River Tone, Somerset c.1939
Watercolour & gouache on paper, 53.5 x 37.5 cm
Signed Frances Hodgkins lower left
To William Hodgkins, 26 May 1940. The Croft, Bradford-on-Tone, Taunton, Somerset.
I have moved over here to the Croft from Corfe Castle not because it is any safer. No place is safe but it is rather more away from it all than on the S. coast where the coastal gunfire rattled my big studio windows – very worrying. Geoffrey gave me the use of the Croft for the summer & I shall stay here so long as the Gov: doesn’t fill it up with evacuees . . . I have dispensed with the Housekeeper & am doing my own work & cooking in a sort of a fashion . . .
In the summer of 1934 Frances Hodgkins gave up her Hampstead studio to spend time in Cornwall, and then Somerset, where she was offered the use of a cottage owned by anthropologist and writer Geoffrey Gorer. In a letter to Duncan Macdonald, director of Lefevre Gallery, she explained that having the use of The Croft was ‘a godsend’, and that she had been having a difficult time with the ‘unresponsive English landscape’. A week or so later, in another letter to Macdonald she admitted:
I have been eaten alive by the too tedious character of this country – so backless – formless. Doubtless there is a right spot if only I could strike it –
Hodgkins returned to The Croft in the summer of 1939. These were ‘dark days’, and she sought to escape the coastal gunfire that had regularly rattled the windows of her previous studio at Corfe Castle. In a letter to Geoffrey Gorer she described the garden at his cottage as ‘so pleasant … scented & radiant’, and that she was eating her way ‘locust like’ through produce from the garden’.
From 1938 to around 1940 the bulk of Hodgkins' work was mainly landscape-orientated, and included this painting of the River Tone in Somerset, one of several on the subject. It was executed in watercolour and gouache, the latter being an opaque and fast-drying medium that needed to be applied quickly and confidently as it provided little opportunity for alteration. Further to the fluidity of the brushstrokes, Hodgkins' highly personalised interpretation of the Tone is distinguished by large areas of dark brown which contrast with the smaller and lighter patches of yellow, green, pink and blue.
During her first (1934) stay at The Croft Hodgkins explained her working method to Duncan Macdonald:
I go out into the fields every day, among the red cattle, strike an attitude and paint a composite picture - a sort of wish fulfilment of a picture.
River Tone, Somerset represents a significant and substantial development in Hodgkins’ career, illustrating her shift from representation to abstraction. Her earlier interest in Impressionism had now given way to an appreciation of Modernism, evident in the new economy of form and the flattening of the picture plane. The dynamically- executed elements – the foreground river and a scattering of frost (or snow) on the ground beyond, and a house (probably The Croft) among the calligraphic trees - are here drawn together in a harmonious whole. Hodgkins demonstrates her mastery of colour and form, and it was recognition of her highly personalised and idiosyncratic vision that led to her selection to represent Britain at the 1940 Venice Biennale (unfortunately the exhibition was cancelled with the onset of World War II).
The present painting was included in a selection of recent works in oil and gouache shown at the Leicester Galleries in October 1941. Whereas the review in The Times credited Hodgkins with achieving ‘rich and strong colours’ but considered the general impression to be ‘one of confusion’, The Spectator considered the exhibition ‘an event of importance.’
Written by Richard Wolfe
Research by Jonathan Gooderham
London, U.K. Leicester Galleries, Paintings & Watercolours. October 1941 (No. 107). Sold to Mrs B C Fitzgerald
Auckland, N.Z. Jonathan Grant Gallery, Frances Hodgkins: A Singular Artist. July 2016
Roger Collins and Iain Buchanan, Frances Hodgkins on Display 1890 – 1950 (Hocken Library 2000) p. 81
Arthur R. Howell, Frances Hodgkins: Four Vital Years (Rockliff, London 1951) pp. 121, 130
Leicester Galleries, London.
Purchased by Mrs B C Fitzgerald, 1941
Private collection, Auckland