Painting without pretenceMarch 1st, 2019
On display in the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room at the Alexander Turnbull Library are images taken from a sketchbook in the Hodgkins collection. We know the sketchbook belonged to the Hodgkins family but it’s unclear who was responsible for creating the book. Numerous people contributed to its pages and while most were members of the Hodgkins family, a few family friends’ work is also included. Furthermore, a number of sketches in the book are anonymous, having never been signed, along with the many greeting cards, photographs and pictures from magazines that have been added without attribution.
The Hodgkins family came to New Zealand in 1861 when William Hodgkins emigrated to Dunedin following the discovery of gold in the area. He found work as a solicitor’s clerk and married Rachel Owens Parker in 1865. They had their first child, William, in 1866 with Isabel arriving the year after. In 1869 they had Frances, then a further 3 boys, Percy, Gilbert and Frank, who all pursued careers in politics and the arts.
L: Acheron Passage in the mist at Dusky Sound. Shows a boat sailing through the passage [1875?]. Hodgkins, William Mathew, 1833-1898. Ref: E-312-q-035 R: Alabaster Lake. [188-]. Hodgkins, William Mathew, 1833-1898. Ref: E-312-q-003
Taken at Cranmore Lodge, on the hills above Dunedin, in February 1892. Shows Isabel Hodgkins (holding Japanese sunshade), William Mathew and Rachael Hodgkins (seated), Frances Hodgkins and William Field (on ground). Photograph taken by Cower. Ref: 1/2-010509-F
The Hodgkins family played a notable role in contributing to New Zealand’s artistic culture and even today their legacy continues to influence artists. This family’s passion for art extended beyond their own artistic practices; they promoted and advocated for bringing previously inaccessible ideas and artistic movements to New Zealand by supporting international art exhibitions and helping establish the Otago Art Society and later, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery – the first institution of its kind in New Zealand.
The Hodgkins family sketchbook is remarkable for tracing through nearly 20 years of William, Isabel, Frances and their friends’ lives. The huge variety of media used to create the drawings and paintings echo the characteristic styles of the artists who contributed to the book. William’s use of colour and line create realistic, yet idealised landscapes. Frances’ delicate, muted palette shows subtle shifts in colour that bring her portraits to life, and Isabel’s ability to see beauty in unusual places made these scenes worthwhile subjects to paint without pretence.
The wreck of the Victory, Wickliffe Bay, July 1862. Hodgkins, William Mathew, 1833-1898. Ref: E-312-q-010
Front cover and page 63 of the Hodgkins family sketchbook. Ref: E-312-q-Cover
This sketchbook is a fascinating example of how a family of artists and their friends collaborated and mutually sustained each other in their efforts to address the artistic challenges which life in nineteenth century Dunedin presented to them. The casual, domestic and humble nature of the sketchbook is part of its charm; by giving us small glimpses of everyday life, it transports the viewer back to the time when it was made. The allowance for mistakes and accidents, things which are ordinarily glossed over in oil paintings, are visible here over one hundred years later. The development of Isabel and Frances as artists in their own right is evident in the progression of their work supported by a father with a passion for the arts.
Out of the book’s contributors, William’s work features the most. His diary entries on the first two pages suggest that he may have been the person to start the book. Frances and Isabel also feature quite regularly, and they filled its pages with studies from around their home.
The pen and ink drawings, writings, watercolours, cards, prints and photographs, provide insights into this creative 19th century Dunedin social circle, imparting a sense of collective identity and the interests which kept this family bonded. But it is not just remarkable for this – it also shows a distinct sense of place. Many of the landscapes are scenes from the area and the portraits are of those people that they knew.
L: Photograph of Cranmore Lodge, Melrose, Dunedin, taken by W Row Frost. Frost, William Row, 1845?-1911. Ref: 1/4-002998. R: Batchelder & Co fl 1867-1895: William Mathew Hodgkins, 1833-1898. Ref: PA2-0239
William Mathew Hodgkins painting in his studio at Cranmore Lodge, using a mahl stick and easel. Ref: 1/2-010789-F
The majority of the images in the sketchbook were created while the family was living in Cranmore Lodge, a large residential home on the outskirts of Dunedin. During the time the Hodgkins family lived at the lodge (1889-1897), the children, encouraged by their parents, continued to develop their artistic talents.
It was a large home with enough space to accommodate the family and provide plenty of subjects for study, including a large garden with chickens and a cow. For Frances and Isabel, the garden was a frequent subject for many of their images in the sketchbook, and the house provided ample space for William to set up a painting studio, as seen in the photo above.
Otago Art Society
Cranmore Lodge also became the site for many of the Otago Art Society meetings, an art club founded in 1877 by William and other prominent members of Dunedin’s middle class. The group would meet at the house to discuss their recent work and take trips to paint scenes around Otago. After an exhibition of work done on a trip to Fiordland, the Society received excellent reviews from the local newspapers, praising the society for bringing attention to local artists.
The young and apparently flourishing Society to which we are indebted for this exhibition certainly deserves general recognition for the work it has commenced, and up to the present carried on with marked success in giving publicity to the works of local artists, and enabling the public to participate to some extent in the pleasure and advantages which would otherwise belong to the few who possess a private collection... The opportunities afforded by Nature of educating artists amongst us are considerable, and the encouragement given by this Society – by awarding a medal to the pupils of the Government School of Art for oil and another for water colours, and by initiating a scheme of Art Union similar to those existing in London, Glasgow and Victoria, must considerably stimulate the zeal of aspirants. Otago Daily Times, Issue 4946, 24 Dec. 1877, pg. 2
William’s passion for art, particularly landscape painting is clear, not only for the volume of landscape studies he contributed to the sketchbook but in his advocacy on the subject. His influential paper ‘A history of landscape art and its study in New Zealand’ published in the Otago Daily Times in November 1880 shows a man with a sense of nostalgia for the tradition of British landscape painting, particularly the romantic painter J. M. W. Turner. William was well-traveled and had been influenced by art movements flourishing in Europe at the time and could see their potential when applied to the largely ‘unworked’ New Zealand landscape.
[Lake and mountains. 18--]. Hodgkins, William Mathew, 1833-1898. Ref: E-312-q-096-1
But if we have not those advantages, those models, those wonderful designs, those masterpieces of colour and composition which fill the galleries of Europe, and tend so much to inspire all that is lofty, pure, and noble in art, we have in the country in which we live, a land absolutely teeming with artistic subjects of the most varied kind. We have here, as it were, almost at our very doors, the special features of every country which is remarkable for its scenery, the English lake, the Scottish mountain and glen, the snow-seamed peaks of Switzerland, the fiords of Norway, the tinted geysers of the Yellowstone, are all reproduced in this adopted land of ours with abundance and variety... And I look forward with confidence to the time when Dunedin will possess its art gallery, upon the walls of which we may see with pride the masterpieces of our Colonial painters, just as the Capitol at Washington has upon its walls the ‘chef d'oeuvre’ of the most celebrated of American artists. Otago Daily Times, Issue 5862, 20 November 1880
His enthusiasm for these movements inspired him to bring this art back to New Zealand. It was through his efforts that a large collection of British and European art was bought to Dunedin for the 1889 New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition.
Later, a part of that collection was acquired for the city of Dunedin, creating the need for a permanent public art gallery. Once again, William tackled the challenge and went on to help build Dunedin's – and New Zealand’s – first public art gallery.
Gallery interiors hung with paintings, at the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, Dunedin, 1889-1890. McCormick, Eric Hall (Dr), 1906-1995. Ref: PA1-o-761-10
Isabel's delicate, dreamlike treatment of subjects in the sketchbook illustrates what is distinctive about her work. L: Art Club Sketch. [Stone bridge, mountains] 1887. Hodgkins, Isabel Jane, 1867-1950. Ref: E-312-q-076 R: [Girl. 1880s?]. Hodgkins, Isabel Jane, 1867-1950. Ref: E-312-q-025-3
Even from a young age, Isabel’s artistic abilities were clear and with her parents encouragement she continued working on her talent. She was elected a member of the Otago Art Society at just 16 and sold her first painting Clematis soon after. This early success propelled Isabel to continue to paint and she emulated her father by creating large landscape paintings and keeping meticulous records of painting excursions.
Her delicate, dreamlike treatment of subjects in the sketchbook illustrates what is distinctive about her work and it is clear from these early studies that she not only had an interest in landscape but portraiture and still life as well.
Her paintings were so popular that in 1886 she had saved enough money to take a long holiday in Australia and exhibit in the Centennial Exhibition in Melbourne where she won a third order of merit for a watercolour titled ‘An old Brown Jug’.
Figure painting and still life
Frances was no child prodigy in art, and grew up following her mother’s ambition to have a musical member of the family by becoming an accomplished pianist. One of the many family stories say that at one point Frances’s drawing caused William to exclaim ‘Fanny – you can’t draw!’ This is evident in the sketchbook where we see some of Frances’s early work, the majority of these are very basic and lack the finished quality that we see in the other sketches.
However, we also see a young artist who is not only testing techniques but developing a clear sense of which subjects interested her. Unlike her father, whose passion was landscapes, it seems that early on Frances realised her strengths were in figure painting and still life. Euphemia, the Hodgkins' maid (or 'Phemie' as she was sometimes called), appears throughout the sketchbook. Images of her feeding the chickens, polishing shoes and making bread all show us the domestic side of life in Dunedin at the time and provided Frances with a ready and convenient model.
[Portrait of a young woman]. [Hodgkins, Frances Mary] 1869-1947. Ref: E-312-q-078
Frances was not a motivated artist however, and her artistic abilities were slow to develop, only beginning to take painting seriously after the New Zealand and South Seas exhibition, where perhaps she became inspired upon seeing works of Turner, Leighton, Watts, and Millais. Five months after the exhibition closed she joined the Otago Art Society. Her painting career took off quickly from there and she held her first exhibition of paintings after being a member of the club for only six weeks.
Like many young, upper middle class women of the time, both girls had finished their education with little more than a basic understanding of Latin or French and their interest in art and music. Many jobs available to women their age were considered compromising to the social position of the family so options were few. However, both sisters played to their strengths with Isabel continuing to sell her artwork and Frances teaching piano and selling paintings.
William H. Field
Isabel married William Hughes Field in 1893 and subsequently moved to Wellington, where Field became the Liberal Party MP for Otaki. As Frances grew up she became a motivated patron of the arts like her father. She lived a bohemian lifestyle, travelling and teaching throughout Europe, North Africa and Britain. Frances may have come back to New Zealand permanently if she could have made a career in her homeland but in a letter to her mother in 1908 she confesses ‘it is a hard blow to me not selling. It shows how unpopular my work has become with the N.Z. public- oh me! Life is not easy’. However, it is clear that her humble colonial beginnings and supportive family continued to influence her and gave her the courage to pursue a career in art.
Rachel Hodgkins on the left, grandmother of the baby in her daughter Isabel's arms, with her son-in-law, William Hughes Field on the right. Photographer unknown, 1894. Ref: E-311-q-011-1
The Turnbull Library holds additional works by each of these artists beyond the images in the sketchbook. You can view them at the links below:
Further works by William Hodgkins can be found at Te Papa Tongarewa, which you can see here.
- E. H. McCormick, Portrait of Frances Hodgkins . Auckland, N.Z., Auckland University Press, 1990.
- E. H. McCormick, Works of Frances Hodgkins in New Zealand . Auckland N.Z., Auckland City Art Gallery, 1954.
- Joanne Drayton, Frances Hodgkins: A private viewing . Auckland, N.Z., Godwit, 2005.
- Linda Gill (ed.), Letters of Frances Hodgkins . Auckland, N.Z., Auckland University Press, 1993.
- Peter Entwisle, William Mathew Hodgkins & his circle: An exhibition to mark the centennial of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, October 1984 . [Dunedin, N.Z.], The Gallery, 1984.
- Victoria Robson, Janet Bayly (ed.), An emerging talent: Early works by Frances Hodgkins . Waikanae, N.Z., Mahara Gallery, 2017.