Nina Hamnett

1890 – 1956

Nina Hamnett photographed by Adrian Flowers, July 1955

On 7th July 1955, Adrian and Angela Flowers visited the artist Nina Hamnett in her London flat. The photographs Adrian took that evening are among the last visual records of this legendary ‘Queen of Bohemia’. Seated on her bed, Hamnett held forth for her visitors, recounting tales of her life as an artist in Edwardian London and Paris. Cheerful, ravaged, her face like that of an weather-beaten mariner, Hamnett sat, her crutches on the bed beside her. Also on the bed sat a man wearing a vest and smoking a cigarette, his expression thoughtful and pensive. Angela remembers him as a merchant seaman, a friend of Nina’s. There was also a young woman, a journalist. The photographs capture details of Hamnett’s home life, and her love of books and art; above the fireplace were stacked shelves of books, with paintings propped against the wall. A framed drawing of a classical head may have been the same student work for which Hamnett had been awarded a prize, half a century before, at the Portsmouth School of Art. A single candle, on a small footstool beside the fireplace, was likely the only source of illumination when the electricity meter ran out.

Nina Hamnett with journalist, July 1955.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In 1955, Hamnett’s second book of memoirs, Is She a Lady?, had just been published, and she was enjoying her time in the limelight. Other photographs taken by Flowers, either on that day or close to it, show her sitting at a bar, with Angela, and also talking to others around her. However, Hamnett’s recollections of her own life were often embellished for literary effect. She told different versions of the same story, and invented episodes, to increase the dramatic effect. She was clearly delighted with the photography session, and dressed up for the occasion.

Nina Hamnett and Angela Flowers, July 1955, at the Bridge House.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Angela recalls the visit to the bar as having taken place at Little Venice, just north of Paddington Station. The bar was probably in the Bridge House, at Delamere Terrace, close to the Regent’s Canal bridge, an ironwork structure that appears in a 1947 watercolour by Hamnett. In 2019, Kate Thorogood curated an exhibition of Nina Hamnet’s work at the Fitzrovia Chapel, in the course of which she debunked some mythologies, principally the story that Hamnett died in a fall from her flat in Fitzrovia. In fact, Hamnett appears to have moved to Paddington some years earlier: “It is understood that in 1947, there was a fire in her block of flats from which a girl tried to escape by leaping out of the window, only to be impaled on the railings below. Later, Nina would hear this story being told as if she were the one who tragically died. Having been made homeless by the fire and by all accounts refused a place in Marylebone Workhouse, Nina was rehoused in Paddington, not Fitzrovia. It was here she died, also from a fall out of a window. There are many versions of the story of her death, including some in which she dies impaled on the railings. Some claim there was a drunken stumble; others a suicide attempt.” At the time of the Flowers’ visit, Hamnett was just sixty-five, but she was destined to live for just one more year. In 1956, several days after the fall—which was probably accidental—she died in hospital.

Nina Hamnett and friend July 1955. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Although her death took place in tragic circumstances, Hamnett remains alive in the minds and memories of many, both as a cultural inspiration and a cautionary tale. The story of her life has a stellar quality, but a desire to be the centre of attention led her to forego her own talents as an artist, and to instead become model, dancer, companion, and lover and muse to others, while neglecting her own creative work. Born in 1890, a rackety childhood in Tenby with a grandmother, a couple of years in Ireland with an improvident military father, and teenage forays into London’s bohemia had ill-prepared Hamnett for the conventional career expected of her, of completing a secretarial course, becoming a typist, and settling into suburban life. Having studied at the Metropolitan School in Dublin, then Portsmouth, then the London School of Art, she far preferred the company of sculptors, painters and writers, and, with her hair cut page-boy style and wearing brightly-patterned clothes, enjoyed being stared at by passers-by on the Tottenham Court Road.

Nina Hamnett in July 1955. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In 1914, at the outset of the First World War, Hamnett was in Paris, hard up, but contriving to remain at the heart of the artistic world that revolved around Montparnasse and La Rotonde. She drank with Zadkine and modelled for Modigliani, in much the same way as, while in London, she had modelled for Roger Fry, Walter Sickert and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. In Paris, she took off her clothes at parties and, in the manner of Isadora Duncan, danced with a veil, applauded as much by the older women present as by the young avant-garde artists who delighted in this expression of artistic freedom. Although she had male lovers, Hamnett’s friendships with women were often more important to her. She married the Norwegian artist Edgar de Bergen (Roald Kristian) in 1914, but having brought him to England found he was a bore, and was not overly dismayed when he failed to register and was deported back to the Continent as an ‘undesirable alien’. Hamnett then threw herself into the artistic life of London with gusto, dining with Augustus John at the Tour Eiffel restaurant, sketching George Moore and Lord Alfred Douglas at the Café Royal, and working with Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops. In 1917-18 she taught at the Westminster School of Art, and her portraits from these years are among her best. In the 1920’s she moved back to Paris and re-joined the avant-garde, counting Cocteau, Stravinsky and Eric Satie among her friends. These were Hamnett’s most productive years, and she travelled back to London several times to attend openings of exhibitions of her paintings. Two volumes of autobiography preserve the outline, if not the emotional form, of these intense years; published in 1932, Laughing Torso is a window into the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and London, while twenty-three years later, Is She a Lady? brought readers up to date on her spiced-up adventures. Like many of her generation, the First World War had cast a long shadow over Hamnett’s life, and the onset of a second war in 1939 meant that again she could not travel to Paris, and so, over the following two decades, she continued with her bohemian life, holding court at the Fitzroy Tavern in Soho. With alcohol gradually replacing painting, she acquired notoriety, while her friends, in time, disappeared, to be replaced by drinking companions, who to a greater or lesser degree abetted her in this fall from grace. In her formative years, Hamnett’s father, an army officer, had been an overbearing and negative influence, fully expecting his daughter to fail in her determination to live an artistic life. After his death, she went some way towards making up for that disappointment, but remains nonetheless a compelling figure in the world of British avant-garde art.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

Categories
Portraits

Peter Lanyon

1918 – 1964

Peter Lanyon in his studio in St Ives, early August 1954.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In early August 1954, Adrian and Angela Flowers visited Peter Lanyon in ‘The Attic Studio’ in St. Ives, to photograph both the artist and his work. The results are preserved in two rolls of 120 black and white negative film held in the Adrian Flowers Archive. In one photograph, wearing his trademark black beret, and dressed in short-sleeved shirt and sleeveless pullover, Lanyon demonstrates the mixing of artists’ colours, using a muller (mortar) and glass sheet. Another image shows the artist leaning against a cupboard, with Angela seated on a couch beside him. In the background is a book press and a rotary grindstone. Hanging on the wall is the 1948 painting Headland (Tate collection). A third photograph shows the artist standing before his studio easel, pointing out details in a large painting in progress, Blue Boat and Rainstorm. In another image, Lanyon, smiling, leans against his workbench. On the windowsill stands a construction, while hanging on the wall is an antelope horn—a trophy probably brought back from South Africa, where Lanyon, aged twenty, had visited relatives. Also photographed were the slender columnar 1948 Construction, the 1951 Porthleven Boats, both now in the Tate collection, and Construction for Bojewyan Farms, a painted sculpture of curving forms dating from 1952 and now in a private collection. Another work photographed by Flowers that day include Lanyon’s plaster sculpture of a bull, from his Europa series. This was a work in progress, with copper pipes projecting from the animal’s head, forming an armature for plaster horns. The concept for the classically-inspired Europa series had taken shape in Anticoli Corrado, the hilltop town east of Rome, where Lanyon and his wife Sheila had stayed for four months the previous year.

Peter Lanyon with Blue Boat and Rainstorm in 1954, observed by Angela Flowers.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Lanyon was pleased with the photographs, and wrote to Flowers not long afterwards, requesting permission to use a black and white image of one of the works photographed during that session, for a book being produced by Patrick Heron. Lanyon offered to call to Flowers’ studio when he was in London on Monday 20th September, to collect the photograph. To assist Flowers in identifying the work [Construction for St. Just (1952, Tate collection)], Lanyon included a sketch in his letter [PL to AF at 44A Dover Street, letter in AF Archive c Sept 1954]. A painted sculpture made from discarded window panes, and inspired by pencil and charcoal sketches of the town that was once the centre of the Cornish tin mining industry, Construction for St. Just reveals how Lanyon was not only inspired by the art of Naum Gabo, but also used his own three-dimensional works to guide the completion of paintings, described them as akin to the scaffolding used to support a building in progress. In 1953, the painting that resulted from this process, St. Just, was shown at the Hanover Gallery in London in Space in Colour, an exhibition selected by Patrick Heron. It is now also in the Tate collection.


Just ten years later, the early death of Lanyon robbed British art of one of its stars. His career had been short but brilliant, his work carrying forward a Romantic vision, in which the energy and zest of Cornwall’s coastal landscape was infused with European formalism and Mediterranean colour, resulting in paintings that are in every way equal to the best abstract expressionist work produced in America, but also infused with a sense of history and human endeavour.

Peter Lanyon in his studio, August 1954

Born into a well-off mining family, and educated at Clifton College in Bristol, Lanyon had taken great pride in his Cornish ancestry. Photography and music were part of his early education, and while still a teenager he took painting lessons with Borlase Smart in St Ives. In 1937 Adrian Stokes advised Lanyon to enroll at the Euston Road School, where Victor Pasmore and Naum Gabo were tutors, and he studied also at the Penzance School of Art. Back in St. Ives, it was inevitable that Lanyon would meet Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who had moved to Cornwall in the 1930’s, as did Gabo. During WWII, Lanyon served as a flight mechanic with the RAF in North Africa and Palestine. He was also stationed in Southern Italy for two years, during which time he painted murals and gave lectures on art. He ran an art education workshop for servicemen, developing his own austere, psycho-analytical, but optimistic approach to art. In 1946 he married Sheila St John Browne and over the next decade they had six children; their son Andrew also becoming an artist. Lanyon was inspired by Ben Nicholson’s approach to abstraction, and during the 1940’s made constructions that show the influence of both Nicholson and Gabo. He was a founding member of the Penwith Society of Arts in 1949, and had his first exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in London that same year. In 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain, the newly-created Arts Council commissioned sixty artists to create large-scale paintings. One of these, Porthleven (British Council collection), an abstract work by Lanyon, is ambitious and hectic, crammed full of allusions to birds, gliders, harbours and quays, the composition surmounted by the clock tower of the Bickton-Smith Institute overlooking the harbour of Porthleven. Lanyon, Heron and Bryan Wynter were also included in the exhibition “Abstract Art”, curated by Adrian Heath at the AIA Gallery, and in another important show, British Abstract Art, held at Gimpel Fils, that same year.
In the early 1950’s Lanyon taught at Corsham College of Art, where William Scott was also a tutor, and later that decade he, William Redgrave and Terry Frost ran a school, at St. Peter’s Loft in St. Ives, with Nancy Wynne-Jones among the artists attending. Lanyon’s first New York exhibition was at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in 1957, when he met Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and other artists. Over the following years he showed regularly at the Viviano Gallery. There was a demand for Lanyon’s work in the US, and in 1962 he painted a mural in the house of Stanley Seeger, in New Jersey. Initially tightly constructed, Lanyon’s work during the 1960’s became freer and more painterly. He took up gliding so as to appreciate the physical beauty of the Cornish landscape from the air, but died in a gliding accident in 1964, aged just forty-six.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©