Charleston presents first Nina Hamnett Retrospective, 19 May–30 August, 2021

Charleston will reopen in spring 2021 with the first major retrospective of the work of British artist Nina Hamnett, a central figure in the London and Paris art scenes of the early 20th century.

Charleston will reopen in spring 2021 with the first major retrospective of the work of British artist Nina Hamnett (1890 – 1956), a central figure in the London and Paris art scenes of the early 20th century. Featuring works that span three decades, the exhibition will showcase Hamnett’s incredible eye for portraiture and reveal key aspects of her practice which has, in recent times, remained little known and unseen.

Born in Tenby, Wales, Hamnett was at the heart of the British-French exchange of art and ideas during the 1910s and 1920s and was a key point of connection between the Bloomsbury group, the Camden Town Group and the School of Paris. She became a celebrated artist in both London and Paris, exhibiting widely in solo and group shows, including those of The London Group and the New English Art Club frequently throughout the 1910s to 1950s, and at both the Royal Academy and the Salon d’Automne in 1948. Hamnett’s talent, vivacious spirit, flamboyance and striking appearance made her a popular figure in the artistic quarters of Montparnasse and Fitzrovia, and brought her to the attention of some of the most significant artists of the day.

Featuring over 30 works, including many which are rarely shown or have never been seen before, the exhibition will explore the various facets of Hamnett’s practice, from her paintings to her skill as a draughtsperson. A highlight will be Hamnett’s expressive portrait paintings of some of the best-known writers, artists, sculptors and collectors of the time. These portraits represent her greatest body of work, and illustrate her significant contribution to the modern art movement. At the heart of the exhibition will be a selection of over 20 of her finest portraits, such as those of artists Edward Wolfe and Walter Sickert, and that of writer Horace Brodzky. Many will be on public display for the first time, including her c.1914 portrait of sculptor Ossip Zadkine.

There is a frankness in Hamnett’s depictions of her subjects and her intimate yet strong portrayals remain fresh and contemporary today. Painted with an expressive realism, her portraits are truthful without be-ing severe. Understanding what it was like to be looked at without being seen, Hamnett was herself immortalised in portraits by Walter Sickert and Roger Fry, and in drawings and sculptures by Henri Gaudi-er-Brzeska who reportedly stole the marble from a stonemason’s yard in Putney to make one of his pieces. Her life as an artist’s model can be seen throughout her work; her portraits give her subjects agency and power, while subtle compositions and forms in the background give away clues about the sitters. Such forms include flowers, books and interiors, as well as fabrics from the Omega Workshops, a design collaborative run by Roger Fry and Charleston artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell (1913 – 1919), and where Hamnett worked for a time.

Hamnett’s female subjects in particular are portrayed with a vibrancy and vitality that is rarely seen in other works of the period. This can be seen in The Landlady (1918) and The Student (1917), both of which will be on display. Keen to pursue art from an early age, but understanding the restrictions placed on fe-male artists in the early 20th century, Hamnett began her autobiography, Laughing Torso (1932), by re-marking on how her experience of being a woman changed the course of her life:

“Everybody was furious, especially my father, who still is. As soon as I became conscious of anything I was furious too, at having been born a girl”.

Hamnett was at the heart of the 20th-century British-French exchange of ideas and, in addition to the Camden Town and Bloomsbury Groups, Hamnett was associated with the School of Paris. Hamnett first travelled to Paris in 1912 and, after a chance encounter with Amadeo Modigliani, spent much of the following two decades between the French capital and London. She worked as both an artist and a model, finding a home in the avant-garde communities which included Pablo Picasso, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Walter Sickert, Roger Fry, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce, Éric Satie and Igor Stravinsky. In Paris Hamnett also met her husband, Norweigan artist Roald Kristian. An unhappy marriage, Hamnett was seemingly relieved when he was deported as an unregistered alien during the First World War and the two never saw one another again.

Hamnett would explore various aspects of her life in both Paris and London through her work. She did this most notably through café scenes but also in landscapes, interiors and figure compositions, which offer a glimpse of the thriving avant-garde communities of her time. On show will be a set of watercolours (1921 – 23) describing her life in Paris through a series of vignettes of bohemian society. Alongside them will be works that, as well as offering a glimpse into her experiences, also survey Hamnett’s experimentations with numerous styles and mediums. Sombre still lifes including Still Life (c.1913) and Der Sturm (1915), depicting a newspaper painted in muted tones, show the sculptural quality of her work, described by Sickert as ‘sculptor’s drawings’.

In contrast to these mundane domestic scenes, Hamnett also produced a series of semi-surreal circus paintings, including Acrobats (1910) and The Ring Master (1919), which show her enduring fascination with public life. A series of paintings of quiet urban landscapes including Collioure, France (1921) and rooftops, including The Stairway (1915) – thought to be the studio of Hamnett’s friend, Modigliani – will show the influence of both the Camden Town Group, who favoured these subjects, and stylistically, the work of Cézanne. It was through these stylistic explorations that Hamnett would find her singular aesthetic, and gradually become one of the most respected women artists in London.

Nathaniel Hepburn, Director and Chief Executive, The Charleston Trust, who selected the works in the exhibition through researching and uncovering Hamnett’s works in private collections over the last decade, said:

“Nina Hamnett is now largely remembered as the model or muse of Walter Sickert, Roger Fry or Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It is her body as interpreted and depicted by one of her friends or lovers that we are more familiar seeing. Even when telling her own story, through her autobiographies, it is anecdote and frivolity which dominates. Over 130 years after her birth, a serious look at her work as an artist is long overdue. Brought together, these works show Hamnett to be a highly accomplished, pioneering and innovative artist. It is going to be exciting bringing these works to an audience for whom Nina Hamnett has only ever been a name or a body”.

Alicia Foster, Associate Curator said:

“A bold and brilliant modernist pioneer in her art, a truly liberated woman in life, Nina Hamnett is finally being given her due in this first ever museum retrospective”.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue published by Charleston’s own imprint, Charleston Press, including many works reproduced in colour for the first time.

A new book by Associate Curator, Alicia Foster on the life and work of Nina Hamnett will be also published by Eiderdown Books on 2 April 2021.

The Nina Hamnett retrospective will open alongside an exhibition of drawings by artist Lisa Brice in the South Gallery.

– Ends –

Nina Hamnett
19 May – 30 August 2021

Image credits: (L-R) Dancer (Rupert Doone 1903-1966), 1922-23, Nina Hamnett. Collection Heritage Doncaster, Doncaster Council; Acrobats, 1910, Nina Hamnett. Private Collection. Photo © Bridgeman Images.

Firle, near Lewes
East Sussex


About The Charleston Trust

Charleston is a house, studio, garden and art gallery situated in the spectacular South Downs National Park. From 1916, it was the home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, two of the most radical and influential artists of the 20th century. Bell and Grant were both members of the Bloomsbury group and their house and garden became a hub of artistic and intellectual activity where people gathered to imagine life differently. Regular visitors included Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey, among others

In 2019, Charleston doubled its visitors to over 60,000 who as well as visiting the house and garden took part in its year-round programme of exhibitions, workshops, events and portfolio of festivals which over the years have welcomed speakers including Sir David Attenborough, Kamila Shamsie, Ali Smith, Grayson Perry and Jeanette Winterson.