A new look at the collections through the eyes of the staff at The University of Leeds. This week English Professor Richard Brown tells us about his favourite work in the gallery...
Roger Fry's Portrait of Nina Hamnett (1918):
Fabric, Form and the Queen of Fitzrovia
This is one of my favourite pictures in the gallery not least because it makes a link between some of my academic interests as a critic of modernist literature and the University's art collections.
It's a large and brightly coloured portrait of a mature young woman dressed in a striking check fabric dress and surrounded by other pieces of boldly artistic fabric and décor. It makes an immediate impact on the viewer from a distance, making you want to come closer and find out what it's all about. The viewer is interested in the picture and, though its painter, Roger Fry, is most associated with that early twentieth-century modernist doctrine in which form is said to predominate over content in the aesthetic experience, I think it's fair to say that for many people no small part of the interest of this portrait will be in its subject.
There are a few things it would probably be useful to know by way of background about the painter and the subject of the portrait.
Roger Fry was an artist, critic and prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group and coined the term "post-impressionism" to describe their works in a famous exhibition in 1910. For many critics this exhibition and date marks the moment in cultural history about which Virginia Woolf famously declared that "On or about 1910 human character changed."
One specific Bloomsbury project in which Fry was involved was that of the Omega workshops, originating in Fitzrovia around 1913, which produced brightly coloured creative prints and various kinds of fabrics. The dress Nina Hamnett is wearing in this picture is made from a fabric designed by Vanessa Bell for the Omega workshops.
There is a Leeds link within this picture too: Fry was in a relationship with Virginia Woolf's married sister Vanessa Bell which broke up 1913 - they had a child Quentin Bell who was First Professor of Fine Art at this University in the 1950s.
The subject of the portrait is Nina Hamnett. Born in 1890, Nina went to Montparnasse, France, in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. Here she worked as an artist and modelled for and enjoyed relationships with, a number of famous modernist artists. She quickly gained a reputation as a liberated bohemian woman, modelling and dancing in Marie Vassilieff's 'Academie Russe' (which also served as a café when curfews closed the cafés during the war). Among the artists for whom she modelled was sculptor Gaudier-Breszka whose nude marble torso of her, made in 1913, she used as the title of her 1932 autobiography, Laughing Torso.*
The portrait in The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery was painted in 1918 when Nina Hamnett was 28 and already a famous veteran of the pre-world war Montparnasse Bohemian art scene. The picture was painted at Durbins, Fry's house near Guildford, where Nina went for weekends, either alone or with other artists such as Mark Gertler and Dolores Courtney.
When Nina's relationship with Fry ended in 1918 she continued to be a prominent figure amongst the artistic bohemia scenes in both Paris and London. In Paris in 1923, for example, Nina organised a series of literary dinners with the critic and editor Ford Madox Ford to assist which the launch of his new journal The English Review. Earlier, in 1922 after the publication of his epoch-making masterpiece Ulysses James Joyce was the top man in the Paris and cultural scene and so too was the top invitee. In her memoir Nina gives an account of their meeting and of Joyce's subsequent approving comment directed at her:
"Joyce, I have heard since, paid me a very nice compliment and said I was one of the few vital women that he had ever met."
In later life Nina became known as the Queen of Fitrovia having later friendships with Augustus John and Dylan Thomas.
In some contrast with this flamboyant lifestyle and reputation, we see Nina in this portrait, as rather a mature, elegant, intelligently self-possessed young woman. As one critic of her work puts it she seems "a delightful and charming companion".1918, the date of this portrait, was amongst other things the year of women's suffrage, so Nina can also be understood as an iconic woman of that modern age. In fact you could look at her and think. Haven't I seen her before? And of course you have. You've seen her every day in political and business meetings, in the universities and the libraries, reading, indeed writing the newspapers and the magazines, in the staffrooms and the hospitals and the publishing houses and the banks and in restaurants, and she's looking after her children in the school playground and at home. In fact she's pretty, she's cool, she's self-possessed, a no wonder something of a cult hero and style icon for generations of intelligent women students at Leeds ever since.
So I think we are right to be struck by the fabric and form of the portrait and also to be curious about the woman who is the subject of it. It's a beautiful picture, a serious work of portraiture which speaks eloquently of its age and of its subject whose story takes us rapidly and deeply into the heart of twentieth century art and literature.
Dr Richard Brown, School of English, University of Leeds (Leader of the School of English Modern and Contemporary MA module "The Enigmatic Body of Modernism")
*Laughing Torso (Constable 1932, repr Virago 1984)