FIRLE, England — Welcome to Charleston! Admire the cows and the reek of their droppings as you proceed up the sinuous country lane toward the car park. Take it especially slowly because pheasants, bred to be slaughtered at whim by the blundering and trigger-happy, are statistically favored to end up as road kill. Why are we here today anyway? To find out about an almost-forgotten painter. If you are not yet familiar with the name of a 20th-century English artist called Nina Hamnett, you have come to the right place.
In fact, what better place could there possibly be for the posthumous revival of the reputation of a long-dead painter of great talent than Charleston, that delightful farmhouse in the shadow of the yielding curves of the Sussex Downs, close to the south coast of England, where the famed Bloomsbury Group held court for more than half a century?
Held court? Perhaps that is not quite the best turn of phrase for this location. The phrase smacks of England’s aristocratic estates, where all manner of decoration and embellishment, inside and out, was generally outsourced to cap-doffing underlings.
Not so at Charleston.
Charleston, of a moderate size for an English farmhouse, mazy with rooms large, middling, and miserably small, and with a floor of terra cotta tiles that wobble as you walk across them, is an environment made by all those extraordinarily interesting people who sojourned here, for shorter or longer periods of time, from 1916 until 1978, when the painter Duncan Grant died.
It was an environment of free thinking, free loving of every stripe, free scribbling, free designing, and free daubing, by almost anyone, upon every surface you chanced upon. Above windows. Below windows. On doors and chairs and walls ….
The names of the members of that coterie loosely described as the Bloomsbury Group are familiar to many, and there are pictures of them here in abundance, together with hard evidence of all that they did and wrote and yattered on about all day long in this house: the battered old box files once containing the family correspondence that Quentin Bell organized when he was writing the very first biography of Virginia Woolf; Woolf’s own circular mahogany table; a bronze portrait bust of Lytton Strachey, that languid, caustic, long-limbed wit; the florid brushwork of Duncan Grant; the bedroom that John Maynard Keynes called his own when he was writing The Economic Consequences of the Peace; much evidence, on a pair of handsome cupboard doors, of painter Vanessa Bell’s penchant for geometric patterning; the lovely enclosed garden laid out by Roger Fry, visible outside the window and just bursting into spring life this morning; Clive Bell’s library ….
So how does Nina Hamnett fit in here? She never visited this house, but she had some strong links to it all the same. She had a brief affair with Roger Fry. She worked at Fry’s Omega Workshops when it was in London’s Fitzroy Square. She also had a long friendship with Duncan Grant. Where do we find her then in a house that is so noisy with the achievements of the ripest pick of the Bloomsberries?
The answer is in some newly opened galleries, 50 yards away from the farmhouse. Charleston seemingly has been in a deep, lockdown sleep for the past 14 months, yet much has been going on here that may surprise even those quite familiar with the place, which reopened to the public on May 19. An old barn has been remodeled to make three new galleries, and it is in these rooms that you will find the exhibition of 50 works by Nina Hamnett.
The exhibition is a tightly curated thing. It covers only the paintings and drawings of 1915–1922, the period when her work is at its best. Later on she went off the boil, drowning in alcohol by her life’s sad end.
Why so neglected though? She was well known, and widely exhibited, during the years mapped by this exhibition. One reason has to do with her autobiography, in which she portrays her life in London and Paris as wild and relatively unserious, and so often in the company of the famous. She was not unserious. She was a very dedicated painter. She could certainly be wild though.
So, in part at least, you could say that she fell a victim to her own reckless self-mythologizing as a bibulous gadabout.
The show is presented in three galleries: the smaller Spotlight Gallery, where there are three portraits of Hamnett painted by other artists, and the larger north galleries, in which her own oil paintings and drawings are exhibited. The Spotlight Gallery allows us to see her when, as a young artist, she so impressed her peers.
One work, a great one by the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, is called “The Dancer” (1913). Hamnett, so lithe and slender and gamine-like in her half-leaping stance, looks the very opposite of what could crudely be described as the standard Edwardian portrayal of women. She is neither cushioned by flesh nor idly voluptuous. She is full of a tremendous vigor.
The two full-length portraits by Roger Fry represent her as equally serious — perhaps even a little somberly so — and self-assured. There is no hint of languor or coquettishness or of any desire, on the part of painter or sitter, to pander to some outmoded notion of feminine allure.
The main gallery shows off a generous selection of her portraits, a few circus and street scenes (rooftops, with their strangely impersonal, hugger-mugger angularities, are a favorite subject), and three still lifes. The works often edge toward the restrained, and even the austere. She does not flatter her sitters.
Occasionally, her portraits of men lean in the direction of caricature. She never uses color boldly and brashly, as if it is a force to be celebrated in its own right. She does not go in for exuberance or uproariousness. She prefers a harder, cooler gaze: her portrait of a landlady shows her presiding over a meal of a single apple. It feels almost monastic in its quiet sobriety.
Her painting is a mixture of a thoroughly refreshed English realism (her rooftops, and how she colors them, is pure Camden Town Group in its fascination with the urban scene) and mannerisms learned in Paris — her still lifes, with their flattened perspectives, acknowledge the influence of Cubism. Her drawings have a quality and assurance of line: she draws Lytton Strachey’s legs as if they are long loopings of licorice.
They also reveal her to be a bit of a humorist: her drawing of the aging Bosey Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover, is pure vaudeville. Most of all, it is her paintings of women that are the most effective. She has no interest in showing off the trappings of the rich. These women are singular, defiant, self-contained, and always freshly observed.
There is a chilly, clear-eyed, fearless assurance about her work. This show will help to rescue her from decades of neglect.
Nina Hamnett continues at Charleston (Firle, Lewes, East Sussex, England, BN8 6LL) through August 30.
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