The novelist Virginia Woolf could not contain her impatience. “Why are you artists so repetitious?” she demanded of her acquaintance Nina Hamnett. “Does the eye for months together see nothing but roofs?”
The urban views that so irritated her were painted in London, but Hamnett’s horizons were much wider, despite Woolf’s failure to understand that, unlike a writer, the visual artist can revisit the same material over and over again.
Cézanne had his imposing Mont Saint-Victoire and humble apples, Morandi his simple pots, di Chirico his solemn arcades. And Hamnett liked looking out of the window of her London digs. But, to Woolf’s relief, no doubt, the painter moved on, excelling for a while in portraiture before the excesses of her abandoned lifestyle overpowered the discipline of making art.
This brief display of brilliance is reignited at Charleston, the East Sussex home of Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. Hamnett was on the fringe of the multi-faceted Bloomsbury Group, with the sisters among those at its heart.
The artist and critic Roger Fry was a lover, and she contributed to the collegiate art and design work of his Omega Workshops. In one of his two 1917 portraits of her she perches on a chair in an Omega dress, alongside Omega furnishings. Because of the project’s collaborative nature, Hamnett’s contributions are not always identifiable, but tantalising photographic archives include a street scene, now lost, for the interior of a patron’s London house.
Hamnett’s gift for portraiture was aided by friendship with some of the most distinctive personalities of her day, but unlike Woolf and Bell, she had to work her way in from the outside. Born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, in 1890, by the age of 16 she had moved to London where her grandmother recognised she was better suited for a training in fine art than, as her parents intended, as a clerk. Early entry to the London School of Art was “paradise”, and it was here that the distinguished William Nicholson encouraged her still life painting.
She was in right place at the right time, seeing at an impressionable and adaptable age the work of Manet, Cézanne and Matisse in Fry’s influential Post-Impressionist shows in 1910 and 1913. And visits to Paris from 1912 not only brought her into contact with the collector Gertrude Stein, and the Picassos she had acquired, but also with the Russian painter Marie Vassilieff, who tutored her.
She met Modigliani, Diaghilev, Cocteau, Picasso himself. Her 1917 Portrait of a Woman includes a bottle of wine and the literary title Soirées, its front cover read from the viewer’s angle. Similarly, in 1915 – one year into the First World War – a German art and literature magazine is in the foreground of Still Life, Der Sturm.
In 1919 she visited Collioure, the picturesque coastal town south of Perpignan that had inspired many artists, notably Matisse and Andre Derain. But for her own visual response she turned away from the dazzling water and jaunty fishing fleet and focused instead on a shady orchard with bare trees, the subdued palette contrasting with the vibrant work of others under Mediterranean light.
The European pioneers of modernism had invested in everyday objects a monumentality and compositional intensity to which Hamnett responded. Under the guidance of Nicholson, himself a painter of arresting still life, she arranged a glass, a cup, some papers, tipped the picture plane towards the viewer, to dynamic effect, and with a palette of yellows, blues, greys and browns created in her early 20s both a composition bold in its simplicity and a sophisticated tonal world.
These still lifes were praised in exhibitions – one review contrasting Bell’s “essentially feminine” work with Hamnett’s “robuster energy”. That energy was to power a highly-charged private life as well as some radical work. An early marriage to the Norwegian artist and writer Edgar De Bergen was quickly abandoned; her appetite for sex and alcohol showed none of the austerity of her still-life painting.
She became known as the Queen of Bohemia for her emphatic embrace of the artistic lifestyle in Paris and well as London, where she was also nicknamed the Queen of the Fitzroy, having become a regular at the Fitzroy Tavern, on the corner of Charlotte and Windmill Streets.
Moving in creative, liberal and international circles, she met flamboyant and notable figures in the arts world, fertile ground for her pronounced gift as a portraitist. Delicate men and defiant women were her stock in trade, their traditional attributes often deployed with irony. She subverts traditional poses, her Reclining Man of 1918, for instance, crunching a male subject and his glass of red wine onto a Matisse-like striped cloth, an odalisque in office clothing.
The women she painted, on the other hand, are independent and forceful, none more so than a pair of severe landladies. One is barricaded behind her household objects, putting a firm barrier between herself and the artist, probably her lodger. Another pauses solemnly over a shapely apple, eschewing austerely the luxurious pile of oranges alongside.
When a portrait went on show of Lady Constance Stewart Richardson, the artist recalled that the “grand” who attended the opening were “bitterly disappointed” to see neither the opulent wear of a woman of class nor a depiction of the semi-clad dancing with which her ladyship scandalised society.
While torsos and legs often trail off, as if undernourished or lacking in interest, Hamnett invested psychological insight and purpose in characterful faces. Backgrounds are often obscure, but in her portrait of Horace Brodsky, as if presaging the once feted artist and writer’s impoverished and unnoticed death, arcs of colour that reverberate behind his huge and fine head are gradually drained of colour until a black finale.
Black is a colour Hamnett uses to great effect, understanding, like Manet, whose work she would have seen, that it was as dramatic and expressive as any brighter hue.
Then the career trailed off too. She continued to observe characters in the watering holes of Fitzrovia and beyond, as she had in 1915 when she drew a reptilian Lord Alfred Douglas and the novelist George Moore at the Café Royal. Lively drawings of London monuments – “ridiculous generals and statemen” – with figures poised to strut right off the page, were a perfect fit for the waspish prose of Osbert Sitwell in 1928. Osbert’s brother Sacheverell praised them as being “in the real English tradition of drawing, like Phiz and Cruikshank…”
She also wrote, publishing two volumes of autobiography. The first, Laughing Torso, its title a reference to a sculpture by her friend Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, for which she posed, revels in the glory days in Paris, although some found it too solipsistic. In the book, she described her bohemian life and it became a bestseller. The occultist Aleister Crowley unsuccessfully sued her and the publisher for libel over allegations of black magic made in her book.
In it, she also describes the beatings by her father, but does not mention the death of a premature baby during her first marriage. Her own end too was sad: a fall from the window of her Paddington flat in 1955, at the age of 66. It remains unknown whether this was a suicide attempt or a drunken accident.
Associate curator of this revealing exhibition and author of a new book on Hamnett, Alicia Foster, is among those seeking to restore the artist to her rightful place in early 20th-century British art history. “It is not uncommon,” she observes, “for women artists, even those with a distinguished career, to have their reputation disappear posthumously…”
Nina Hamnett runs at Charleston, Firle, East Sussex, until August 30; Nina Hamnett, by Alicia Foster, is published by Eiderdown Books at £10.99