Words Darren Hawes
Illustrations Luke Stuart
“One had to do something to celebrate one’s freedom and escape from home.”
Serendipity occurs when we least expect it and for Nina it was in France, 1914. She had already earned a reputation in London and decided on a visit to Paris. Who should she run into but famed artist and central figure of the art world at the time, Amedeo Modigliani. Well, it wouldn’t be too long before fame came-a-knocking.
Primarily an artist, part-time writer, Nina existed in a space of her own. She not only crafted art, she lived art and played muse to some of the most important figures of the twentieth century. Born in the sleepy Pembrokeshire town of Tenby, Wales in 1890, Hamnett worked hard to escape a life in the doldrums and was never shy of standing out: “In the daytime, I wore a clergyman’s hat, a check coat and a skirt with red facings…I was stared at in the Tottenham Court Road! One had to do something to celebrate one’s freedom and escape from home.” Of course, it was her talent at painting that afforded Nina her freedom. At 16, Nina won a place at Pelham Art School. So, as any sane person wanting to embark in the world, she accepted and moved to London. She graduated in 1907 and went straight into studies at the London School of Art –finishing courses in 1910.
Nina had only one place to go from here: Paris. 1914 and Nina Hamnett found herself in the café La Rotonde. After a fortuitous meeting, Modigliani introduced the bright young thing to giants of the art world: Picasso, Diaghilev and Cocteau. It was within this group of bohemians that Nina was finally able to find a home and further develop her individuality. In this setting, Nina also met the man who would become her future husband, Norwegian artist Roald Kristian. This match was seen as somewhat unusual and Nina once remarked, of a painting done of the two by Walter Sickert, “We looked a picture of gloom.” This was also a period where Nina gained first-hand experience of the French avant-garde movement – one she would later, as a self-appointed ambassador, bring to the artistic communities of London.
Nina lived the next few decades of her life flitting between Paris and London, cementing a reputation for the avant-garde within both her art and lifestyle. She soon became known for her promiscuity: it is said that she would get drunk and tell everyone how Modigliani thought her to have the ‘best tits in Europe,’ proceeding to prove it. Most scandalous, of course, was her open admittance to being bisexual (an orientation unheard of in polite society). There is even an alleged fling with Vanessa Bell of the Bloomsbury group –although all signs point towards this rumour being propagated by Ms Hamnett herself.
In her book, Laughing Torso, Nina writes “One day somebody said, “You might get a job to paint furniture and do decorative work at the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square.” And so she spent some time working at the premises at 33 Fitzroy Square. Founded by artist and critic, Roger Fry, Omega Workshop was primarily intended to provide visual expression in textiles of the post-impressionist and modernist styles that were in vogue. For Nina Hamnett it was a way to make a living (yes, the workshop paid).
Nina’s roles were varied: one day she would be painting a mural or a lampshade, the next she could be found stitching together a cubist duvet. But, on top of this more creative role, she also sat as a model for the artists in the group. One piece in particular is the embodiment of the artistic community of the 1910s: a painting by Roger Fry, currently hanging in the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, at the University of Leeds, shows Hamnett modelling an Omega Workshop dress designed by Vanessa Bell. Its use of colours and slightly off angles also makes for a prime example of post-impressionist portraits.
With her lavish lifestyle and numerous modelling jobs, it is sometimes hard to remember that Nina Hamnett was quite rightly a celebrated artist herself. In fact, she superseded some of her contemporaries, becoming celebrated in both Paris and London, with her paintings hanging in many galleries, from Salon d’Automne to The Royal Academy.
In Nina Hamnett, Queen of Bohemia, Denise Hooker explains “By the mid-thirties, Nina was producing very little work beyond quick portrait sketches in pencil or chalk… Always willing to tell another anecdote in return for the next drink. Gradually… the celebrated Reine de Bohème took over from the serious artist.”
Her adventures with fellow creative, all regulars at the Fitzroy Taven, gave the area its flair and bohemian style. Here, revelling in the lively atmosphere, she mixed with luminaries such as Augustus John, Jacob Epstein and even Aleister Crowley. Hamnett and Crowley’s encounters ranged from the purportedly intimate – he claims she shared a bed with her but was incredibly rude about the experience – to litigious, when in 1934 he sued her for claiming he practiced “black magic.” He lost the case but maybe some form of magic was involved because not long after, Nina’s life commenced a precipitous decline.
Unlike many of her contemporaries and friends – Fry, Picasso, Woolf – the Queen of Bohemia’s artistic reputation is sometimes overshadowed by the stories of her reckless behaviour in later years, from vomiting into a handbag to urinating in public. December 1956: Nina Hamnett was found impaled on spikes at the feet of her apartment building. Was she pushed? Did she drunkenly fall? Or was it suicide? Her last words, possibly hinting at how tired she was of living as a shadow of herself, furiously chasing her earlier fame and recognition… “Why won’t you let me die?”