On the 14th of February 1890, Welsh artist, writer and bohemian party girl Nina Hamnett was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales. Her emerging artistic skill helped her escape an unhappy childhood. She moved to London where she studied at Pelham Art School, then the London School of Art and in 1914 she went to Montparnasse, Paris, to study at Marie Wassilieff’s Academy. Her social life and artistic career rapidly took off.
“A natural rebel, with her tall, boyish figure, short hair, unconventional clothes, and flamboyant behaviour, Hamnett rapidly became a well-known bohemian personality. A self-appointed artistic ambassador between London and Paris, friends and mentors included Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Amedeo Modigliani, Walter Sickert, Roger Fry, and Augustus John. She benefited from her first-hand knowledge of the avant-garde in both cities to develop her own individual style and she made a significant contribution to the modern movement in London from about 1915 to 1930. (…) From 1920 to 1926 Hamnett was the best-known British woman painter in Paris, a focal point for the large expatriate community, and friendly with Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, and the composers known as Les Six. (Denise Hooker, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
From the beginning she appeared to be a social commentator and recorder, with her finger tightly on the pulse of cosmopolitan modern living. ‘My ambition is to paint psychological portraits that shall represent accurately the spirit of the age’ (Gordon-Stables, 112–15). Her sitters included many of the leading artistic personalities of her time: Ossip Zadkine, Sickert, Horace Brodzky, Edith Sitwell, Osbert Sitwell, W. H. Davies, Rupert Doone, and Álvaro Guevara. Her portraits are strong, bold statements of character in which features are simplified and exaggerated to express her concise view of the subject’s personality. (…) With her sharp eye for the underlying human comedy, Hamnett was always attracted to people and places with any kind of oddity value. Endlessly fascinated by life around her, she found a rich source of subject matter in cafés and pubs, the circus, the boxing ring, and the park bench. ” (Denise Hooker, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
Nina was also a well-loved inspiration and muse. She modelled for Augustus John, as well as Roger Fry, who admired her queer satyr-like oddity and grace, and numerous other artists. She found herself in Paris before the first world war where Modigliani introduced himself to her. Denise Hooker wrote of the artist in her biography Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia, “With a little too much to drink she could be disconcerting – as when she would boast that Modigliani said she had the best tits in Europe and pull up her old jersey to show them off.” Hamnett was allegedly bisexual, had a succession of lovers and acquired a taste for boxers and sailors, because, as she said, ‘they go away’ (Hooker). A free spirit, Hamnett lived life to the very fullest and hated being tied down by norms and prejudices.
Hamnett wrote a memoir entitled Laughing Torso (1932), in which she related episodes from her life in an easy-going style. It is basically a who-is-who of the Parisian and London artistic circles, focusing on her experiences within these milieus and the relationships formed with various bohemian characters. Throughout the stories, there is a predominant preoccupation with contemporary trends and being fashionable. Hamnett was a true girl in vogue, although she seemed to want to set herself apart through her own quirky style. This is how she described preparing for one of many fancy dress parties she attended: “I went to the Avenue du Maine and bought a pair of French workmen’s peg-top trousers. I borrowed a blue jersey and corduroy coat from Modigliani and a check cap. I also bought a large butcher’s knife made of cardboard and silver paper at the Bon Marche. This I put in the long pocket which was meant either for knives as the Apaches wear them too or rulers. I dressed myself up and went out alone. I met Modigliani at the corner of the Rue Delambre and the Boulevard Montparnasse. He did not recognize me and when I produced the knife he ran away. I went to the Rotonde, where the waiters did not know me, and to a fair outside the Closerie des Lilas. I returned to the Rotonde and we danced in the streets all night and kept it up for three days.” (Laughing Torso)
Sadly, her commanding position in the hectic social life of Paris and London took its toll; by the mid-1930s Hamnett’s talent was in decline and she produced little beyond quick portrait sketches. In the 1930s and 1940s she presided over London’s Fitzrovia and Soho, ever willing to tell another anecdote in return for the next drink. She ended her life as a drunk a few days after mysteriously falling forty feet from her window, getting impaled on the railings below.
Filed under: Art History, Lifestyle, Society Tagged: augustus john, jazz age, London, modigliani, nina hamnett, Paris, roger fry