Five Paintings by Frances Hodgkins
In this essay I discuss five works of Frances Hodgkins, chosen from the increasing number of her pictures accessible to viewers in the public art galleries of New Zealand, which illustrate various stages in her artistic development. The first, Mr and Mrs Moffat Lindner and Hope comes from near the end of her Impressionist period; Lancashire Family shows her cautiously experimenting with Cubism; Ruins tends towards abstraction and has Surrealist overtones; Root Crop and Purbeck Courtyard, Afternoon belong to the latter end of her career, when she had developed her own distinctive Expressionist idiom.
The following notes link these pictures with the letters Frances Hodgkins wrote, over more than fifty years, to relatives, friends and professional associates. Her letters are essential biographical material, and an edition, sponsored by the Alexander Turnbull Library and authorized by the Field-Hodgkins family, holders of the copyright, is in course of preparation. Sometimes, however, the letters have a more direct bearing on the actual work of the artist, which they help to place in context. It is this context of creativity which is discussed in the following pages. Quotations present the spelling and punctuation of the letters without change.
Mr and Mrs Moffat Lindner and Hope 1916
oil and tempura, 1180 x 985 mm.
(Dunedin Public Art Gallery)
Peter Moffat Lindner (1852-1949) was an accomplished and successful landscape and marine painter in the English Impressionist tradition. Over a long career - he last exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1938, aged eighty-six - his oils and his Turner-evocative watercolours brought him wealth and status and a place in the permanent collections of many galleries. His predictability, no doubt, was in his favour. He was content, year by year, to interpret the effects of light and changing weather in a familiar range of picturesque settings (notably Venice, Amsterdam and the coastal waters of Holland and Cornwall), thus creating the reliable 'specialty' beloved of collectors. In 1907-08, therefore, the committee, including Frances Hodgkins, appointed to buy pictures for the Wellington Art Gallery, counted themselves lucky in acquiring Lindner's Nocturne of Amsterdam, 'a fine oil', for £100 less than the catalogue price.
When Hodgkins and Lindner first met, at Caudebec in 1901, he was forty-nine and she thirty-two. The friendship then begun, and renewed in 1907 during her year of work at Dordrecht, reminds one not a little of the comradely relationship enjoyed by the youthful Isabel Hodgkins with her father and Dr Scott. There is the same respect for experience and skill, tempered by the same irreverent enjoyment of personal foibles. 'That kind dry old stick Moffat', Frances wrote in July 1908, 'has been a real trump to me & is going to introduce me to some of the right sort when I go to town. . . . '(1) And again, three months later, as a guest in the Lindner home:
Dear old Moffaty has bought one of my pictures, a small one, but the compliment was bigger than the cheque... He is so transparently honest in his likes & dislikes that I knew he wouldn't buy one unless he really liked them - He is a queer silent brusque old thing, sparing of words, but with the kindest of hearts to anyone he takes a fancy to.(2)
Encouragement, patronage and hospitality continued over the years: the Lindners 'are very good friends of mine,' she wrote in 1926. It was only to be expected, therefore, that when in 1914 the outbreak of war confined her to England, she should settle in St Ives to be near them. And at St Ives she remained, with few interruptions beyond the summer interludes for sketching classes, until the end of 1918.
On 10 January 1916 she wrote to her mother:
Mr Lindner & his little girl Hope are posing for me against his great Studio window - open, with the wind tossing her brown hair - the sea beyond. They wear such jolly tweed clothes, he snuff coat, check waistcoat & orange tie with black spots & his jolly pink face & white curls - same colouring as Father - you may remember he always reminds me of him, a young edition - very dapper. Hope in grey tweed, berry red buttons & bright blue Tam, white stockings. This is a 4 ft x 3 ft canvas in oil - and so far it shapes well -
But the double portrait in oil seems to have been abandoned, for what we have is a three figure conversation piece in tempera. Only a few details of the original design are retained. Mr Lindner still wears his colourful clothes, but Hope has lost her blue tam o'shanter and the berry-red buttons from her grey tweed coat; and her stockings, in necessary contrast to the green and white couch she sits on, are black. The altered setting is hard to interpret. Father and child are posed against the outside of a closed and curtained window. The newly introduced figure of the mother stands, half facing them, outlined against a cloudy sky (the sea is nowhere in evidence). She wears her hat, and has let her coat, or cloak, slip back in trailing folds supported only by her forearms. Is some expedition in prospect, or just concluded?
The date of the picture is less difficult to determine. It must be later than the letter of 10 January 1916, but not by very much. The Lindners' 'new baby' of 1907, 'all curls & dimples & roses & as spoilt as any princess & far more imperious' in October 1908, would have been about ten years old in 1916; and this is the apparent age of Hope Lindner as Frances Hodgkins has portrayed her. She is possibly a little younger, but, one would say, pretty certainly no older than ten. The artist's signature 'F Hodgkins' would also support a date as early as is consistent with the biographical evidence: during the war years she gave up using this form in favour of 'Frances Hodgkins', which remained her regular signature till the end of her career.
Lancashire Family 1927
oil on canvas, 685 x 705 mm.
(Auckland City Art Gallery)
Frances Hodgkins had visited Manchester briefly in 1908, but her working experience there began in the autumn of 1922, at the instigation and with too support of her Manchester friends Hannah Ritchie and Jane Saunders, and continued, with interruptions of varying length, until the summer of 1927. These were the years of her greatest social awareness: early in 1923 she announced her intention 'to make pictures of those hungry sad eyed women and children in Manchester photographed ion the D. News,'(3) and her compassionate interest is attested to in a series of such pictures. But these were also years of deference to 'advanced' theories of art and of experimentation with 'new' pictorial modes, so that the sensitive portraiture which had been the natural and most telling expression of her genius was now formalized in the interests of abstract design. All these impulses are typified in Lancashire Family, with its angularities and flattened contours and its strong, artificially uniform colour - as the artist herself described it (from photographs of 1944), 'the Family highly stylised aiming at musical unity & a sort of colour combination missing in the Prints.'(4) And she urged Myfanwy Piper to include it, along with Red Cockerel, among the illustrations to the Penguin Frances Hodgkins.
It was painted, most probably, in the early months of 1927 - a picture so esteemed would not have been excluded, had it been available, from her Manchester show of November 1926; and was exhibited at the Claridge Gallery, London, in April 1928, a show which drew high critical praise. Some time thereafter it disappeared, with a borrower who failed to return it, and was not recovered until 1944, by which time the artist retained only a vague memory of its details. 'If any good' she wrote, 'it ought to have a' career in the Galleries. .. , 1928 is about the date I fancy - I can't recall it - more than it being rather architectural in design - title 'Lancashire Family'; '(5) and again:
. , , my dusty old picture painted quite 15 yrs ago in the purlieus of Ancoats (Manchester) a squalid & slummy spot but the real thing for picture making. I have the dimmest idea of what the picture is like-I remember about that period I had artistic yearnings to paint Lancashire Mill Girls: some of them were raging beauties I loved painting piled up family groups This must have been one of them - It was shown at the London Group & skied. . . .(6)
watercolour, 508 x 711 mm.
(National Gallery, Wellington)
From the mid thirties onwards Dorset (in particular, the Isle of Purbeck) became Frances Hodgkins's centre of operations. Dorset was Hardy country, misleadingly reported to enjoy mild winters; her friend Amy Krauss had settled there (in Corte Castle); and, rather more provocatively, from February 1934 to January 1936 it was the home of Paul Nash, who explored and recorded it, in photograph and watercolour, for his Shell Guide to Dorset (1936).
From December 1934 Frances Hodgkins made a series of brief stays at Corfe Castle, and from 21 May 1937 to the spring of 1939 her headquarters were at Worth Matravers, a 'little lost village on the coast near Swan age opp: the Isle of Wight'(7) - 'this bit of coast line in Dorset the loveliest in the world,'(8) she thought. The farmhouse 'Seaview' where she lodged and worked was:
a one time Vicarage of the starkest kind It overlooks the Channel. The mornings are very lovely & I want to paint even before I have finished breakfast Sunsets splashed yellow & black - Not very exciting landscape.(9)
It is the summer morning, eastward view she has commemorated in Ruins, shown among her 'new paintings and watercolours' at the Lefevre Gallery October-November 1937. But there is a nightmare touch in this stridently blue morning scene, where, in Surrealist fashion, natural features are arbitrarily enlarged and displaced. Across the background, the Needles rise up as if only a narrow strait separated them from the Dorset shore. The foreground is dominated by the ruins marking an abandoned quarry - just such ruins as the 'Old Quarry Hut, Swan age' which Paul Nash had photographed for his Guide.
Root Crop 1943
watercolour, 371 x 546 mm.
(Auckland City Art Gallery)
Frances Hodgkins never considered making her home in Wales, but from the mid thirties onwards she spent a number of working holidays there. In the autumn of 1942 she found a welcome retreat from the wartime 'racket of Corfe Castle', 'quiet & off the beaten track', at Dolaucothy, 'in a green valley with a big G in Black Mountains, Carmarthenshire'. On her arrival, in mid September, she wrote:
I am here & really resting brain & body. . . . We are over 400 ft up & the air is like wine flavoured with conifer pine - rather too many conifers - Very pleasant & friendly & comfy here - Old Farm turned into Inn unpretentious - clean good food & nice folk Fine country which will be better still in week or so - harvest in full swing - (10)
Here, for nearly two months, 'while the weather was good,' she 'painted like mad' in preparation for a spring show. By the end of October she could report:
I have done masses of work in between showers of torrential rain, in and about the woods & river of Dolaucothy now browning & falling to the autumn gales. . . It can be gloomy & grey but not the temp gris clair of Cezanne.(11)
She had also painted indoors - 'seriously made pictures of the funny chimney ornaments, which do so lend themselves to decoration(12) - so that her 'new series of Gouaches painted during 1942-3', shown at the Lefevre Gallery March-April 1943, was, within its local range, remarkably diversified in subject.
Back in Corfe, she had worked under difficulties, and only fifteen of the twenty gouaches she had hoped to complete were exhibited. But even in a combined show, facing the challenge of Picasso and his Contemporaries, all fifteen (including Root Crop) were sold, to wide acclaim from the critics. The 'suave and unified' handling which one of them praised is well exemplified in Root Crop - a twilight fantasy created about a prosaic subject - and the group as a whole, no doubt, like individual examples from it, reflects the artist's mood. Frances Hodgkins always felt she painted best when she was happy, and she had been happy at Dolaucothy.
Root Crop is clearly dated 1943, but in the 1943 Lefevre catalogue it is listed as Root Crop 1942, as if the date formed part of the title. Whatever the intention, the discrepancy has meant that in later catalogues the picture is assigned sometimes to 1942, sometimes to 1943. Even if finished in 1943, however, it is clearly a 'Dolaucothy' production.
Purbeck Courtyard, Afternoon 1944
oil on board, 610 x 710 mm.
(National Gallery, Wellington)
There is a companion piece to this picture in the Southampton Art Gallery - an oil of the same dimensions and with the same title, also signed and dated 1944. But the two pictures show the courtyard under different light and (at different angles) from opposite ends. The tonality of the Wellington picture is lighter and more golden than that of the other, which (judging by the Penguin reproduction) has a ruddy suffusion that may be intended to suggest a later hour. In our picture, rising grassy slopes are visible above the rear wall; in the Southampton picture the rear wall is so high as to block any further view. More or less the same features appear, transposed, in both pictures; but what their practical function might be (beyond that of the identifiable crocks and pails) it is difficult to say. A photograph of the courtyard might clarify the relationship of these roofs, walls, doorways and windows, but to no enhancement of the pictorial values. The large, plump ginger cat which basks in the centre foreground at Southampton, is missing from our picture.
There are only two references in the letters which seem to apply directly to these pictures, and they are not very informative. On 20 October 1944, Frances Hodgkins wrote to Eardley Knollys, , . . . I have 2-3 high powered gouaches - also ditto oils. The weather, no rain for once, very mixed & difficult for working any distance from my doorstep - but doors wide open & today sea breezes by your order magically exhilarating. . . '; and nearly three months later, characteristically misdating her letter 16 January 1944, she informed the insistent Macdonald at the Lefevre Gallery:
. . . In answer to your Enquiries there are 2 wooden panels (oils) 25-30 which you might like to have together with 3 large sized Gouaches, begun some time ago, not yet completed. . . While these winds & frost prevail I cannot work in studio without grave risk to health - The best I can do is to send both oils in the course of this week & the others as soon after as is possible-
The halcyon interval she mentions to Knollys may account for the serenity of Purbeck Courtyard in both its aspects. And there is no reason to dispute her dating: even if the oils were not sent to Lefevre's as soon as she promised, they were completed when she wrote in January. But there is a passage, referring indubitably to works she was engaged on in May 1945, which one would like to apply to these two pictures. In the spring of 1945 she tried to repeat the success of 1942 at Llangurig, in Montgomery, but was disappointed. Back at Corfe, she wrote, 'So, after a fortnight. . . I decided I had had enough of the lovely Wye valley, lovely but not easy to get about in. ... I was dead off painting - '(13) And then, just three weeks later, still at Corfe, she wrote, 'My Muse has returned to me - I found her waiting for me on the doorstep faithful wench, which goes to show how futile it is to travel over Mountains in search of material when it lies at your own pavement, for the seeing.' (14)
1. Letter to Dorothy Kate Richmond, 2 July 1908.
2. Letter to Rachel Hodgkins, 10 October 1908.
3. Letter to Hannah Ritchie, 21 January 1923.
4. Letter to Eardley Knollys, 5 August 1944.
5. Letter to Eardley Knollys, 4 March 1944.
6. Letter to Eardley Knollys, 6 June 1944.
7. Letter to Mrs Gorer, c23 July 1937.
8. Letter to W.J.P. Hodgkins,15 October 1938.
9. Letter to W.J.P. Hodgkins, 21 June 1944.
10. Letters to Dorothy Selby, c.15 and 23 September 1942.
11. Letter to W.J.P. Hodgkins, 22 October 1942.
12. Letter to Eardley Knollys, 31 October 1942.
13. Letter to Eardley Knollys, 7 May 1945.
14. Letter to Eardley Knollys, 28 May 1945.