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Frances Hodgkins and the Divine Lady


"Nobody knows when Miss Hodgkins was born [nor] as she is never likely to die does it matter - her past life is obscure, her present secretive, and she is probably a Fairy "

- Myfanwy Piper

Frances Hodgkins was born in Dunedin in 1869, but she counts as a "modern" painter, her "Pleasure Garden" creating a scandal in Christchurch in 1948-9 when the City Council refused to accept it as a gift from the Canterbury Society of Arts.

The most important person in her life was Dorothy Kate Richmond (1860-1935), '"the dearest woman with the most beautiful face and expression." (Other painting students called her "The Divine Lady".) Hodgkins went on, "I am a lucky beggar to have her as a travelling companion."

They probably first met at the studio of the painter Girolamo Nerli in Silverstream early in 1901, or perhaps in Brittany or Paris later that year, but they then began travelling and painting together, giving a joint exhibition in Newlyn, England in 1902.

Her most effusive letter, from Morocco on March 23, 1903, begins

My Dearest D K.R

Come to Tetuan - come - catch the next steamer, cancel all engagements, chuck the studio let everything go to the winds only come without a moments delay & realise for yourself all your dreams of beauty color & sunshine. ... There is only one crumple in the rose leaf & that is that you are not hear to enjoy it with me - but you must come - ...

Could the "rose leaf" be a coded reference to the "red rose-leaf lips ... made ... for the madness of kisses" made notorious by Oscar Wilde only eight years earlier? Hodgkins knew her letters were going into family archives. In 1902 she wrote:

I am most comfortable, but lonely - and I shall be very glad when I shall have you sitting down opposite me again at meals.

Again, this image of domestic bliss may (or may not) have had to stand in for a great deal more.

On their return together, they shared a studio in Bowen Street, Wellington (~1903-6), a disused carriage house belonging to Alexander Turnbull. (Richmond later had her own studio and home on Hill St, a Mecca for her many lesbian and gay friends.) They gave a joint exhibition in Wellington in 1904 at which many paintings were sold, but it was largely a society occasion, organised by Frances' sister, Isabel, and Frances despaired of Wellington's philistinism. Among Hodgkins' pupils was Edith Kate Bendall, lover of Katherine Mansfield.

Hodgkins became engaged to an Englishman, T. Boughton Wilby, after the briefest of courtships, and planned to go overseas to marry him, but the engagement was broken off at the last moment. As E. H. McCormick wrote in his biography of her, The Expatriate:

"...we may infer ... that the remainder of the year was one of the unhappiest periods of her life. During these months she seems to have sought in Miss Richmond's company the consolation of friendship and perhaps relief from the inquisitive eyes of a small city."

This is the nearest anyone comes to attributing a lesbian relationship to the two, but we can certainly give them the benefit of the doubt (and as always, it is a matter of definition). They holidayed together in Paraparaumu and Rotorua before Frances left for London in 1906.

She returned to New Zealand in 1912 and stayed for nearly a year, but McCormick records only that she saw Richmond. She sent good wishes to Richmond in letters to others, but their relationship apparently just faded away. Hodgkins was later to write of Richmond, "Some good man has missed a great happiness."

One of Hodgkins' later woman friends (she had few man friends, all painters) was described as "a nice elderly woman ... rather resembling Miss Richmond in face and manner." She thought she and the new companion, a Miss Hill, "would suit each other very well."

(Hodgkins always referred to Richmond formally. Though a 1902 letter and the 1903 one quoted above begin "My dearest D K.R" [sic], one of 1908 begins, "My dearest Dolla," a name used by her family.)

Richmond taught at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School for Girls in Fitzherbert Terrace, Wellington (where Maata Mahupuku had met Katherine Mansfield when it was known as Miss Swainson's) from 1907 to 1924. She succeeded as an artist in New Zealand in her lifetime, becoming head of the Academy of New Zealand for two years late in life. A conservationist, she persuaded the Academy to condemn the quarrying of Paritutu, New Plymouth. She died suddenly in North Terrace, Wellington, in 1935.

Helen Simpson (a niece of Richmond's) wrote of Hodgkins in 1940, "Her later work is little known in her own country; nor is it likely that it would be very popular if it were known better. It shows, nevertheless, the marks of genius and of the true artist: it has never ceased to develop."

She died in Dorchester, Dorset, in 1947.

We have not found any websites dedicated to Frances Hodgkins or even offering a good selection of her paintings, which are landscapes, still lives and portraits or groups (such as the famous "Hill Top") of women and girls. (She seldom painted males.)



Back to Chronology, Part 1

Written by Hugh Young. Thanks to Alison J. Laurie.

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