By Alicia Foster
Eiderdown Books. 60 pages. £10.99. ISBN 978-1-9160416-6-0
Reviewed by Jim Burns
The fact that, as I write this review, an exhibition of Nina Hamnett’s work has just opened at Charleston House, a location now famous for its Bloomsbury links, provides hope that, at last, attention might be paid to the paintings and sketches she produced. She wasn’t just the “Queen of Bohemia”, someone referred to in memoirs and histories of Fitzrovia and Soho in the 30s and 40s, and remarked on for her faded glory and unkempt appearance.
Hamnett was born in 1890 in Tenby and had what might be seen as a somewhat curious childhood. Her father was an army officer who was later dismissed from the service because of some financial irregularities. A tomboyish child, never prone to behaving conventionally or obeying orders, she was educated in various places and showed an aptitude for drawing. She attended Portsmouth School of Art, and the Dublin School of Art, but following her father’s disgrace the family moved to London. She went to the London School of Art, often referred to as “Brangwyn’s”, due to the presence of the popular painter and professor, Frank Brangwyn. It was then that she began to truly display her drawing and painting skills and make friends and contacts among the artistic community. Of “Brangwyn’s”, she said: “Here at last was paradise. It was run as a French Academy”. Alicia Foster notes that among the staff at the London School of Art was William Nicholson whose “influence at this early stage in Hamnett’s career was particularly significant: he helped to shape Hamnett’s own approach to still life”.
Foster’s account is primarily focused on Hamnett’s work rather than what might be called her unstable private life. And that’s as it should be in view of the fact that the exhibition it relates to is designed to promote the work. But it is difficult to separate the story of Hamnett the artist from that of Hamnett the bohemian. She went to Paris in 1912 (and again in 1914), met Gertrude Stein, and studied in the atelier of the Russian painter, Marie Vassilieff. She was not averse to joining in the café life, and her autobiography, Laughing Torso (originally published by Constable in 1932 and reprinted by Virago in 1984) is a colourful account of encounters with Modigliani, Kees Van Dongen, Ossip Zadkine, and many others. It might give an idea of her exuberant and uninhibited personality if I quote from her reminiscences about a visit to Van Dongen’s studio when he had a Thursday open house: “One day they asked me to dance, so I took off all my clothes and danced in a black veil”.
It was not all frivolity and loose-living, and Hamnett must have been alert to what was happening in Paris as Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and the work of individual artists who perhaps didn’t fit easily into a definable category, came to her attention. Foster stresses that Hamnett had been aware of Post-Impressionist paintings before going to Paris, thanks to the exhibitions that Roger Fry organised in London. Several illustrations in Foster’s book point to influences from Paris, though it needs to be remembered that she had already benefited from William Nicholson’s lessons about creating successful still-life paintings in advance of visiting the French capital.
It could be that it was her skill as a portraitist that showed her at her best. There are several eye-catching portraits of Osbert Sitwell, Lady Constance Stewart-Robinson, and Horace Brodsky from the period prior to 1920. The point about them is that they are not simply photographic-style representations of their subjects. Instead, they attempt to capture some of the individual characteristics of the sitters. Foster, referring to the portrait of Brodsky, thinks it one of Hamnett’s finest, and it “shows a figure doubly outside British norms of masculinity, as he was both Jewish and Australian……..He is a compact, dark presence in Hamnett’s painting: his body seems too small for his head, which is as massy and sharp-planed as a carving, set against the stripes of strong colour behind him”.
Hamnett produced work for the Omega Workshops over a number of years (she may be seen as a link between the Bloomsbury group and the Camden Town artists), painted murals for the Arthur Ruck House, helped edit Coterie, a short-lived little magazine of the period, provided drawings for Osbert Sitwell’s The People’s Album of London Statues, did some teaching, and exhibited and worked as a model in both Paris and London. She continued to achieve striking portraits. One, of the male ballet dancer, Rupert Doone, captures what has been described as his “Ariel-like beauty and mercurial temperament”. But there’s no doubt that she enjoyed the life of the cafés and bars, perhaps to the detriment of her talents as a painter. Most accounts of life among the artists and writers of 1920s Paris and London have a reference to Hamnett, noting that she mixed easily with the well-to-do, who no doubt found her amusing for her entertainment value, as well as with the bohemians.
But there may have been disturbing signs that all was not well. In 1931 Ethel Mannin published a novel called Ragged Banners (Penguin edition, 1940). There is a scene in it set in a pub clearly based on the Fitzroy Tavern, a favourite haunt of the bohemians of London’s Fitzrovia. And one of the characters is a woman “with her glazed eyes, and her tawdry clothes, a ruin of a woman” who had once been famous in Paris. It was obviously a portrait of Hamnett, who, when she heard about it, threatened to give Mannin a black eye if she ever encountered her.
Some years earlier, probably around the mid-1920s, her one-time lover Roger Fry, who thought that she had failed to live up to her potential, saw her as “a coarse heavy middle-aged rouée”. Fry had portrayed Hamnett in 1917 in what Denise Hooker says “was one of his most penetrating and successful works. In her dark polo-necked jumper and skirt, sleeves rolled up ready for work, she seems serious-minded, self-possessed and independent, very much of the breed of new woman”. But it has to be said that a 1926 portrait by Jacob Kramer, on the cover of Hooker’s biography of Hamnett, does tend to suggest a degree of coarsening and heaviness in her facial expression when compared to Fry’s earlier painting.
Hamnett became a fixture around Fitzrovia and Soho, when the latter area and its pubs and clubs took over as the playground of the bohemians. It would take up too much space to list all the books she crops up in, but those dealing with the York Minster pub (usually known as The French) and the notorious drinking club, the Colony Room, mention her more than once. One of the most interesting publications in which she appears, albeit in fictional form, is Julius Horwitz’s novel, Can I Get There by Candlelight (André Deutsch, 1964). Horwitz was an American serviceman stationed in Britain during the war years, and his novel, mostly set in Fitzrovia and Soho, is an engaging fictionalised account of some of his experiences. Hamnett appears as Nora, an artist who had spent time in Paris where she knew Modigliani, Picasso, Braque, and many others.
The narrator goes to her lodgings: “I like Nora’s room. It has the look of the painters’ rooms I knew in New York, those $16-a-month cold water flats on Hudson Street. The clean brushes, the squashed tubes of paint, the raw canvases, the piled-up books, the raw hanging paintings, hanging like newborn babies on display in a maternity ward, the stretchers, the empty wine bottles, all of it looks so god damn elegant”. Nora/Hamnett isn’t portrayed in a cruel way in Can I Get There by Candlelight, and is generally looked on in a nostalgically warm light, though some of her less-savoury habits are mentioned, along with her open sexuality. She had numerous lovers and liaisons, several with well-known people, many not. And another visit to her room significantly refers to a canvas on the easel that doesn’t appear to have been touched recently.
Hamnett hadn’t lost all her skills and when the second volume of autobiography, Is She a Lady? (Allan Wingate¸1955), was published it included a number of convincing drawings of young boys. But I wonder if she was painting (could she still afford the necessary materials?), or not getting much further than these preparatory sketches? A photograph taken in her room in 1954 shows her talking to the now-forgotten writer and editor Wrey Gardiner. It’s noticeable that there are several bottles littered around the room. Nina Hamnett died in 1956 when she fell from the window of her flat and was impaled on the railings below. There were suggestions that she had committed suicide. She had been suffering from ill-health and had spent several months in hospital. But a verdict of accidental death was recorded by the coroner.
As I said at the start of this review, Alicia Foster’s book doesn’t have a great deal of information about what might be called the bohemian aspects of Hamnett’s life. Her concern is to draw attention to her work as an artist. And she does that admirably. It’s right that Hamnett’s achievements as an artist should be acknowledged in what is the first retrospective of her work. I’ve added some details taken from other sources to round out the story – Hamnett’s two books, Julius Horwitz’s novel, and Denise Hooker’s Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia (Constable, 1986) – and Foster’s book has some useful notes. It’s attractively produced, and one of a series about women artists which includes volumes on Laura Knight, Eileen Agar and Marlowe Moss.