Research Notes: Frances Hodgkins

From the Introduction of “Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys” by Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler:

“Frances Mary Hodgkins (1869-1947) has always been difficult to locate within existing art-historical frameworks. Resisitant to any particular style, forever on the move, her place within modernist art has never been settled. Born in New Zealand in the second half of the nineteenth century, she exemplified the progressive attitude and spirit of the ‘colonial woman’: a single, talented local artist who left for Europe in her early thirties. From that point onwards, Hodgkins seldom had a fixed abode, and determinedly avoided any encumbrance, without property or any family of her own, her entire life. Instead she worked, as she wished, as an independent professional artist in a career that spanned six decades, drawing inspiration from the changing scene around her that her freedom and transience afforded.”

Hodgkins life, let alone her art, is then utterly fascinating, especially when as Hammond and Kisler write next: “It was not until Hodgkins was approaching the age of sixty that she began to establish a central place for herself within British modernism.”

The book brilliantly illuminates the artist’s journey with some glorious reproductions of paintings many of which are located in New Zealand and Australia, which leads us to online resources:

Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys by Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler [2019; Thames & Hudson]

The “European Journeys” book was published to coincide with an exhibition at Christchurch Gallery and their website is certainly worth exploring.

Another recent exhibition, at the Jonathan Grant Gallery in Auckland also has a fabulous website: Frances Hodgkins and her Circle

And the Museum of New Zealand has many of Hodgkins’ paintings in its collection.

The Tate Gallery in London also holds some [here], including:

Loveday and Ann: Two Women with a Basket of Flowers 1915 Frances Hodgkins 1869-1947 Purchased 1944

“Loveday and Ann” is one of Hodgkins’ earliest oil paintings. Having had a flourishing career in Paris, as an exhibitor and teacher of watercolour, the outbreak of war brought her to the safety of Cornwall. Her art, however, inspired by the modern French avant garde, from Vuillard to Matisse and Picasso, confused, disorientated and shocked the British viewer. “This is the exhibit of a pyrotechnic artist in paint, it is not portraiture, or if it is, I never want to meet Loveday and Ann” was one critics 1916 response, notes Samantha Niederman.

“Frances Hodgkins” by Samantha Niederman [2020; Eiderdown Books’ Modern Women Artists series]

For me, “Ann and Loveday” represents the full glory of Hodgkins’ paintings: the combination of gorgeous colour, the flowering of multiple patterns and a finger-tingling texture. There’s something vibrant about them – the very paint is exhilarating. And whilst it is possible to relate some of the painterly ideas and experiments to Fauvism, Cubism, Abstraction and Surrealism; Hodgkins works are the creations of a particular singular vision. How to describe that vision in words is, as it should be, next to impossible. One late exhibition was reviewed by John Piper, who extolled the artist’s ‘songlike expression’ and focused on her achievement as a colourist, borrowing terms, as many others had, from music: ‘…it means talking of scintillations and explosions, chromatic runs and exciting leaps…’ – but then how else might one encapsulate another painting that is in the Tate:

The Lake c.1930-5 Frances Hodgkins 1869-1947 Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1940

It really is a poem in paint; the visualisation of a distilled memory of a visit to Bridgnorth possibly a few years earlier. Tate quotes Hodgkins’ friend Hannah Ritchie saying it was “a picture done in her studio after a good deal of thinking round the material she [had] gathered”, and they link it to a pencil drawing at Christchurch Art Gallery, “Sabrina’s Garden”:

which really would exemplify the artist’s mind, that visionary creativity that can translate “nature” into “art”. It would also seem pertinent in relation to “The Lake” to quote Eric Newton who declared: Frances Hodgkins “can juggle with colour orchestrally”. We might even to go further for her colours seem incredibly unique. A late painting, for example:

is “Ornaments” [1942; Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki] combines a still life with landscape – a development, as Frances Spalding notes, of the Seven & Five Society’s interest in still life on a window sill [European Journeys: “Frances Hodgkins and British Modernism” pp7-24]. But those colours! There’s alchemy at work here surely as the browns, pinks, greens and yellows unite with rhythmic lines, pulsating textures and eye-bewitching patterns, to conjure a mesmerising harmony of golden light.

Happy researches!


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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