Arts feature

Nina Hamnett's art was every bit as riveting as her life

Nina Hamnett’s art has long been overshadowed by her wild, hedonistic life, but that is changing, says Hermione Eyre — and about time

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

Nina Hamnett is in vogue again. She is the subject of a new pocket biography, no. 7 in Eiderdown Books’s Modern Women Artists series, and her first ever retrospective is now open at Charleston Farmhouse’s gallery space. I confess I didn’t know much about her before this resurrection, but she is now one of my favourite 20th-century artists.

In this bucolic gallery space, where cows can be heard bellowing, her portraits are at last hanging together, like a cocktail party finally regrouped. The colours are subtle, beautiful without being decorative; as the co-curator Alicia Foster explains, Hamnett’s use of colour is ‘meaningful, incisive’. Her circus paintings are thick with atmosphere, joy and menace, and technical feats — white kid gloves, or the brushed nap of a top hat — are pulled off with expert insouciance. No wonder Walter Sickert viewed her work with ‘einen Kolossalen Respekt’ and Roger Fry praised her to the rooftops.

Some of the portraits are like short stories. The dancer Rupert Doone, elegant as an orchid, is wearing make-up — a painted face painted. The former dancer Lady Constance Stuart-Richardson, who before the war ‘had a marvellous figure and danced with not much more on than a tiger skin’ (as Nina wrote in her memoir), is shown looking soulful, earnest, unworldly, and fully covered up. At its debut in 1917, viewers were ‘bitterly disappointed’.

One’s eye is just getting into Hamnett’s wit, and the touches of Omega Workshop about her backdrops, when the show ends. That’s it. Twenty oils, and about the same number of sketches. Whatever went wrong? Previous generations knew all about it; she was famously the witty memoirist and ‘Queen of Bohemia’ who ended up a dissolute fixture of the Colony Room. This show — and the new biography — barely mention any of that. ‘What I really wanted to do was just to look at the work, which had not been done before,’ says Foster. ‘For too long her bohemianism has done her a disservice. Her memoirs are wonderfully direct but they have been read in a salacious way.’ Hamnett’s memoir, Laughing Torso, is not even in the gift shop.

This is, in my view, an error. Her life writing is every bit as riveting as her art, and the two enrich one another. It seems downright silly to suppress or downplay an autobiography as enjoyable as hers. Laughing Torso is a high-bohemian caper across Fitzrovia and Montparnasse, in which Nina is always on a jag of one sort of another, singing sea shanties to Cocteau, Radiguet, Stravinsky and Diaghilev (‘They were delighted with the tunes’) or shinning up lampposts to avoid the amorous advances of Modigliani (‘I waited at the top till he had gone’). Every day for a week in 1913 she went to Père Lachaise cemetery with Epstein, Brancusi and their wives, and pulled the prudish tarpaulin off the tomb of Oscar Wilde, until policemen hiding behind the tombstones rushed out and covered it up again.

Her memoir is a great resource. Take, for example, the sculpture of her made in 1910 by her mucker Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a marble monolith, legless, arm-free, and, of course, headless. A classically stricken, silent maiden, one might think — until one reads Hamnett’s account: ‘I took off all my clothes, turned round slowly and he did drawings of me. When he had finished he said: “Now it is your turn to work.” He took off all his clothes, I did three drawings and he said: “Now we will have some tea.”’

Laughing Torso was a US and UK bestseller in 1932 despite the attempts of Aleister Crowley to shut it down: usually discreet and kind in her writing, she rather let Crowley have it, perhaps because she had been fond of two of his acolytes who died in mysterious circumstances. In the book she divulged not only the recipe of his laudanum-laced cocktail, Kubla Khan no. 2, but also the rumour that a baby had disappeared during his black-magic rites in Cefalu. Crowley lost the case.

Hamnett always seems to be in fancy dress with geniuses, staying up drinking at La Rotonde until 5 a.m., before ending at Les Halles among the cabbages and onions. She had been liberated from ladylike obligations when her father, a major in the Army Service Corps, was court-martialled and cashiered when she was 16, and she never regained any bourgeois aspirations but lived in a perpetual hedonistic present. Laughing Torso is a stream-of-consciousness, crypto-modernist babble, episodic and unpretentious. When chatting to Gertrude Stein she couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying, ‘driven mad’ by watching Stein perpetually swinging her Greek sandal off her big toe. Stein’s grey woollen socks didn’t help either.

The tragic vein beneath the jollity is Hamnett’s wanton disregard for her own talent, let alone legacy. She describes gifting one of her oil paintings to Charley, a clown from Le Cirque de Paris, in return for a cloak he had just found in a taxi. No wonder the Charleston exhibition is small.

In vain, Sickert counselled self-protection. ‘Don’t stand any nonsense from your men-friends and lovers. Keep them tyrannically to their settled hours — like a dentist — the hours that suit you.’ He even persuaded her to move to Bath, where he had settled — but Nina lasted there only five weeks: ‘I have never been so bored in all my life.’ Augustus John and Roger Fry recommended her to a committee that gave her a job teaching art at Westminster College, but she soon gave that over and skipped back to Paris.

Pleasure versus artistic discipline: you can see the two vying in her work for supremacy. A woman staying at home has ‘SOIRÉES’ temptingly written on a card next to her. The delicious-looking glass of white wine in her 1913 still life, glowing like a grail, is a portent of her later ruin. Hamnett was also distracted by lesser projects that she clearly found amusing, such as her illustrations for Osbert Sitwell’s book of London monuments, and for W. Seymour Leslie’s comic novel The Silent Queen, which is about an extremely quiet flushing lavatory. (Rest assured, I have this book on order.)

Foster and her co-curator Nathaniel Hepburn have done a marvellous job sleuthing out her paintings, following hunches and auction-house catalogues. ‘Like so many modernist women, the work disappears into private collections,’ she says. In the 1950s, when Nina was living in Soho, mired in drink, her pals at the Mandrake Club under Meard Street clubbed together to buy one of her paintings to give to the Tate, but although this gesture was celebrated with a party, the money evaporated and no donation was made.

From Laughing Torso, one knows what is missing from the retrospective. Where is the portrait of Poulenc with the pinkish-purple anemone in his buttonhole, chosen to offset his grey-green suit? Where the full-length Madame Bing, or the paintings of composer Georges Auric, or the poet W.H. Davies? The newly respectable poet (known for ‘What is this life, if full of care…’) was enraged, as he was shown surrounded by bottles. ‘She ought not to have done it. She ought not. It doesn’t do for a man in my position — and it was Nina who bought the port!’

The Charleston exhibition quarantines images of Nina by Fry and Gaudier-Brzeska in a nearby room, lest we confuse maker with muse (and to preserve the impact of a room full of Nina’s own work). It also puts her great champion Roger Fry in his place: he was ‘influenced by her incisive, unadorned style’, apparently. She may have been the better artist, but his seniority and powerful impact on the British art scene is not mentioned, nor is his role as ‘un vieux satyr’, in love with Nina until she turned him over for a much younger hunk. Nina’s life story is suppressed, ironically because so much is known, too much perhaps. ‘It’s the same question we face today,’ says Foster. ‘Can a sexually liberated woman be considered a great artist?’ I would say yes, of course; the problem is not any residual prejudice but her failure, and the failure of those around her, to protect and promote her work in her lifetime.

Nina’s second volume of autobiography, Is She a Lady? (1955), is an unreadable collection of bar-room ramblings. Her horrible death in 1956, after she was impaled on railings having fallen from the window of her flat in Paddington, was construed by some as suicide. But Lucian Freud, who liked and respected Nina, believed she was answering a call of nature out of the window. Censor this, and let her remain a mystery. Keep it in, and we have something approaching a human female artist.

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Nina Hamnett is at Charleston Farmhouse until 30 August. A biography of Nina Hamnett by Alicia Foster is available now from Eiderdown Books.

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