Country Colour, Purbeck, 1944
Gouache on paper, 50 x 65 cm
Signed Frances Hodgkins & dated 1944 lower right
To William Hodgkins, 21 June 1944. Corfe Castle, Dorset.
Friends here are good to me & the country is lovely & this bit of coast line in Dorset the loveliest in the world … I am in fairly good health – and am feeling the benefit of regular meals - and rest. Most of us are looking rather wan – one needs to be pretty strong headed to survive a 4yrs. war such as this war …..Have plenty of work to do for the Galleries – I am deluged with invitations commissions etc – They all want Frances H now.
In 1933, after returning to London from her time on the Continent, Hodgkins moved to Corfe Castle in Dorset. She was attracted there by ex-pupil, friend and potter Amy Krauss, and would retain this connection with Dorset for the rest of her life. Corfe Castle is situated on a peninsula known as the Isle of Purbeck, which would feature in the title of a number of paintings executed by Hodgkins in the mid-1940s.
Although Hodgkins had moved to the relative isolation of Corfe Castle, she could not avoid the effects of the war. Her 1940/41 oil painting Houses and Outhouses, Purbeck included ‘tank traps’, and other symbolic references such as farm implements in states of disuse or dereliction. This highly abstracted composition also incorporated various ambiguous shapes, and was considered a major contribution to the British neo-romanticism of the day.
Some three years later, in 1944, she took as her subject the courtyard next to her cottage in the village of Corfe Castle and produced a trio of paintings, two of which are in New Zealand collections: The Courtyard in Wartime (The University of Auckland Art Collection) and Purbeck Courtyard, Early Afternoon (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa). The former is the most dramatic of these works; quite aside from the manipulation of the formal elements, an unsettlingly theatrical atmosphere suggests the night raids by enemy aircraft.
In late June 1944 Hodgkins wrote to her friend Dorothy Selby about the ‘devilry’ or war and its impact on her at Corfe Castle:
The village is stiff with troops mostly Canadians & the motor traffic is terrific…. The planes overhead bringing back wounded from Normandy have scared all art out of me – I simply cannot paint. This lovely weather makes it easier. The sun has been pouring down on us & we are literally cooked.
Country Colour, Purbeck was painted at about the same time as the courtyard works, and may be interpreted as an entirely different response to the war. A more conventional composition executed with a naïve charm, it presents a lone cow standing before a straw-covered clump of mangelwurzels (cultivated root vegetables), while the background is dominated by a large white double-gabled structure surrounded by the artist’s now familiar calligraphic trees. In contrast to the frightening intensity of The Courtyard in Wartime, Country Colour, Purbeck is positively bucolic, an essay in simplicity and productivity beneath a blue Dorset sky. In terms of style and subject matter it is similar to the earlier (1938-1940) Cheviot Farm (Manchester Art Gallery), in which a left- facing cow stands amongst farmyard buildings and machinery. Hodgkins’ interest in agricultural themes was also apparent in the 1943 gouache The Root Crop (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki), which has been described as a ‘twilight fantasy’, and bears more relation to the intensity of the courtyard series than the apparent innocence and pastoralism of Country Colour, Purbeck.
Hodgkins exhibited the present work, and others, at The Lefevre Gallery in April 1945 and received a positive review in The Spectator. Although Country Colour, Purbeck was not singled out, artist Michael Ayrton wrote that these paintings demonstrated that the artist had ‘reached a very complete and final maturity’.
Written by Richard Wolfe
Research by Jonathan Gooderham
London, U.K. Lefevre Gallery, Recent paintings by Francis Bacon, Frances Hodgkins and Henry Moore. April 1945 (No. 9)
Paris, FR. British Council Fine Arts Department Exhibition, Quelques Contemporains Anglais. 1945 (No. 8)
Prague, CZ. British Council Fine Arts Department Exhibition. 1946 (No. 9)
Auckland, N.Z. Jonathan Grant Gallery, Frances Hodgkins: A Singular Artist. July 2016
Collection: Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903 – 1989) London
Estate of Colin Horsley OBE (1920 – 2012) Isle of Man
Arthur R Howell, Four Vital Years (Rockliff, London 1951) p. 100
Roger Collins and Iain Buchanan, Frances Hodgkins on Display 1890 – 1950 (Hocken Library 2000) pp. 83, 84