Boys Fishing c.1907/08
Watercolour, 26 x 36 cm
Signed with monogram FH lower right
Inscribed verso: Miss Thorp
To Rachel Hodgkins, c. 8th September 1907; from F.H., Pennock’s Hotel, Dordrecht
I’ve sold a £5 picture this morning to a departing tourist and what with my teaching fees I am quite in funds. The Editor of the local paper is reported to have said that there were 42 ladies making pictures of Dordrecht but only one artist. Modesty forbids me mentioning names …
In mid-1903, and in addition to exhibiting at the Royal Academy, Frances Hodgkins showed ten works with the Fine Art Society in Bond Street, London. She also made her first trip to Holland where she spent some ten weeks. In early November she sailed from London, making her first return visit to New Zealand, staying with family in Wellington and continuing to exhibit with this country’s art societies. On 18th January 1906 she departed from Wellington for Plymouth, and a little over a month later left England for Venice, then travelling to Paris, Avignon and Antibes. In late May 1907 she undertook her second trip to Holland and, apart from a return visit to see friends in England in November/December, she remained in Holland for the next fifteen months, until 23 August 1908.
One of several paintings resulting from Hodgkins’s two visits to Holland was 'Boys Fishing'. One of its three subjects sits cross-legged on the approaches to a bridge, engrossed in what he is doing, while the two others lean against the rails behind, watching. The trio and the bridge itself are presented simply and directly, with minimal attention to detail, as in the vigorous brushstrokes which define the clumps of trees framing the composition. Apart from the orange roof near the centre of the composition, there is a restrained use of colour in this quiet and contemplative scene, capturing the sense of three young friends lost in their thoughts.
During the time of Hodgkins’s visit, Holland, like Concarneau in Brittany, was a popular location for artists. They were attracted by those regions’ traditional and rural qualities, which were in sharp contrast to the rapid industrialisation then taking place in the cities of Europe. The three young subjects of Boys Fishing are wearing traditional Dutch caps and clogs and reflect Hodgkins’s awareness of the work of British artist Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947), a leading member of the artists’ group at Newlyn, the small Cornish fishing village which she had first visited in 1902. Newlyn had been selected as an English equivalent to the artist colonies established on the Continent. Its artists were the leading pioneers of plein air painting in Britain, finding the mild climate conducive to outdoor work, and also drawn to depicting scenes of village life based on the observation of nature. Irish-born Norman Garstin (1847-1926), a leading member of the Newlyn artists, introduced Hodgkins to such themes, as realised in her paintings at Concarneau and elsewhere in France and Holland.
Hodgkins was earning a respectable living taking students in Holland and the present painting was a gift to one of those students, Theresa Thorp, “the congenial and specially selected companion” with whom Hodgkins travelled to Paris in 1908.
The bridges of Holland appeared in other paintings by Hodgkins, including the earlier 'The Oude, Delft', from 1903, showing a similar small structure over a canal, with a girl in long dress, Dutch cap and clogs, carrying a basket. This painting was included in the artist’s joint exhibition with Dorothy K. Richmond at McGregor Wright Gallery in Wellington, in February 1904. The Evening Post described The Oude, Delft as a ‘brilliant picture’, ‘full of harmonious, yet glittering, colour, the vivid reflections of unseen objects in the water beyond the bridge being full of subtle suggestion’. Hodgkins was in New Zealand at the time, and the paper suggested that the country should welcome back a painter who ‘has gone so far and will, undoubtedly, go further’.
In July 1905 Hodgkins exhibited three watercolours at the Auckland Society of Arts. On this occasion a reviewer noted that she had ‘found her metier’ while working in Holland and considered 'The Oude, Delft' ‘one of the most important works in the gallery’. Particularly impressive was the treatment of the ‘sluggish waters of the old canal lined with well-trimmed plane trees’, and ‘the quaint Dutch folk passing along the quay or over the bridge’. By late February the following year Hodgkins was back in Europe, and from late May 1907 she would spend some ten months based in Dordrecht in the west of Holland. One painting resulting from this stay, 'Dordrecht' (Dunedin Public Art Gallery), c.1908, captures the sense of a grey wet day, and with four children in traditional Dutch clothing in the foreground, with the impressive architecture of the town beyond.
Written by Jonathan Gooderham & Richard Wolfe
Auckland, N.Z. Jonathan Grant Gallery, Frances Hodgkins: Watercolours from Europe. 2008
Frances Hodgkins: Watercolours from Europe, Jonathan Grant Galleries (Auckland 2008), p. 11
Private collection, Montfort-l’Amaury, France Christies, London, December 2007 Private Collection, Auckland