‘The Nook’ no fool could stand
In August 1931 Frances Hodgkins decided to leave the bustling city of London for a quieter life in the country and consequently moved to ‘The Nook’, Bodinnick-by-Fowey in Cornwall. In a letter to Dorothy Selby, Frances wrote, ‘The Nook is neither of the “Rookery” or the “Cosy” sort but suits my needs – no other fool could stand it.’ Frances painted the surrounding countryside relentlessly, as she feared her contract with galleries in London might be terminated because of the ever-worsening depression, caused by the stock market crash in 1929. Her hard work paid off and in February 1932 she exhibited with the Seven and Five Society and later that year with the Salford Gallery near Manchester, and also with Zwemmer, Tooth’s & Wertheim galleries in London.
IMAGE TOP: View of Ferryside; looking down towards the harbour, Bodinnick-by-Fowey 2014
Looking up at ‘The Nook’ 2014; where Frances stayed and painted in 1931
‘BLACK SHIPS ON THE RIVER’: PAINTING FERRYSIDE
Fowey is a natural deep water harbour that has served as an important trading port since the 14th century. Large ships sail up the narrow river to pick up cargoes of china clay brought down from St Austells for export to destinations all over the world. Two such ships appear in the watercolour Bodinnick, Cornwall and the oil Wings on Water (Leeds Art Gallery Collection). Frances made mention of them in a letter to Dorothy Selby in December 1931: ‘... the colour is so dark & sodden with damp. Bracken is bright red - black ships on the river ....’
In the watercolour Bodinnick, Cornwall the ships play a major part in the composition, dominating the harbour. They are almost indistinguishable from Ferryside, appearing as an extension of the house. Their large chimneys and graphic masts eventually give them away. In contrast, they appear as toy ships in the oil Wings on Water as Ferryside stands apart with its crisp white colouring.
Detail of Bodinnick, Cornwall c.1931
The same view of Ferryside 2014
Wings on Water, 1931-32
The Nook, Bodinnick by Fowey, Cornwall. c.10 December 1931
‘The weather here is soft grey & mild ...’
In the work, Bodinnick, Cornwall, Frances' studio window acts to frame the piece beyond which the vista rapidly unfolds. Her use of colour is comparatively subdued as broad washes of colour are liberally applied with only a cursory regard for outlines. Movement is effectively conveyed through dashes and strokes of pigment with the scudding clouds being given only the briefest of marks.
The thickly-painted black gate in the foreground is central to the compositional success of the work. Providing a solid almost tangible presence, the gate gives way to shrubbery, houses and boats that are drawn with a thin, confident line. Indeed, the gate works to guide the viewer through the painting – enticing us to open the gate and wander down the narrow streets and towards the harbour of Bodinnick-by-Fowey.
It is significant to note that a series of watercolours painted by Frances at ‘The Nook’ were selected by the Tate Gallery at this time and sent to Chicago for exhibition, testifying to their compositional success and persuasive allure.
IMAGE TOP: Ferryside © Christian Browning
DAPHNE DU MAURIER: ‘A RATHER DISTURBING FEATURE’
Once she settled in, Frances found her new Cornish environment immensely stimulating not only because of the beautiful natural surroundings, but also because of her new neighbours. She wrote of them to Dorothy Selby on the 21st of December 1931, saying:
‘I enclose a picture of The “Nook” which is my temporary home. The large white house in the right belongs to Sir Gerald du Maurier which he uses as a stage setting only in the summer – But his rather beautiful son-daughter lives here, Daphne, and is [a] rather disturbing feature in the extremely homely little village.
... She will wear male attire - very attractive but theatrical - wh. she is not, I believe, only merely literary.’
Daphne was born into a creative and successful family. Her grandfather was the brilliant artist and writer George du Maurier and her father was Gerald du Maurier, the most famous actor-manager and matinee idol of his day. Her mother, Muriel Beaumont, was also an actress.
Daphne du Maurier circa 1920s
She was the second of three sisters and had a privileged upbringing in Hampstead. In the 1920s the family bought a holiday home in Cornwall, and that house - Ferryside at Bodinnick - became Daphne's favourite haunt and a place of solitude that enabled her to work seriously on her early writing career.
In her autobiography Growing Pains: The Shaping of a Writer, Daphne recalls lodging at ‘The Nook’ with Miss Roberts during the writing of her first novel.
‘The last day of September came. In a couple of days everyone, including M and Angela, would have gone. The house was to be shut up and it was arranged that I should lodge with Miss Roberts at The Nook, the cottage opposite. I could keep my bedroom at Ferryside open so as to write there during the day. But I would sleep, eat and live at The Nook... No bathroom – Miss Roberts would fill a hip-bath with hot water every morning – and the “usual office” was up the garden path. Who cared? I’d be on my own. And Miss Roberts, cheerful, smiling, gave ... me a warm welcome, the first of many which would follow through the years to come. Dear Miss Roberts, who never looked askance at my shorts, or trousers, or muddy sea-boots, who struggled upstairs each morning with her can of hot water, who pretended not to notice when, disliking sausages for supper, I furtively threw them on the sitting-room fire where they crackled loudly, and whose pleasant tittle-tattle of village gossip, invariably without malice, proved so entertaining.’ —1929
Frances enjoyed similar hospitality with Miss Roberts during 1931; the year she began painting the elaborate oils Wings over Water (Tate Collection) and Wings on Water (Leeds Art Gallery Collection), both of which imitated the view from ‘The Nook’ across the river Fowey and featured Miss Roberts’ large red parrot with which Daphne had enjoyed many conversations.
IMAGE TOP: Detail of Wings Over Water, 1931-32 (TATE Collection); one of the most significant works of Frances' career - based on the vie from her studio window at ‘The Nook’.
REFERENCE | Linda Gill (ed.), Letters of Frances Hodgkins, Auckland University Press, 1993