Curator’s Choice – The Student by Nina Hamnett

Posted: 4th September 2020

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – The Student by Nina Hamnett

Nina Hamnett was an artist nicknamed the ‘Queen of Bohemia’. She was uninhibited by convention, a talented painter, designer and illustrator. Her portrait painting ‘The Student’ hangs in the Ferens Art Gallery.

The student is a favourite for many who visit the gallery, and further afield, as many of Hamnett’s works have now been lost.

The Cubist-inspired portrait shows a woman seated on a sofa beside a table and boxes, holding a portfolio in her lap. Hamnett uses cool, unemphatic colours. With a backdrop of sallow yellows and greys, the figure stands out in a blue jumper and her striking dark eyes look off to the side of the viewer.

The portrait is of Dolores Courtney, known as Moucha, a half Spanish and half Russian artist. She and Hamnett worked at the Omega Workshops during the first world war. The workshops were founded in 1913 by the painter and influential art critic, Roger Fry (1866-1934) for the design of furnishings and interiors. The aim was to help provide artists with a living. The Student portrait shows the flat, angular patterning that typifies the Omega style.

Hamnett exhibited her portraits and landscapes widely during World War One and afterwards in the 1920s. Her works were shown in solo shows and with groups, such as the famed London Group and the New English Art Club.

I was drawn to learn more about Hamnett’s striking portrait of Dolores Courtney as Hamnett was a fascinating character. She was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire and studied art various art schools in Dublin, London and Paris. It was her travels between Paris and London that led to a wild lifestyle; she had her finger on the artistic pulse and she knew everyone who there was to know. This greatly influenced her artwork and her sitters included many of the leading artistic personalities of her time: Walter Sickert, Horace Brodzky, Edith Sitwell, W. H. Davies, Rupert Doone, and Álvaro Guevara. Not only that, but she found personalities of all kinds in the cafes, circus, parks, clubs and even boxing rings that she explored. It is then not surprising that she had a robust style of capturing a character, but with strong modern influences on her delivery.

Her colourful life is recounted in two autobiographical volumes, Laughing Torso (1932) and Is She a Lady? (1955). She retells the stories of her fashionable life and the relationships she had with the avant-garde of the London-Paris art scene. Hamnett was allegedly bisexual and a free spirit with a succession of lovers. She hated to be tied down by social norms which unfortunately saw her in court for some of her more wild behaviour.

Sadly, the end of her life saw artistic decline and she produced little more than sketches after the 1930s. The bohemian party lifestyle which Hamnett had enjoyed, finally caught up to her and her last years were spent in a haze. She died after mysteriously falling forty feet from her window onto the railings below.

Written by Exhibitions Assistant Stephanie Edwards.

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