The Reputation of Frances Hodgkins


Whenever Frances Hodgkins is seriously spoken about in New Zealand there is a mixture of responses. The most affirmative of these single out not only pride in her New Zealand origins, but also her attractiveness as a woman struggling to attain her own artistic goals, her late maturity as a painter, the elements of uniqueness in her style, her delight in simple, homely subjects, and the claim that she is the greatest painter this country has yet produced.

FRANCES HODGKINS Self Portrait: Still Life 1941
oil, 762 x 635 mm. (Auckland City Art Gallery)

Without necessarily dismissing all these attributes, the contrary view suggests that her work is over-rated; and if her later work is the most relevant, then her status must be measured in terms of her achievement as a British painter. That New Zealand has claimed Frances Hodgkins for its own is undeniable: one has only to consider the extent of our art gallery holdings of her work, the vast majority of which have been acquired since 1953 when, six years after her death, Eric Westbrook announced his intention 'to create a fully representative selection of her work which will be of interest beyond the shores of New Zealand'.

If it was The Pleasure Garden incident which made a great many New Zealanders familiar with the name of Frances Hodgkins, Westbrook realised that the fact of an overseas reputation was still a significant ingredient in the acceptance of her work by New Zealanders. As much as we might wish otherwise, the regard in which her work is held in Britain must remain a major factor in assessing her status as an artist: if for no other reason than because the major part of her artistic output was produced against a British background. This is true despite the fact that her formative training and emotional ties in New Zealand remained a subsidiary element in her work.

For approximately twenty years - from the mid-1930s when critics began to publicly assess the qualities of Frances Hodgkins's paintings, to the mid-1950s when her reputation as an artist was at its height - there is, in the accumulated assessments of her work, critical agreement as to certain characteristic qualities.

FRANCES HODGKINS The Pleasure Garden 1933
watercolour, 530 x 425 mm.
(Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch)

The attribute upon which almost every writer commented was that of her ability to use colour, especially her skill in creating 'delicate harmonies'. The musical affinity contained in the word 'harmonies' found a natural extension in Eric Newton's metaphor 'colour orchestration' and in Arthur R. Howell's comparison of Frances Hodgkins' method of applying colour to the compositional structure of Bach's music, for he concluded that: 'Her constructive ability went into her colour schemes' or, as he also called them, her 'symphonies'. In more general terms, Patrick Heron also evoked 'the visual music of purely formal relationships' in a discussion of her work.

Closely following her talent as a colourist comes the observation, sometimes directly stated, sometimes implied, that the source of her imagery is a still recognizable real world. 'No matter how abstract her rendering becomes,' wrote Patrick Heron, 'she is still communicating a formal fantasy based on this view of this farm: or of that table by that window in that room. In other words, abstraction in her painting, so far from being an end in itself, comes into existence simply as a vehicle: it is always at the service of a specific object.'

It must be realized that from the dozen authors I am quoting most were concerned solely with the work Frances Hodgkins produced during the last fifteen years of her life. So, for John Piper, she was 'a sensitive painter whose harmonies of colour have their origins in Wiltshire farmyards, Welsh hills and Dorset coves' as well as 'backyards and outbuildings with their furnishing of derelict gear'. Her preference for 'homely things' was noted, and as John Petts said, 'her devoted artistry gave beauty to innumerable subjects which in themselves had little pictorial quality'.

The unique mood or feeling that Hodgkins instilled into her work attracted considerable attention, and though writers varied in their analysis of this aspect, a consensus would firmly base this quality in intuitive responses. As Eric Newton insisted, 'her inner vision' had no 'relation to the cold engineering of abstract art"': If John Piper placed her among the British romantic painters, Michael Ayrton saw her as a 'fine lyrical artist'.

FRANCES HODGKINS Plants and Cockerels 1928
watercolour, 463 x 356 mm. (Collection of Mrs Alan Ward)

While Myfanwy Evans indicated that Frances Hodgkins minimized the implications of 'either her sex or her age', already in 1937 Geoffrey Gorer had emphasised her 'uniqueness' as a 'woman painter'. Then, in 1941, Eric Newton stated: 'Femininity does mean something in art. It means, in her case, a quite hair-raising reliance on instinct, and a rather disturbing refusal to be logical or prudent'. Later, in 1947, he described her method of working as 'a gradual absorption. Life in her paintings is not so much seen as experienced and translated into paint with a minimum of calculation and a maximum of intuition'. Gorer and Newton also imply that the general acceptance of her artistic originality is derived, at least in part, from the fact of her gender.

Hodgkins was, as suggested by John Russell, a painter who 'overturns many canons of English art history', and for this reason some writers found it difficult to define her position in relation to other British painters. Herbert Read found this so 'because remaining essentially feminine, and having a peasant or folk-art quality which is universal rather than specifically English or French', Frances Hodgkins remained an isolated figure: even though she 'developed one of the richest styles in English painting, but again a style which owes a good deal to the School of Paris'.

Her earlier acquaintance with French painting, especially that of Matisse, is mentioned by a number of writers. However, as Myfanwy Evans saw, this had ceased to be a significant factor in the paintings from Frances Hodgkins's final period.

FRANCES HODGKINS Double Portrait 1922
oil, 610 x 765 mm. (Hocken Library, Dunedin)

Another common observation in the comments on Frances Hodgkins's art from this period is contained in Geoffrey Gorer's sentence from 1937: 'From her world human beings are almost excluded, but not their products: it is as though the human race had disappeared and a visitor from another planet were observing their world and the relics they had left.' Emphasis was placed on her landscapes, or still-lifes within a landscape setting. Patrick Heron considered her unique among modern painters in her ability to evoke her 'hills and valleys by way of still life' while retaining a sense of natural atmosphere. Her power to suggest the quality of English light impressed several writers. 'As one is conscious of movement and light and life behind a clouded sky, so one is conscious of them behind Frances Hodgkins's opaque palette,' wrote Myfanwy Evans. That these two qualities of atmosphere and colour should be linked as a matter of course is also reflected in Newton's apt description 'twilight colour' and in Heron's 'misty colour'.

In one of the best pre-1952 pieces on Frances Hodgkins, Robin Ironside assessed as 'the special qualities of her art: the mobility of its shapes and the subtle confusion of its colours [which] she has exploited. .. with a resistant verve "that might be monotonous if it was less authentic'. Written about the time of Hodgkins's death, the concluding hint of caution was salutary, for the praise heaped on Frances Hodgkins was growing out of proportion. Even in New Zealand, A.R.D. Fairburn was suggesting that she 'has some claim to be considered the greatest living woman painter' and regretted the absence of any of 'her finest works' in the country's leading art galleries. Slightly later, when her death became known, Howard Wadman wrote: 'Eventually New Zealand will understand that it has given another Katherine Mansfield to the world. . . '

Back in London, in March 1949, Patrick Heron, in a sympathetic analysis of her work, prefaced his article with the warning: 'To over-praise an artist, by even the slightest margin, is to unbar the door to his detractors.' He took to task the claim that ranked Frances Hodgkins equal with , "her great contemporaries of France" " though he admitted her to the rank of 'the best woman painter ever to have worked in this country'. By this time six of her more modern paintings were in Christchurch, and before the year was out The Pleasure Garden incident, called after the title of one of these six paintings, had erupted into one of the major art controversies ever witnessed in New Zealand.

A better notion of the over-all situation pertaining to Frances Hodgkins's status can be gauged if we consider an approximate breakdown of the distribution of her work in public and private collections in 1950. The figures are based on the recorded holdings of works listed by Mary Chamot in Howell's Frances Hodgkins: Four Vital Years, and by E.H. McCormick in Works of Frances Hodgkins in New Zealand. Where possible, paintings listed by McCormick as being acquired after 1950 have been omitted. (Figure 1)

Period -1913 -1927 -1939 -1947
Britain Public 3 32 9
Private 6 56 132 62
Dealer 17 5
Australia Public 3
Private 6 1
New Zealand Public 11 10 6
On Loan 2 1
Private 246 28 44

Figure 1. Distribution of works by Frances Hodgkins

It would be fair to say that the indications so far given of the attitudes of British writers to the work of Frances Hodgkins would be typical of the opinions New Zealanders have of her work today.

watercolour, 641 x 495 mm.
(Collection of Mrs Peter Gorer)

In May 1952 the Tate Gallery held a memorial exhibition for three women painters: Ethel Walker, Frances Hodgkins and Gwen John. Later in the year the forty-five works by Hodgkins were toured by the Arts Council of Great Britain as an independent exhibition. Eric Newton reviewed the former exhibition for the Listener, but in his comments on Frances Hodgkins he ignored Patrick Heron's warning and praised her as 'one of the three greatest colourists that ever lived'. Such rash exaltation brought its 'Own adverse reaction. As John Rothenstein, in his essay on her life and work, was to state: 'Today she has found favour with fashionable opinion: she is even spoken of as a great master. But of course she was not that: she lacks the scale, the range, the variety, the purposefulness.'

Just as Hodgkins was receiving belated recognition of her importance as an artist on the national level, the fractures that were to weaken her achievements and lead to a decline of interest in her work had been set in motion.

Many of her internal artistic weaknesses had already been observed and noted. Now with the period of discovery over and that of assessment begun, such failings became more apparent. Patrick Heron's most serious reservation about her work was that 'she was incapable of expanding her vivid clusters of imagery into a coherent pictorial whole. Her sense of the whole, of the unity of construction, tended to be restricted to what was often little more than a consistent texture; a net of pleasant misty' colour thrown over the whole surface to unify it.' Previously H.J. Paris had called attention to the fact that her paintings 'sometimes suggest the inspired designer of tiles and textiles', and Graham Reynolds noted 'the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated images'. These aspects were recognized by Heron, but his conclusion goes deeper than Reynolds's mild statement that this indicated an 'emancipated attitude towards composition'.

During the late 1950s qualities previously seen as a credit to Frances Hodgkins were gradually neutralized, as the formal weaknesses became more apparent. Even critics who felt that her work contained admirable qualities had to admit, like Bryan Robertson in 1963, that she was 'almost totally neglected and forgotten'.

FRANCES HODGKINS Wings over Water 1932
oil, 711 x 914 mm. (Tate Gallery, London)

In 1953 and 1962 Frances Hodgkins had been represented in survey exhibitions of modern British painting: but this was not to be in 1972, when her work was omitted from the important British Arts Council's exhibition Painting, Sculpture and Drawing in Britain 1940-49, even though the New Zealand-compiled Frances Hodgkins: A Centenary Exhibition could well have served as a reminder of her former high standing when displayed in London early in 1970. In the introductory essay to the New Zealand edition of the Centenary Exhibition, Ian Roberts and David Armitage expanded, with a certain relish, the analysis of Frances Hodgkins's stylistic devices and her 'nebulous' treatment of pictorial space. By minimizing the more appealing aspects of her work they showed a lack of balance, but the doubts they raised brought into some sort of focus her limitations as a painter. This imbalance was to some extent countered by Anthony Green's Reflections on the Hodgkins Exhibition, in which he also took to task Rothenstein's assertion that her paintings racked scale, range, variety and purposefulness.

A growing tendency, whenever Frances Hodgkins is mentioned by a writer on British art, is to see her as one of the protagonists in the stylistic conflict among the ranks of the Seven and Five Society which occurred in the early 'thirties between the painters who retained the 'vestiges of nature' and the non-objectivists led by Ben Nicholson. This conflict concluded in 1934 when Hodgkins resigned from the group. This view was taken by J. Rothenstein in 1962, G.H. Hamilton in 1967, G. Gowie in 1975 and R. Shone in 19770 From these writers only Richard Shone goes on to discuss her work in more general terms. Graham Reynolds, in A Concise History of Watercolours, 1971, also briefly mentions her 'decorative gouaches'. This, and George Heard Hamilton's reference to her in his Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940, are rare instances of Hodgkins being mentioned in a book whose contents extend beyond the confines of British art.

Frances Hodgkins in 1953
(photograph by Felix Man)

Maybe the 'primitive' qualities attributed to her work by some critics, and the 'less formalist, more decorative surface organization' singled out by Richard Shone are at odds with the general stylistic canons that characterize so much that has occurred in painting since 1960. Perhaps this accounts for the limited revival of interest in her work, particularly her drawings, of the late 1920s and early '30s. Another factor stressed by several writers has been the difficulty of classifying her later work as aligned to any particular art movement. This isolation places her work outside the general tenets ascribed to British painting. Again, it may simply be too early to settle her place in British art. The impression gained, however, is that it will not be among the major or even secondary figures, but as a minor artist dependent on the judgement of an occasional admirer.

Although Frances Hodgkins will always retain a special significance for New Zealanders, it will be one in which we will have to show discretion when claiming for her importance as a modern artist.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 16 Winter 1980