Incubus indeed to put it mildly. She is not fit for this kind of life & much too old to stand the fatigues and discomforts of painting in public places. . . And her painting is bad, very very bad. " . It is grumble grumble the whole time & her whining voice & her fretful old face are too depressing. . .(1)

You can almost see Eric H. McCormick, the consummate gentleman academic, cringe as he tries uncomfortably to explain the circumstances of this letter in The Expatriate, his book on Frances Hodgkins. He was aware of her flaws and showed this when he wrote of his subject: 'there occurred an even more disturbing episode which brought out the best and the worst in a by no means perfect nature.'(2) He was referring of course to Hodgkins' relationship with Jenny Wimperis, an old acquaintance from Art Club days in Dunedin. He outlined the conditions of their meeting in Venice, Hodgkins' decision first to help, then escape Jenny Wimperis, and her ultimate resolve to flee Italy for fear of being pursued by the elderly woman. He summed up the impact of this liaison, thus:
At this period Frances Hodgkins still took a certain pride in her origins, and she did not often go out of her way to avoid New Zealanders. . . But henceforward she was careful to keep herself free from close entanglements and was particularly wary of the possessive importunities of the numberless old Dunedin friends.(3)

It is true that this episode does seem to have acted as a watershed in her behaviour towards New Zealanders. However, Frances Hodgkins' horror of Jenny Wimperis is so out of proportion to the woman's actual threat that it begs closer investigation. In fact, the spectral figure of Wimperis haunts the pages of Hodgkins' correspondence like Banquo's ghost, popping up with unnatural frequency. She appears in bodily form only three times, in Italy in 1906, and then again in London in 1919 and 1920, but her image dogged Hodgkins.

'Poor Miss Jenny she is a leaded weight on my conscience,' wrote Frances to her mother in September 1906, 'but had I stayed with her she would have buried me so wearied to death was I by the poor little thing. Sometimes I thought I might be looking at myself a long way off in a mirror so great was the morbid depression she has upon me - Oh oh, the pity of her and such as she.'(4) So what frightening thing did Hodgkins see reflected in the mirror? Perhaps it was herself as Jenny Wimperis staring back - difficult, a failure and, worst of all, with work that was anachronistic. This was possibly Hodgkins' greatest fear. That she too would be consigned by artistic networks of power and preference to wander aimlessly through the sketching grounds of Europe with no recognition, no lasting relationships, no secure income, and no hope of a better future. Hodgkins saw an art career as her alternative to the roles of wife and mother. Her desire for recognition, her need to engage with the more modem elements of contemporary artistic practice propelled her on - she was doing her job as a 'brother brush' might, and she was a person who needed success to make sense of her choice.

The Lagoon,
Watercolour on paper,
190 x 290 mm.
(Collection of the
Hocken Library, Dunedin)

Jenny Wimperis' connection with Hodgkins began in the 1880s when she arrived in Dunedin, having come from Chester in England with her sister Frances (Fanny) Wimperis, and married sister Susanna Joachim. George Joachim, husband of Susanna, and an accountant, decided to emigrate to New Zealand taking his wife and her two unmarried sisters. Jenny, already thirty-six years old, had an established engagement with art, producing watercolours 'imbued with the attitudes and ideals of the plein-air painters'.(5) She had travelled through Europe, reputedly studying art in Munich and Antwerp, and here in New Zealand found her favourite subjects amongst bush and marine scenes. Jenny's sister Fanny had studied at the Slade in London with Edward Poynter, but she was already a mature 31-year-old when the School opened in 1871. Fanny found her New Zealand forte in flower and portrait painting, and Susanna, mother of three children and a less prolific painter, in landscape, flower painting and portraiture.

Mary Montgomery records in her thesis on Jenny Wimperis that, in Britain, 'there had been one or two young men. . . who had wanted [Jenny] to marry them, but she didn't like them enough', and that George Joachim had actually first proposed to the very attractive sister Fanny (as it seems others had) and 'she said she thought Susanna 'might suit him' [better] so he proposed to her.'(6) According to family records, Jenny and Fanny made a conscious decision to remain single and paint, so with regard to marriage, there was no missing the boat, though Jenny Wimperis may have wished she had when she arrived in Port Chalmers on 13 December 1880. Dunedin would have seemed primitive both culturally and in terms of its basic infrastructure. It is known that Jenny was bitterly homesick from early on in her stay in New Zealand, yet she threw herself into every artistic opportunity available.

There was by this. time the Otago Art Society, started just five years earlier in 1875, and the Art Club, an intimate band of middle-aged, middle-class artists, lead by the well-known solicitor and barrister William Hodgkins, who met in each other's homes to discuss and make paintings on set themes. Jenny and Fanny rapidly became stalwarts of the Art Club and exhibiters with the OAS. Jenny's own training and practice in Britain was reinforced by the conventions adhered to especially by the Art Club, and she felt comfortable continuing to paint according to the plein-air ethos in a mildly romantic realist manner. Wimperis' desire for new and varied subject matter took her into remote bush country, to rivers, lakes, mountain ranges of the Southern Alps, and to stretches of southern seacoast.

Mihiwaka 1890
Watercolour on paper, 177 x 124 mm.
(Collection of the Hocken Library, Dunedin)

In spite of her English training and taste, Wimperis' handling of the New Zealand bush is remarkably free of nostalgia and affectation. In Mihiwaka (c. 1890) and Stewart Island (1890), her ability to communicate the sheer ruggedness and density of the bush is apparent. Stripped of a conventional foreground, these works place the viewer claustrophobically close to their subject. As the bush itself is intense, so these are intensely painted. The foliage, trunks, and twisting branches are strongly represented in vivid greens, charcoal, and burnt and blazing browns, applied directly in wet patches of pure paint. The drama of these scenes lies in their sense of impenetrability and isolation. As well as small spontaneous sketches, Wimperis produced larger watercolours, confidently pricing two monumental works in the 1889 New Zealand South Seas Exhibition at £50. Beyond Dunedin she showed at art societies in Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland and Melbourne.

Numbered among her 64(7) extant works are a group of Dunedin scenes. In Dunedin from hill slope above Forbury Road (1881) the tiny town, viewed in the distance, is nestled at the harbour edge among unfolding ranges of hills, and there is a sense of human endeavour being insignificant in the face of epic nature. Executed in a realistic and relatively austere topographical manner, the poetic qualities of this work lie in its relationships of scale and the delicate treatment of sky. These features are also apparent in Wimperis' more Turneresque and atmospheric coastalscape The Lagoon, Longbeach (1887). Here a minute grey-roofed hut sits almost swallowed-up by bush and scrub. Colour in this image, though now a little faded, is prismatic in places with tinges of purple and red in vegetation, and in the sky that broods threateningly overhead. Wimperis is remembered as saying: 'All she wanted. . . was to paint, and try to portray whatever she decided to paint as truly as possible,' and this was her New Zealand achievement.(8)

Stewart Island 1890
Watercolour on paper, 177 x 124 mm.
(Collection of the Hocken Library, Dunedin)

While Wimperis' work found favour with a newly developing art market in Dunedin, she also took the opportunity to teach. In 1892 she gave Frances Hodgkins drawing lessons, and in later years they also went on a weekend sketching excursion to Puketeraki, a seaside resort and Maori settlement near Dunedin. In 1895 Wimperis entered the more progressive orbit of Italian itinerant artist Girolamo Nerli becoming an elected member of his newly formed Easel Club, but in reality she was still deeply unhappy and longed to be overseas. In 1905 - finally - Wimperis left the relative comfort of her sister's home in Mornington, to escape parochial, colonial New Zealand for a milieu that was far away but familiar. Supported by a very modest stipend supplied by brother-in-law George Joachim, Wimperis was free again to travel. She was 61 years old.

Jenny Wimperis was part of a phenomenon. There was, and had been for some decades, a burgeoning of expatriate travel. Britain and the continent acted like a magnet drawing artists from around the world to its centres - Paris, London, Munich, Rome - then releasing them out into the landscape. Women as well as men saw themselves as having a future in art. From the 1890s there was a blossoming of interest in art as a woman's career. Will Low, an American artist working in France, 'mentioned the women painters in Givemy in 1892, something he had not found in Barbizon colonies fifteen years previous. These were seriously committed students of art in Paris ateliers, taking the same kind of break from the regular grind as the men.'(9) So Jenny Wimperis 'and such as she' were common in Europe, and New Zealanders Dorothy Kate Richmond, Margaret Stoddart, Grace Joel and Frances Hodgkins herself were already among them.

When Hodgkins and Wimperis met in Venice in 1906 their work was probably closer in subject and appearance than Hodgkins would like to admit. They were both looking for glimpses of a primitive, rural, romantically conceived Europe fast disappearing in the face of industrialisation and modem life. They worked in watercolour to capture the picturesque and quaint in landscape and architecture, producing genre scenes and figure studies in the villages they visited. In Wimperis' case, however, the keen eye for detail and for recording the nuances of place is missing in her Europe work. Her painting is slicker, more illustrative, less cleverly composed, and painted with less flare for colour that Hodgkins - but in terms of artistic innovation, both artists represent an anachronism. Although Frances Hodgkins' was painting in an impressionist manner, her work, and that of Wimperis, remained untouched by radical changes in stylistic practice and thinking. Post-Impressionism and Fauvism directly challenged much that Hodgkins and Wimperis still believed important: site, light and atmosphere, and a literal reading of subject, colour and space.

Berries and Laurel c 1930
Oil on canvas, 640 x 763 mm.
(Collection of Auckland Art Gallery
Toi o Tamaki)

Frances Hodgkins' life could so easily have become a reflection of that of Jenny Wimperis. Her situation was tenuous and the outcome of her struggle to establish a career never inevitable. But her commitment particularly to engage with the 'moderns' kept her on an intellectual and artistic path that was ever changing. Hodgkins rarely gave herself the comfort of consolidation or rest. Her geographic mobility and her drive to work and experiment fed off each other, and she was seldom still. Frances wrote to her mother in 1920:

The first person I knocked against, (knock is hardly the word for so frail a thing) was Miss J Wimperis looking - I can't say how old - it was pathetic - when I get that age I shall hide in the mountains. . . oh! how piteous it is to see her so alone & so frail - I am glad she is provided for. (10)

Jenny Wimperis, aged 85, died in Epsom, Surrey, in 1929 - on the cusp of Frances Hodgkins' success. Only a year later Hodgkins wrote to her London dealer Arthur Howell, after a show at St George's Gallery: 'Well I consider that I am 'made' and that my work has at last taken root - work must now start in earnest. . . ',11 Hodgkins, now 61, was being recognised for canvases like the whimsically decorative Bridesmaids (1930), and the strange, surreal confection of still life and landscape, Berries and Laurel (1930). Frances Hodgkins became famous: Jenny Wimperis died largely unknown.

Bridesmaids 1930
Oil on canvas

Both women made that 'in sickness and in health' commitment to their creative work - but it was Hodgkins who felt success alone validated her choice. Art was her job, her identity, and her sense of self-worth. For Wimperis painting was away of life-a passion, a supplementary income, but never a profession. The candle of brilliance burned less brightly for Jenny Wimperis, in part, because she was a generation older than Hodgkins - a generation that still believed financial dependence was proper for upper-class women and that avant-garde art circles were too risqué. Hodgkins needed an income, looked for evolution in her work, and longed for recognition. She had a more modem expectation of her career, and in her twilight years was still scrambling for financial independence and to be numbered among the British modems. Wimperis was Hodgkins' Dickensian reflection of a Christmas Yet To Come, and in this spectral figure she glimpsed a nightmare unfolding of her possible future, but in 1930 her career was consolidating, the mirror had cracked and the phantom of failure seemed buried forever.

1. Letter from Frances Hodgkins to Rachael Owen Hodgkins, c. 27 June 1906 [McCormick: Letter 156/Linda Gill: Letter 128]. I have referred to the transcription of FMH letters by Eric H. McCormick at the E.H. McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery, to Linda Gill's published Letters of Frances Hodgkins (Auckland, 1993), and to additional transcriptions and original letters held at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
2. Eric H. McCormick, The Expatriate: A Study of Frances Hodgkins, New Zealand University Press, Wellington 1954, p. 108.
3. Eric H. McCormick, or. cit., p. 110.
4. Letter from Frances Hodgkins to ROH, 15 September 1906. [McCormick:162/Gill:132]
5. Mary Montgomery, 'Ann Jane Wimperis and her family', MA Thesis, University of Auckland, 1996, p. 8.
6. Mary Montgomery, or. cit., p. 10.
7. Mary Montgomery, or. cit., p. 12
8. Mary Montgomery, or. cit., pp. 5-6.
9. David Sellin, Americans in Brittany and Normandy 1860-1910, Phoenix Art Museum, Washington 1982, p. 80.
10. Letter from FMH to ROH, 24 February 1920. [McCormick:407/ Gill:302]