Frances Hodgkins and her ‘firm supporters’, Geoffrey and Rée Gorer

By July 28, 2016News
frances hodgkins
frances hodgkins

Image of Frances Mary Hodgkins, circa 1937, signed For Rée Gorer from Frances Hodgkins. Photographer unidentified. Ref: 1/2-117607-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Frances Hodgkins met Geoffrey Gorer in 1929 at a flamboyant soirée hosted by Cedric Morris and Lett Haines at their Great Ormond Street studio in London. Despite the decades of difference between their ages, their meeting was an immediate success. Geoffrey Gorer was just 24 years old when they were introduced. He was a budding writer, anthropologist and sociologist, who would travel extensively to Africa, the Himalayas and the USA, and, in time, would work with Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, the great practitioners of anthropological field study. Gorer was hugely impressed by Hodgkins and, during the crucial years of her late career, would become one of a number of influential men and women who advanced her reputation.

In May 1940, Hodgkins moved into the Gorers’ cottage on Somerset on a more permanent basis. “Geoffrey Gorer asked me to take charge of his cottage & keep it “warm & human.”

Geoffrey was joined in his avid appreciation of Hodgkins’ painting by his mother Rée Gorer, who became a friend and supporter of her work. Rée was a remarkable woman in her own right. In her youth, she had studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and was a lifelong friend of Edith Sitwell and her brother Sacheverell. Rée’s husband Edgar Gorer’s tragic death on 7 May 1915, when the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine, left her widowed with three young sons. Geoffrey, the eldest, was 10, his brother Peter eight and Richard, just a toddler, was only three years old when calamity struck. Regardless of their own difficulties, the Gorers reached out to Hodgkins, seeing not only her hardship but also, as Geoffrey described it, “her strange and unplaceable” talent.[1]

The Gorers were invaluable to Hodgkins. “They have been such firm supporters (in the practical way) ever since I have known them – I have a great regard and affection for the family,” she explained to her art dealer, Lucy Wertheim, in 1930.[2] At regular intervals, Rée Gorer and her son Geoffrey had Hodgkins to stay at their Highgate house (The Elms) in London and their cottage in Somerset (The Croft). This generosity was essential to her physical and mental well-being, as well as to her creative vision. She painted some of her most innovative and interesting work while living in their homes. Berries and Laurel (c. 1930), for instance, is a view from the window of The Croft at Bradford-on-Tone. The work is daring in its handling of landscape and still life. Pictorial space has been flattened: the sky a thin band of blue at the top of the painting. Dominating the picture from the foreground is a simple still life with a white vase. It is an elegant example of English modernism inspired by the progressive Seven and Five Society.

Geoffrey, Richard and Peter Gorer (L-R), 1950, at Abbey Lodge, London, where Rée Gorer lived until her death in 1954. Behind Geoffrey’s head is the bottom portion of Frances Hodgkins’ Private Bathing, sold by Webb’s for the Gorer family in 2003.

Geoffrey and Rée Gorer became great patrons of Hodgkins’ work. Rée’s purchase of a painting in 1932 was pivotal in allowing Hodgkins to make the long, expensive trip to Ibiza in the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain. During Britain’s bitter winter, she enjoyed the island’s tempestuous but balmy climate. “Awful turmoil here – climactic – freak storms – short and wild, lamb like intervals – then wild cat fury again high seas – no boats out – deluge of rain,” Frances wrote to Karl Hagedorn, an old friend from Manchester, “all the time almond blossom bursting on the trees in spite of dirty looks from the skies.”[3]The life there was simple and slow, and the history and culture of Ibiza fascinated her.

“Her situation, often desperate and despairing, was made bearable by the Gorers’ support. In mid-1938, when Hodgkins announced to the directors of the Lefevre Gallery that she could not continue working according to the agreed terms of her 1932 contract, she knew she had the backing of her friends. “The Gallery now realises I have the Gorers very solidly behind me – their one wish is that I should be unworried and rested – and not overworked.”

The first sightseers and visitors to Ibiza had arrived towards the end of the 19th century but it was not until 1929 that proper tourist trips were organised. Once hotels opened there in the 1930s, Ibiza became an increasingly popular destination for artists, writers and rationalist architects, who came to study its indigenous architecture and ancient buildings. Hodgkins worked hard and prolifically in the first months but by May was feeling oppressed. She had managed to send six works to the Seven and Five Society, and was trying to paint for a show at the Lefevre Gallery. “My work has been pressing on me,” she told her friend Dorothy Selby.

The Croft House, Geoffrey Gorer’s cottage in the small village of Bradford-on-Tone, Somerset.

I have been straining to complete contract work; not been too happy over it – got overtired: had to go away from here to other side of Island and get it off my mind!… I have had to postpone my Show until Autumn… I am in a nervy depressed state and for the moment am not painting… Fact is, I live too close to my work.[i] But Hodgkins did produce many outstanding images of the elemental indigenous architecture, the surrounding countryside, and even the cats and dogs that she saw. In fact, her Ibiza experience was so profound she continued to execute work inspired by her time there after her return to London. These and the numerous works she produced in situ became part of her Lefevre show in October and November 1933, and her February 1935 exhibition at the Leicester Galleries.

In late October 1937, Frances showed the sizeable number of 63 works: the greatest number she had exhibited in one venue since her 1912–13 tour of Australia and New Zealand. The subjects were varied, reflecting her travels over the previous few years in Cornwall, Somerset, Wales, Ibiza and Spain. The paintings were in watercolour, oils and gouache, a medium she was using with increasing frequency and, ultimately, great success. The Lefevre exhibition was intended to be a comprehensive demonstration of excellence and modernity so the relatively apathetic critical response was disappointing. Reviews of her Lefevre show appeared in The Times, the Manchester Guardian, the Time and Tide and The Sunday Times, but it was Geoffrey Gorer’s review in The Listener that was most fulsome and thought provoking in its praise. He identified two reasons for Hodgkins’ unique talent – “she is a woman and she is a New Zealander”.[4] These, in turn, gave her work a sensitivity and freshness of vision that made her “the most original and individual painter working in England today”.[5]

Hodgkins did produce many outstanding images of the elemental indigenous architecture, the surrounding countryside, and even the cats and dogs that she saw. In fact, her Ibiza experience was so profound she continued to execute work inspired by her time there after her return to London.

Gorer was not the first critic to discuss Hodgkins’ gender in relation to her work. “Hers is essentially feminine painting: gay, intelligent, and never pushed an inch beyond her scope,” the critic for the New Statesman and Nation had written the previous year. “Personally, I regret what I take to be the masculine influence of Dufy in some of her pictures, of Paul Nash in others.”[5] There were numerous examples at the time of sexist commentary in critical discussions of her work. Though intermittent, it was often used to patronise or dismiss. However, Geoffrey Gorer’s comments were framed positively and Hodgkins was pleased, though disappointed overall by the response to her exhibition. She “felt depressed… that the Show had fallen flat on a blasé London.”[6] Hodgkins spent the Christmas period of 1937 in Wiltshire. Although Christmas Day was passed quietly and alone, Mrs Coggan, the Gorers’ housekeeper, ensured she had a chicken and a plum pudding. “I wish the chicken was still alive so that it could eat the plum pudding,” she wrote in an amusing aside to Dorothy.[7] Rée Gorer and her son Geoffrey continued to offer Hodgkins hospitality at their Highgate house in London and their Somerset cottage.

Frances Hodgkins and Dorothy Selby

Frances Hodgkins and Dorothy Selby in the garden of Geoffrey Gorer’s Cottage, Bradford- on-Tone, Somerset, c 1940 E H McCormick Papers, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Linda Gill, 2015.

Her situation, often desperate and despairing, was made bearable by the Gorers’ support. In mid-1938, when Hodgkins announced to the directors of the Lefevre Gallery that she could not continue working according to the agreed terms of her 1932 contract, she knew she had the backing of her friends. “The Gallery now realises I have the Gorers very solidly behind me – their one wish is that I should be unworried and rested – and not overworked.”[8] In February 1939, she told Dorothy she was in “the pit of depression”and might have stayed there had her spirits not been lifted by an unexpected journey.[9] “Mrs Gorer had persuaded [me] to go on a motoring trip through France to [St Tropez in]… the South… stopping at places off the beaten track and having, incidentally, some good food and wine – on the road. We start from London this next Friday – to be met by her chauffeur with a car at Boulogne.”[10] Hodgkins returned to England exhausted but exhilarated. It had been the break she needed. She loved seeing the French countryside again, even if much of it was from the window of a car. She saw “moving things and sad things” but “people were gay and showed no sign of a problem, such as a worldwide war – ahead of them!”[11]

“Come when you feel like it and for as long [as] you like – I shall be overjoyed,” she wrote to Dorothy in 1940 and, as the picture of the pair taken in the garden at The Croft attests, Dorothy did stay.

Hodgkins’ friends found it difficult to keep track of her itinerant existence. She appeared and disappeared as her life, ever in motion, intersected with the lives of others. Not long after coming back from St Tropez, she was ready for another shift. “Geoffrey Gorer asked me to take charge of his cottage and keep it ‘warm and human’ while he was absent in America,” she told Dorothy. “(He has gone to work for Rockefellers)… I packed up and came over – here I am – comfortable and regaining my health, which is, by now, almost rude thanks to Mrs Coggan’s care and cooking.”[12] In May 1940, Hodgkins moved into the Gorers’ cottage in Somerset on a more permanent basis. Bombing raids made it no safer living there than anywhere else, but The Croft had an ample kitchen garden and an able and amiable housekeeper, Mrs Coggan, to supply her with a daily meal. The shift also gave her the change of environment she needed to work. “Come when you feel like it and for as long [as] you like – I shall be overjoyed,” she wrote to Dorothy in 1940 and, as the picture of the pair taken in the garden at The Croft attests, Dorothy did stay.[13] Although the arrival of evacuees would eventually force Hodgkins to move on to Corfe Castle in Dorset, the Gorers’ generous hospitality and ongoing support would help sustain her to the end of her life.

Frances Hodgkins’ Ibiza Landscape with Trees (c. 1934) and River Scene with Boats (c. 1932) feature as lot 18 and lot 19 in our Important Paintings & Contemporary Art catalogue.

Frances Hodgkins, Ibiza Landscape with Trees (c. 1934), oil on canvas, 730mm x 604mm. Estimate: $230,000 – $330,000.

Frances Hodgkins, River Scene with Boats (c. 1932), oil on canvas, 600mm x 727mm. Estimate: $230,000 – $330,000.

References:

[1] Geoffrey Gorer quoted in Art in New Zealand, March 1938, p. 160.

[2] Letter from Frances Hodgkins to Lucy Wertheim, c. 3 July 1930.

[3] Letter from FH to Karl Hagedorn, 29 January 1933.

[4] Letter from FH to Dorothy Selby, 2 May 1933.

[5] Geoffrey Gorer quoted in Art in New Zealand, March 1938, p. 160.

[6] Ibid, p. 163.

[7] ‘The Feminine Touch’, New Statesman and Nation, 18 January 1936.

[8] Letter from FH to DS, 30 November 1937.

[9] Letter from FH to DS, 30 December 1937.

[10] Letter from FH to DS, 27 July 1938.

[11] Letter from FH to DS, 14 February 1939.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Letter from FH to DS, 14 March 1939.

[14] Letter from FH to DS, c. 4 May 1939.

[15] Ibid.