Nina Hamnett and Portraiture

Each of Hamnnett’s luminous portraits raises questions about intimacy and aesthetics. What can the bearing of a person convey about their character, and how accurately can colour and form capture those particulars?

Each of Hamnnett’s luminous portraits raises questions about intimacy and aesthetics. What can the bearing of a person convey about their character, and how accurately can colour and form capture those particulars? What is lost in reducing the ineffable, expansive stuff of being into a single image? Or a single moment, positioned carefully on a stool, conscious of being watched? What can be implied by the possessions we live amongst, and what interior sensations can find exterior expression in the selection of those objects as decorative, descriptive features in a painting?

Take, for instance, Portrait of a Woman from 1917 (above). A woman is sat absorbed in a book, her hair carved and shining as if made from wood, a frown etched into her forehead the shape of a wishbone. Wine bottle, glass and inkwell are visually linked in the corner of the frame, showcasing creativity and its possible source; the inkwell matches the sitter’s jumper and echoes the shape of her torso, stressing the vital connection between self and self-expression. A bookshelf rises behind her like her thoughts made visible, their colourful spines creating an abstract panel. There is no trace of traditional feminine duties: no parents or children or suitors; no demand to be useful, compassionate or selfless; none of the cultivated ignorance or pacifying boredom that defined so many women’s upbringings, Hamnett’s included. Reading and writing and painting and thinking and drinking are pressed together, each their own intoxicant, as closely interlinked as the chain of objects arranged across the desk. Intellectual rigour, strength, solitude, and pleasure are compressed inside a small and capacious room, a room that neatly represents the self. In the absence of all the distracting trappings of familial life, the worth and purpose of a woman are entirely transformed.

‘The featurelessness of the sitter opens up the encounter, addresses the viewer, effects a subtle call to arms: this world could be your own too, it insists, and with ease.’

The sitter appears completely indifferent to the painter. Her chin is comfortably and inelegantly resting in her hand and her gaze is lowered in an arrangement that lends the woman a self-assurance as well as a certain anonymity. The featurelessness of the sitter opens up the encounter, addresses the viewer, effects a subtle call to arms: this world could be your own too, it insists, and with ease. Abandon the imposed-upon activities — the shopping and sewing and socialising — gather the material in which you might find real solace, and shut the door firmly behind you.

What do strangers readily reveal of themselves given the chance? What remains resolutely private, stubbornly unrepresentable, even after hours of steady exposure to the probing look of an artist? With its conventional aim to faithfully record a person, to fix their identity and appearance in place, what assumptions about the self can portraiture distort or unravel?

‘Hamnett adopted a playful approach to her form’s raw material. In her raucous 1932 memoir, Laughing Torso, Hamnett describes meeting a ‘young Belgian man’ with ‘long hair and an interesting face’ who she went on to paint.’

The title, Portrait of a Woman, affirms Hamnett’s desire to create and circulate her own vision of modern womanhood through her work, one aligned with freedom, self-knowledge and a departure from conventional femininity. However, Hamnett adopted a playful approach to her form’s raw material. In her raucous 1932 memoir, Laughing Torso, Hamnett describes meeting a ‘young Belgian man’ with ‘long hair and an interesting face’ who she went on to paint ‘seated at a table with all my books behind him on a bookshelf.’ Hamnett’s recovery from Spanish Flu in the previous paragraph roughly dates the encounter to the time of the portrait’s composition. Using a man as a model for a female subject constituted a knowing reclamation of the historical practice in which the male body was used as the anatomical standard: in Renaissance painting it was used to create impossible standards for women’s bodies; for Hamnett, it infuses the portrait with a powerful ambivalence about female beauty and gender norms. The discrepancy between model and title in Portrait of a Woman reflects the fluidity of desires, identifications and attachments as they were felt and lived by many artists and writers surrounding Hamnett, experiences which formed part of a broader challenge to strict sex and gender binaries born out of developments within psychoanalysis and sexology and reactions against ingrained patriarchal ideologies in the new century. A man was a suitable template for a woman when the assumed connections between anatomy and gendered subjectivity no longer held true, when the body ceased to automatically articulate anything definitive about the identity it housed, and Hamnett was making subversive use of this realisation.

However, the inconsistency also illustrates a central tenet of modern portraiture. As Hamnett was developing her practice, portraiture was becoming less about capturing a recognisable figure for posterity and more of a means through which to explore theories of the self.

A black and white photograph of Virginia Woolf looking out of a window whilst sitting in an armchair upholstered in patterned fabric. She is resting her face on her right hand as she looks. Her other arm is folded across in front of her. She has he short hairstyle tucked behind her ears.

Virginia Woolf Writing © The Charleston Trust

Conducting a survey of male authored writing in the British Museum Reading Room, Virginia Woolf dryly remarks on the distinction that unites everything from anthropological studies to contemporary novels. ‘A shadow seemed to lie across the page,’ Woolf writes, ‘it was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’.’ Woolf mocks the self-obsession and self-seriousness of male writers in an image that characterizes their subjectivity as domineering, barren, restrictive and fixed, a hangover from the Enlightenment formulation of the individual in which the prototypical self was coherent, unified, and autonomous — and a man. Bored by her morning of research, Woolf finds herself drawing ‘the face and the figure’ of ‘Professor Von X’, author of ‘The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of Women’, a fictional academic treatise which satirically condense all the purportedly objective research by men she encountered that was unconsciously shaped by the bias of its makers.

‘Alluding to illumination and vision, intellectual enquiry and the discovery of new worlds, sweetness and affluence, and strategies for survival…’

Her impromptu portrait is simple, hurried along by emotion, but eager to faithfully depict the features and character of the sitter: countless maligned male figures are collaged together in the professor’s small eyes, jowls, reddened cheeks, sour expression, and heavy build. Anger suddenly possesses her – how dare this pathetic creature pass judgement on her? — and as she settles into a feeling of righteousness, Woolf draws ‘cartwheels and circles’ all over his face, until he resembles a burning bush, a comet, an apparition without significance or much semblance to a human form. Playful and dismissive, a pleasurably petty act of revenge, Woolf’s distinctly modernist embellishment to her portrait also mounts a feminist if not utopian challenge to the monolithic, arid ‘I’ laid claim to by its male subject. The doodled cartwheels gesture towards a possible future in which the self is no longer considered as a masculine vessel for rationality, reason, and domination, and is instead seen as dynamic, relational, fluid, a catalyst of individual becoming and intimacy with others. Woolf’s chosen form was text rather than image, but her account of her spontaneous portraiture shows how this reformulation of modern subjectivity might be theorised visually. With his face effaced by abstract markings, Woolf’s doodle resembles the anti-mimetic experiments in portraiture undertaken by modernist painters, including the eerily faceless images of sitters produced by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

Hamnett was no less interested than Bell in the intersubjective possibilities of portraiture, representing to both women an opportunity for painter, sitter and viewer alike to break free of a single self, but caricature rather than blur was Hamnett’s chosen device. The simple, exaggerated masks Hamnett places upon her subjects suggest inscrutable, mercurial currents beneath the visible surface of each sitter, and stood amongst these portraits I have imagined the men and women exchanging selves as players would masks in a Greek chorus, trying on this thought, feeling out that desire, occupying one another’s senses, never confined to what paint suggests is their own psychological or bodily horizon. Underneath each of Hamnett’s portraits, this new, curious, shifting ‘I’ thrums.

Nina Hamnett, The Student, 1917, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums, UK; British, in copyright.

The artist Dolores Courtney first met Hamnett when they attended Brangwyn School in London, and they later worked together at The Omega Workshop. In The Student (above), Courtney is sat in an interior pared back to a series of interlocking geometric forms, stating her immersion in avant-garde culture. Art was not merely a passing circumstance, however, but a deeply felt identification. Courtney’s vision and ambition are given visual, material form in the opaque, block colours she wears, transforming her into an abstract composition; her expression is hard, her face sallow and unfeminine, her body entirely covered. Hamnett refuses to define her friend through any of the qualities that ascribed value to women in traditional representation: Courtney is neither a pliant erotic object nor a beautiful and lifeless surface. Instead, she is woman devoted to her craft, so ceaselessly possessed by thoughts about aesthetics that those questions have come to shape the very stuff of her being.

In Dolores (below), the more intimate address suggested by the title is matched by the mood. Courtney is seen in profile, clutching her stomach protectively. The props of the previous scene have disappeared: she is quite alone. Courtney looks ahead into an environment of tarnished, knotted paint, the brushstrokes harsh and conspicuous, the idiom slipping into abstraction. A smooth, seductive red abruptly shifts into a mottled brown resembling earth, dried blood, worn fabric, peeling wallpaper — the mangled, burnt debris of some minor disaster. What’s conveyed in the contrasting colour panels is a chronological sweep, a sense of a struggle overcome. Painted in 1931, Dolores is no longer a student, excited and naïve, but a woman who has endured the ordinary wounds of experience, and yet she remains bold and unafraid, her eyes trained ahead to the future.

Nina Hamnett, Dolores, 1931. Oil on canvas. Private Collection


All of Hamnett’s women resemble Courtney in some way: austere backdrops against which large, severe and expressionless faces loom. The women are solid, monumental, forces to be reckoned with, and mount a powerful resistance to the most readily available representations of femininity — in which women were doomed to be decorative, dainty and passive — across high and low culture in Hamnett’s time. Men are given a similarly subversive treatment. Edward Wolfe has a tender, unfocused gaze, his whole demeanour radiating gentleness, his body further softened by a cardigan, the scarlet tie at his neck an allusion to the anatomy beneath his clothes, the blood coursing through him despite his pale appearance. The dancer Rupert Doone (below) is set against a periwinkle blue backdrop reminiscent of the sky that rises behind the typical Renaissance Madonna. Lent a divine feminine grace, Doone is elevated to the status of holy object, and entirely freed from the humdrum strictures of masculinity. Men wear elegant cream gloves, and are placed by dainty bouquets of flowers. Men are soft and pouting in beautiful three piece suits. Men place one leg precisely over another. Men comb their hair close to their heads, and match the green of their eyes to the wallpaper. Much more so than the women, they are the malleable, desirable and disposable aesthetic objects.

Nina Hamnett, Rupert Doone, Dancer’, 1922-1923. Courtesy: Collection Heritage Doncaster, Doncaster Council; photograph: Bridgeman Images

Portraiture made space for Hamnett to challenge prescriptive gender norms, but this was not her only concern: she was equally interested in class. Traditionally portraiture was used to index a sitter’s financial and cultural capital, but on the rare occasions when Hamnett depicted the rich, she was careful to strip away those references. Lady Constance Stewart Richardson (below) is shown in simple black clothes and a scarlet turban: there is no opulent setting and no symbolic accoutrements to remind us of her position. Hamnett recalls how the ‘grand’ people attending the opening expected Richardson to be almost ‘nude’ and were ‘bitterly disappointed’ with the reality they encountered hung on the gallery wall. Hamnett was aware that a woman of noble birth in plain attire was more outrageous to a high society audience than if she was nude, and the portrait implicitly mocks the distorted moral universe in which a wealthy woman’s modesty or inconspicuousness — a desire to exist if only briefly and superficially outside the limits of the class into which she was born — were considered the greatest possible form of debasement.

Nina Hamnett, Lady Constance Stewart Richardson, 1917. Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds

Richardson looks no different from the two boarding house landladies that Hamnett later took as portrait subjects. In these works, the women are sat at tables in the boarding house common area, the objects that surround them far more expressive than their bland, implacable demeanours. In one, a lamp fills the right side of the frame as if it were a partner to the woman sat down, facing the viewer with the same blank stare; behind lies a telescope, a baroque detail confirmed by Hamnett’s account of the work. In the other, a woman wears her scarf indoors and gazes out from a table laden with fruit. Alluding to illumination and vision, intellectual enquiry and the discovery of new worlds, sweetness and affluence, and strategies for survival, the objects communicate Hamnett’s admiration of her sitters, and create new measures of value — like imagination, intelligence, and grit — entirely distinct from portraiture’s traditional criteria: wealth.

A colourful painting of an older woman sat at a table with a cup of tea. She is wearing a blue dress with a white collar and behind her is green patterned wallpaper. To the rights is a lamp.

Nina Hamnett, ‘The Landlady’, 1918. Courtesy: private collection; photograph: Bridgeman Images

Hamnett left very little trace of herself in the archives, only the occasional functional letter or hurried sketch. Some material can be found amongst the personal papers of the decorative artist and former Omega Workshop manager Winifred Gill: two casual ink portraits instilled with the intimacy that bound these women, former colleagues and enduring friends. One sent in 1952 is a pleasingly eccentric Christmas Card: the back of a man’s head is outlined, his body disappearing below his arms — visualising limbs gone numb — all the detail focused on capturing his many layers of clothing, a further means of conveying the cold. The other, two years before she died: a young boy rendered in rough strokes of biro, an impishness conveyed by loose and questing lines, a tender allusion to the women’s shared youth. From these fragments late in her career, done without a sense of their possible commercial value or avant-garde credentials, it is clear that reimagining the aesthetic and emotional possibilities of portraiture was a deeply personal project for Hamnett, and one which age and the passing of time did little to quell.

This article by Rebecca Birrell was published in our latest edition of the Charleston Press. Charleston Press No.4 is a journal of essays inspired by our Nina Hamnett and Lisa Brice exhibitions, which includes contributions from Alicia Foster, Rebecca Birrell, Richard Shone, Emma Garman, Dominic Blake and Aurelie Debaene, and Nathaniel Hepburn.

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Nina Hamnett‘ is open until 31 August 2021.