Nina Hamnett (1890-1956): the legendary, but long lost, Queen of Bohemia in London and Paris, remembered by Alicia Foster.
The vivacious, often outrageous, Nina Hamnett was a romantic rebel with a cause: one of the most respected artists of the Modernist movement through the Camden Town Group, Omega Workshop and School of Paris, her work was shown widely, including at the Royal Academy and the Salon d’Automne.
This attractive, pocket sized book by the art historian, Dr Alicia Foster, who is also the curator of a current retrospective of Nina Hamnett at Charleston Farmhouse, Firle Sussex, 19th May to 30th August.
After a strict Victorian, military childhood, Nina refused to train as an office Clerk at her father’s suggestion, and her grandmother kindly paid for the fees at Pelham School of Art. Achieving a place to study at the London School of Art 1907 – 1910, Nina knew her vocation, “Here at last was paradise”.
Her tutor, William Nicholson encouraged her aptitude for still life – moving away from colourful studies of fruit and flowers as depicted by Cezanne, Matisse and Manet, to focus on the simplicity of kitchen pots, pans and jugs.
As seen in several Still Life paintings from 1917 and 1919, here are soft muted colours, a delicate touch of light and shade and often with a staged inclusion of avant-garde magazines and books.
Self Portrait 1913 shows her short, bobbed hair style, artist’s smock, hand on hip with a confident stance and gaze, as if to say, “Look at me and judge my work seriously”.
It was this year when Nina joined the Omega Workshops, a Bloomsbury co-operative led by Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell to develop modernist decorative and applied arts. Hamnett was encouraged to experiment with figurative and abstract designs for fabric, furniture, carpets and murals. She and Fry later had a close professional and personal relationship after posing for intimate life drawings.
Introduced to the world of the French Post-Impressionists at London exhibitions, she first visited Paris in 1912, returning regularly to immerse herself in the intellectual literary and artistic social circle around Montparnasse.
In Spring 1914, sitting alone for dinner at La Rotonde, she met a dashing young man, the struggling artist, Amadeo Modigliani, trying to sell his drawings.
She encouraged his work, posing as a model – this fabulous iconic portrait of Nina by Modigliani was painted in 1914 – while he introduced her to Picasso, Diaghilev and Cocteau et al. Here, at the heart of this inspirational community, Nina began to sketch café and street scenes with a quirky caricature style akin to Toulouse Lautrec.
Back in London, she was commissioned to paint the Sitwells, the trio of siblings who had formed their own literary and artistic clique, capturing Osbert and Edith’s theatrical eccentricity.
As Foster comments, their brother Sacheverell thought Nina’s artistry was “magnificent” while Hamnett described these as “psychological portraits that shall accurately represent the spirt of the age.”
Formal fashionable spirit of the age is captured in Gentleman with a Top Hat c 1919 or 1921, described as “one of Hamnett’s most dazzling portraits” but a shame that the sitter is not identified in this book. This is George Manuel Unwin, a Chilean opera singer who paraded around Paris in his spats, wearing a monocle, hat and carrying a cane, and Nina adds ther studio accessories of a Moroccan rug and a guitar as a backdrop.
Another renowned portrait is of the ballet dancer, Rupert Doone, 1923, whom she also met in Paris; his classically handsome good looks accentuated with pink blush along the cheekbones, pink gloss on cupid lips, and given a rather morose, moody expression.
In her vivacious and vital role as an unofficial cultural ambassador she embraced British and French high society through art, literature and music. Her friends and mentors included Augustus John, Roger Fry, Gaudier-Brzeska, Sickert, Modigliani, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Brancusi, Zadkine, Satie and Stravinksy.
‘Nina Hamnett’ does not claim to be a comprehensive biography and at under 50 pages, it’s a speedy scamper through her career with more of a thematic study of her work than covering personal and professional relationships.
There’s not a clear chronology through the narrative which concentrates on a selection of key portraits, sketches and life drawings, with limited detail of her promiscuous, bisexual behaviour and bohemian lifestyle. Standing out from the crowd, she was a serious drinker, danced on bar tables and wore bold red, yellow or checkerboard stockings and children’s sandals with flamboyant flair.
A meeting with Gertrude Stein in 1912, which sounds like a fascinating encounter, is a passing remark within parenthesis. Nina’s life drawing, ‘Standing Nude’ 1920 is interestingly the same title as an earlier limestone sculpture by Modigliani. This could be a tribute to the artist who had died that year but the fact that they were lovers is not mentioned.
This tasty amuse bouche into Nina’s extraordinary tragic short life will certainly entice readers to seek out her two volumes of memoirs, ‘Laughing Torso’ (1932) and ‘Is She a Lady’ (1955). These provide all the colourful (truthful or exaggerated?), anecdotes of her travels, brief encounters and seductive liaisons dangereuses, flitting between London and Paris. Apparently, she introduced James Joyce to Rudolph Valentino.!
“Laughing Torso” is a neglected and misunderstood Modernist masterpiece.” Dr Jane Goldman
A photograph of Nina from 1920 in her studio depicts her individual personality: a masculine stance in wide-legged trousers, open toe sandals, cigarette in hand with a sense of rebellious freedom. The title is quite simply and enigmatically, ‘Myself.’
Walter Sickert was a great admirer, who wrote the preface for the catalogue of her exhibition at the Edlar Gallery, London in June 1918: “Nina Hamnett draws like a born sculptor and paints like a born painter.”
This book and the retrospective exhibition at Charleston this summer shines a timely light on this talented born artist who became the best known British artist in Paris in her prime, slowly fading from the limelight until her tragic death aged sixty six. Nina Hamnett was never afraid to do things differently, embracing the Bohemian spirit of her time with free spirited passion and pioneering creativity.
Nina Hamnett by Alicia Foster, Eiderdown Books RRP £10.99:
Modern Women Artists series: www.eiderdownbooks.com
Nina Hamnett Retrospective: 19 May – 30 August, 2021
The Modern Women Artists Series
The Modern Women Artists series of collectable books reveals an alternative history of art, telling the story of important female artists whose art might otherwise be overlooked, overshadowed or forgotten in the first half of the twentieth century.
‘Shimmering Light’- an exhibition of new paintings by Jamie Primrose capturing his favourite walks and waterways around Edinburgh at the Dundas Street Gallery
“The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.
Seascape … it changes at every instant, the weather varies several times in the same day. It’s on the strength of observation and reflection that one finds a way”.
As well as depicting the wild natural beauty of the Hebridean islands and the lush, languid Mediterranean coastline, Jamie Primrose is renowned for his paintings around Edinburgh. Each of his biannual exhibitions takes us on a different journey of discovery observing new perspectives from city streets to the seashore, where he is “continually obsessed with investigating ephemeral light.”
This new collection of over 50 original oil paintings, ‘Shimmering Light’ was completed over the past year focussing on a theme inspired by favourite and familiar childhood haunts across North Edinburgh: Inverleith Park, Royal Botanic Garden, Water of Leith, Cramond, Newhaven, Portobello and the Forth Bridges spanning the Firth of Forth.
The glorious golden, lime-green and amber shades of the leaves and scattering of Monet waterlilies floating like flowering boats, against a baby blue sky in Shimmering Light on the Botanics Pond.
Across the road from the RBGE is Inverleith Park with its real Swan Lake – there are three cygnets this year. This large boating pond is painted from different views to study the avenue of trees as well as south over the city.
Here, a flurry of white wispy Spring Afternoon Clouds over Inverleith Pond scurry across the azur sky with such delicate luminosity and detailed clarity. This is an extraordinary panorama leading the eye from the reflection on the dappled water over the rugby ground to Stockbridge and the far horizon with the Castle Rock and the round mound of Arthur’s Seat.
Very much a trademark of Primrose’s painterly style is a range of sunsets following the slow shifting hues of dusky light, shade and shadow.
Amongst other boating scenes of this old fishing port, Winter Sunset over Newhaven Harbour is a majestic painting which simply sizzles in a palette of coral, ochre, peach with a splash of molten gold dripping across the horizon.
The criss-cross pattern of rose-tinted clouds and the streak of the dying sunlight glinting on the sea, like a beam from the lighthouse, has such a dramatic effect.
In quieter mood, Last Light at Cramond, shows the row of waterfront white-washed houses and bare winter trees under a chilly, dark sky suggesting the threat of rain. The glimmer of soft pink rays on the water is a painterly snapshot of this specific moment in time, akin to the click of a camera shutter for a photograph.
Moving away from this finely crafted realism, Twilight Skies over Cramond, is a mesmerising burst of indigo and orange with a sharp shaft of yellow casting a white pool of light on the waves, framing the shapely silhouette of distant hills.
This semi abstract seascape, blending layered blocks of rainbow colours, offers a fresh experimental style with Rothko-esque vivacity and verve.
Take a trip too in the early morning and the end of the day along the Water of Leith, the Shore in Leith, Portobello beach and along to Queensferry to view the three iconic rail and road bridges, in many other evocative, richly colourful compositions.
For instance, this is a wonderful view of the river walk past the weir near the Dean Village, where the sunlight glints through the trees to sparkle on the water in Reflections on the Water of Leith.
To commemorate the tenth anniversary of his professional art career in 2013, Jamie Primrose presented a retrospective exhibition, ‘Reflections on a City’ at the Dovecot Studios. In my review, I wrote that he had “perfected a precise artistic palette to create his own distinctive landscapes which show a true passion for the city of Edinburgh”.
In this charming exhibition, Primrose continues to follow in the brushstrokes of Monet, Cezanne, Pissarro et al, to capture the natural world through the daily shifting, shimmering quality of light from dawn to dusk with such a tangible sense of place through his masterly impressionistic style.
There is a accompanying Video which has been edited and crafted brilliantly, moving seamlessly from film footage of these locations to images of the associated paintings. A magical wee movie with a soundtrack piano music and lapping waves to create a delightful, dreamlike atmosphere.
Shimmering Light: 4th June to 12th June:
No appointment necessary – just walk in
Restricted number of visitors at one time with health and safety precautions in place.
The Dundas Street Gallery
6a Dundas Street, Edinburgh
Thursday 10th June, 11am – 6pm
Friday 11th June, 11am – 6pm
Saturday 12th June, 11am – 5pm
View images on line:
Shimmering Light video tour of Edinburgh locations and paintings.