In 1937 Hodgkins wrote to her art dealer, Duncan Macdonald of the Lefevre Gallery, ‘I had the happiest long week end with the Wests & have painted 3 quite attractive canvases inspired by objects observed by me out of the corner of my subjective eye, when really looking for black berries – you’ll see! They are 2 delightful Dears Anthony & Kitty – I loved my visit to them – ’ (Buchanan, p.69). Hodgkins wrote this letter during her stay with the author Anthony West and his wife, the artist Kitty, at Tisbury in Wiltshire in August 1937. Following her visit she made a double portrait of the couple, now in the
Museum of New Zealand.
Born in New Zealand, Hodgkins moved to England during World War I (1914-18) and quickly became acquainted with many of the leading members of the English avant-garde. In 1929, at the age of sixty, she was invited to become a member of the Seven & Five Society and, in the following years, her characteristic landscapes and still lifes were frequently included in exhibitions throughout England and Wales. In 1939, the year of this painting, Hodgkins went on holiday again in Wiltshire where she presumably painted this portrait of her friend in watercolour. Kitty West née Church (1910-99) studied at the Royal Academy Schools and the Slade. She began exhibiting with the New English Art Club and the London Group at an early stage in her career and, like Hodgkins, included among her artist friends John Piper (1903-92) and Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979).
Instead of a photographic likeness, Hodgkins chose to focus on Kitty’s defining features in this portrait. Her large eyes stare outwardly at the viewer, the large scale of the paper reinforcing the presence of the sitter. The bold colours and calligraphic strokes are reminiscent of Matisse (1869-1954) whose work Hodgkins had seen exhibited in Paris and London. In 1935 Hodgkins had begun experimenting with gouache. Her skill at using this medium is evident from the expressiveness and spontaneity of the work. In 1940, one year after this painting and at the age of seventy, Hodgkins was one of five artists representing Britain at the Venice Biennale. Favourable reviews of her work appeared in many of the major periodicals. She was described in The Times as ‘One of the most original artists of to-day’ and the critic Eric Newton commented that she was ‘the subtlest and most adventurous colourist in Europe’ (McCormick, p.78). Kitty West owned this portrait throughout her lifetime and bequeathed it to Tate.
McCormick, Portrait of Frances Hodgkins, New Zealand 1981
Frances Hodgkins: The Late Work, exhibition catalogue, Minories Art Gallery, Colchester 1991
Iain Buchanan, Michael Dunn and Elizabeth Eastmond, Frances Hodgkins: Paintings and Drawings, Auckland 1994, reproduced p.152