Cubist dreams and wings like fireflies

Claire Regnault on the textile designs of Frances Hodgkins


On 29 August 1925, Frances Hodgkins sent a parcel to her sister, Isabel Field, in New Zealand. It included a fashionable frock, a batik scarf, and a lively letter about her latest to excursion to Paris. Frances, of course, was no stranger to Paris – she had lived there on and off since 1908 – but this trip was quite different.

The ‘cubist dream city’

I am just back from 3 weeks in Paris – Paris under new conditions – none of the old “Me” none of the old Paris – I lived like a real lady for once – taxis everywhere...1

The ‘new’ Frances was not a starving artist trying to scrimp out a living teaching and selling paintings. The new Frances was a textile designer, and had been in Paris on official business. She had been sent to attend the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes by her new employer, the Calico Printers’ Association (CPA) of Manchester.

Just as Frances had been transformed, so had Paris. As one critic observed:

the first impression of the Exposition is startling. Passing through the silver obelisk-like towers of the Porte d’Honneur ones comes at once upon a cubist dream city or the projection of a possible city in Mars, arisen over night in the heart of Paris …2

During the day a kaleidoscope of brilliant colours, glittering surfaces, and scenographic effects dazzled the eye. At night, the city shone with illuminations. The exposition itself covered a full 55 acres of central Paris. In her letter to Isabel, Frances wrote dreamily of the Pavilion de l’Élégance, which was dedicated to the ‘eighth art’ – fashion.

The Pavilion of Elegance was supremely well done – 200 above lifesize gold and silver mannequins, clothed in ravishing frocks in exquisite colour schemes. What there was of the dresses was delicious. They had no backs – very little front, up to the knees & no sleeves – but long tails or trains or wings like fire flies.3

The Pavilion de l’ Élégance showcased the work of Paris’s leading couturiers, among them Jeanne Paquin, Jeanne Lanvin, and the houses of Callot, Worth, and Jenny. The gold and silver mannequins, inspired by Brâncuşi’s abstract forms, were colour matched to the deluxe gowns.4

For a newly appointed textile designer on an exploratory mission, there was a wealth of inspiration to absorb, from the leading French textile manufacturers to lively, colourful prints by Austria’s innovative Wiener Werkstätte and large-scale tapestries by the Italian futurists. All, Frances declared, outshone Britain’s ‘old fashioned & dingy’ display. Proudly, she noted to Isabel that ‘Many high French artists ... some of the biggest of the day’ were designing fabrics, and even signing them.5 Among them was fauvist painter Raoul Dufy, whose designs for Bianchini-Ferier and couturier Paul Poiret were on show. The latter were exhibited on three luxury barges moored on the Seine. Especially commissioned for the occasion by Poiret, they caused a public sensation, and nearly crippled the designer financially.

Bold geometry

As she walked across the Pont Alexandre III, Frances would have discovered Sonia Delaunay’s new Boutique Simultané, where Delaunay exhibited a range of boldly coloured geometric textile designs that were considered startling in their simplicity. Away from the river, amongst the dealer galleries of the Rue Vignon, was Maison Myrbor, which stocked garments, rugs, and curtains designed by a cluster of avant-garde artists, including Natalia Goncharova of Ballets Russes fame.

The year 1925 was an exciting one in the world of textile design. Geometric designs, the development of which had been strongly influenced by cubism, were just beginning to make an impact. By the end of the decade, they would supplant floral decoration in popularity.6

Frances returned to England from the ‘cubist dream city’ not only inspired by what she had seen but emboldened. On returning to work, she made ‘a dramatic jesture [sic]’ when she entered the managers’ office to deliver her report. She ‘flung over a chair the jolly cubist scarf of many colours – with the words That’s straight from the horses mouth ready for the consumer … Colour was much discussed.’7

At the end of the interview, feeling that they were duly impressed, she ‘boldly’ requested a room to herself. Her fellow designers (except for a Miss Jones) were swiftly ejected from what was now her own studio.

Frances relayed this story with relish in a letter to Hannah Ritchie and Jane Saunders, a couple who had studied under her in Concarneau, Brittany, in 1911 and 1912, and become her close friends. It was due to their ingenuity that Frances secured the position at the CPA, a company which prided itself on producing ‘textiles of a high standard at reasonable prices’.8 One evening in May 1925, when Frances was staying with them in Manchester, they invited Forrest Hewit, an amateur painter and chairman of the CPA to an ‘at home’ to meet Frances and view her work.9 During the at home, he may have seen Frances’s double portrait of their hosts, a painting energised by the lively patterns and colours of the sitters’ dresses and settee. Mr Hewit was obviously taken by what he saw. Within two days, Frances had been interviewed by all seven managers of the CPA; she sold two designs on the spot, and secured a six-month contract at £500 per annum. She wrote gratefully to her mother that ‘Having touched the bed rock of hard times & despondence this good luck comes dramatically … I feel very bucked with life.’10 She made the move from London to Manchester.

In hiring Frances, Forrest Hewit was ‘on trend’. For although Frances declared triumphantly after her Paris excursion that ‘art comes at last to serve commerce – and raise and beautify it’,11 Britain already had its own history of artist-designed textiles, amongst them Morris & Co in the late 19th century and Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops in the 1910s. In the 1920s the London-based firm William Foxton Ltd led the way in artist-designed textiles, and avidly promoted them as such.12

A flair for fashion

While Frances had no formal training as a textile designer, she had a great affinity for fabric, colour, and pattern, and a flair for putting things together – something much commented upon by friends and former pupils. Betty Rhind remembered that:

She would wear perhaps a bright jacket, even two bright jackets under a dark coat, and several scarves of the very best quality, probably hand woven and beautiful, a little bit of oriental jewellery, always a jaunty hat and always high heels.

Douglas Glass observed, ‘She looked like her own paintings, sometimes the most incredible colours put together.’13

Frances’s new position at the CPA perhaps further focused her interest in fabric and pattern in her own work. One of her most outstanding works from this period is Seated woman, a drawing of a highly fashionable older woman dressed in the garb of a bright young thing – a cloche hat, ornate sleeveless tunic dress, and boldly patterned wrap – clothes lavish enough to be have been on display in the Pavilion de l’Élégance. Although the work is devoid of colour, it is easy to imagine the shimmering colours of the tunic, embellished with metallic thread, and the comforting weight and drama of the wrap. On seeing the drawing two decades later, fellow painter Matthew Smith reportedly declared it to be ‘just as good as a Matisse drawing; only stronger’.14 High praise indeed from a former pupil of Matisse, a great collector and painter of textiles.

While some believe that that the drawing is of painter Gladys Hynes, art historian Jo Drayton has suggested that it is a self-portrait: ‘Younger, idealised perhaps, but is this woman not reminiscent of Frances Hodgkins the textile designer and artist, with her long nose, long upper lip and slight chin?’15 Whoever the sitter may be, she exudes an overwhelming sense of sadness. Rather than taking delight in her clothes, she seems overwhelmed by them.

A painter at heart

It was not long before Frances herself was overwhelmed by the world of textile design. Whereas Sonia Delaunay never found design ‘artistically frustrating’, and did not define a ‘gap’ between her painting and so-called ‘decorative’ work, Hodgkins did.16 Frances was 56 when she started at the CPA, and following a lifetime of self-direction she would not have been used to the life of an employee with set hours and constant deadlines. As she wrote to her mother, the specifications were exacting and the standards very high. The meticulous work, undertaken in Manchester’s ‘foggy climate’, was also hard on her eyes. Her initial contract was not renewed after six months, although she appears to have continued working for the company as a freelance designer for at least another year. By December 1926 Frances had decided to set up a studio and begin her painting classes again in the new year in order to ‘escape the tedium of textiles’ and ‘the mechanical designing and monotonous life of a designer’.17 The glamour of Paris and the excitement of art serving commerce had well and truly worn off.

While a range of the CPA’s registered textile samples have survived, information about the company’s design staff has proved elusive due to the loss of important records during closures throughout the Depression years.18 The only record of Hodgkins having worked for CPA are her letters and the recollections of friends. To date, the only extant examples of Frances’s textile designs that have emerged into the public eye are the handful in Te Papa’s collection. They were acquired via the estate of the English painter John Piper. Piper and his wife, Myfanwy Evans, were close friends of Frances’s in her later years and executors of her estate.19 The designs are painted in gouache on paper gridded with pencil lines; they include six abstract patterns and two stylised florals rendered in fashionable colours of the day (including suites of brown, reds, and yellows and Jazz Age hot pink and orange). These surviving works may have been works which she failed to sell, or works put aside and forgotten about as her painting career began to gain momentum in the thirties.

The only known example of a textile featuring one of Frances’s designs is a silk handkerchief in the collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. The handkerchief was gifted to the gallery in 1971 by Eardley Knollys, an art dealer and National Trust agent, who befriended Frances in 1942.

Considered alongside the surviving designs on paper, the handkerchief provides a tantalising insight into the versatility of Frances’s work for the CPA (who, contrary to its title, also printed silk). It features a bird’s-eye depiction of a subject Frances knew well – a rural landscape, populated by people and livestock. The design is rendered in a naive style – another trend she would have observed at the Paris exhibition, which included both contemporary examples of folk art and avant-garde interpretations.

While Frances abandoned her career as a textile designer, she never abandoned her personal and painterly love of textiles. In the mid 1930s, a decade after her flirtation with textile design, she painted two sumptuous self-portraits in which she represented herself as a colourful pile of patterned scarves, accompanied by a handbag and a smart kitten-heeled shoe.

Endnotes

  1. Letter from Frances Hodgkins to Isabel Field, 29 August 1925, published in Linda Gill, Letters of Frances Hodgkins, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1993, letter 370.
  2. Helen Appleton Read quoted in Charlotte Benton, ‘The International Exhibition’ in C Benton et al, Art Deco 1910–1939, V&A Publications, London, 2003, p. 143.
  3. Gill, letter 370.
  4. Valerie Mendes, ‘Art Deco Fashion’, in C Benton et al, Art Deco 1910–1939, V&A Publications, London, 2003, p. 262. The mannequins were designed by Seigel & Stockman.
  5. Gill, letter 370.
  6. Alain-René Hardy, Art Deco Textiles, Thames and Hudson, London, 2006, p. 126.
  7. Letter from Frances Hodgkins to Hannah Ritchie and Jane Saunders, 23 August 1925, Gill, letter 369.
  8. Calico Printers’ Association Ltd, Fifty Years of Calico Printing, Calico Printers’ Association Ltd, Manchester, 1949.
  9. E H McCormick, Portrait of Frances Hodgkins, Auckland University Press and Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1981, p. 101
  10. Letter from Frances Hodgkins to Rachel Hodgkins, 30 May 1925, Gill, letter 367.
  11. Gill, letter 370.
  12. Linda Parry, British Textiles, V&A Publications, London, 2010, p. 346.
  13. Gill, p. 6–7.
  14. McCormick, p. 145.
  15. Joanne Drayton, Frances Hodgkins: A private viewing, Godwit, Auckland, 2005, p. 221.
  16. Sonia Delaunay quoted in Matilda McQuaid and Susan Brown (eds), Colour Moves: Art and fashion by Sonia Delaunay, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011, p. 25.
  17. Gill, letters 370, 377, 378.
  18. Parry, p. 347. The Victoria and Albert Museum and Manchester Art Gallery hold a range of fabric samples produced by the CPA.
  19. Frances Spalding, John Piper Myfanwy Evans: Lives in art, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009, p. 488.
image

Frances Hodgkins, Untitled (Textile design no VIII), circa 1925, gouache,
Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Frances Hodgkins, Still life: Self-portrait, circa 1935, oil on panel,
Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Frances Hodgkins, Untitled (Textile design no V), circa 1925, gouache,
Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Frances Hodgkins, <EM>Double portrait</EM>, 1922, oil on stretched canvas, 610 x 770 mm, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, 73/169

Frances Hodgkins, Double portrait, 1922, oil on stretched canvas, 610 x 770 mm, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, 73/169

image

Frances Hodgkins, Untitled (Textile design no VI), circa 1925, gouache,
Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Frances Hodgkins, <EM>Seated woman</EM>, about 1925–30, graphite and chalk on paper, 940 x 597 mm (support), 1052 x 710  x 46 mm (frame), Tate, purchased 1948, N05857
Image © Tate, London, 2013

Frances Hodgkins, Seated woman, about 1925–30, graphite and chalk on paper, 940 x 597 mm (support), 1052 x 710 x 46 mm (frame), Tate, purchased 1948, N05857 Image © Tate, London, 2013

Frances Hodgkins, Printed textile (Block print on silk handkerchief), about 1926, block print on silk, 253 x 275 mm support size, Collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 19-1971

Frances Hodgkins, Printed textile (Block print on silk handkerchief), about 1926, block print on silk, 253 x 275 mm support size, Collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 19-1971

Natalia Goncharova for the House of Myrbor, <EM>Evening dress</EM>, about 1923, silk with embroidered silk and velvet appliqués with metal thread, bound with lamé, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
© Natalia Goncharova/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, 2013 / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Natalia Goncharova for the House of Myrbor, Evening dress, about 1923, silk with embroidered silk and velvet appliqués with metal thread, bound with lamé, Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Natalia Goncharova/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, 2013 / Victoria and Albert Museum, London