Nina Hamnett (18901956), by Roger Fry, 1917
Hamnett [married name de Bergen], Nina (18901956), painter and illustrator, was born on 14 February 1890 at 3 Lexden Terrace, Tenby, Pembrokeshire, the eldest of the four children of George Edward Hamnett (b. 1864), a captain in the Army Service Corps, and Mary Elizabeth De Blois Archdeacon (1863/41947), daughter of Captain William Edwin Archdeacon, a naval officer and cartographer.
Hamnett led a peripatetic childhood, attending the Royal School for Daughters of the Officers of the Army in Bath from 1902 to 1905 and classes at the Portsmouth School of Art in 1903 and the Dublin School of Art in 1905. After her father (by then a lieutenant-colonel) was cashiered in 1906, the family moved to London. Hamnett studied under Sir Alfred Cope at the Pelham School of Art, South Kensington, in 1907, and at the London School of Art from about 1907 to 1910 under Frank Brangwyn, John Swan, William Nicholson, and George Lambert. She first visited Paris in 1912 and in 1914 attended Marie Wassilieff's academy where Fernand Léger taught. In Paris she met the Norwegian dramatist and artist Edgar de Bergen
(known as Roald Kristian; b. 1893)
, whom she married in London on 12 October 1914 and with whom she had a child who was born prematurely and died in 1915. Walter Sickert depicted them in The Little Tea Party (1916, Tate collection) looking, in Hamnett's words, the picture of gloom (Hooker, 90; Hamnett, Laughing Torso, 1932, 82); and when de Bergen was deported as an alien in 1917, they never saw each other again. Hamnett had a succession of lovers and acquired a taste for boxers and sailors, because, as she said, they go away (Hooker, 233).
A natural rebel, with her tall, boyish figure, short hair, unconventional clothes, and flamboyant behaviour, Hamnett rapidly became a well-known bohemian personality. A self-appointed artistic ambassador between London and Paris, friends and mentors included Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Amedeo Modigliani, Walter Sickert, Roger Fry, and Augustus John. She benefited from her first-hand knowledge of the avant-garde in both cities to develop her own individual style and she made a significant contribution to the modern movement in London from about 1915 to 1930. She exhibited widely in solo and group shows, including, in London, those of the Allied Artists' Association, the Friday Club, the Grafton Group, the London Group, the New English Art Club, the National Portrait Society, the Goupil Gallery Salon, and the Leicester Galleries' Artists of Fame and Promise, and, in Paris, the Salon d'Automne and the Salon des Indépendants. She did decorative work at Fry's Omega workshops from 1913 to 1919, including painting designs on candlesticks and a mural on the theme of contemporary London life (1916) for the art dealer Arthur Ruck's house at 4 Berkeley Street. She also taught a life-drawing class at the Westminster Technical Institute in 191719.
Influenced by Fry and French art, particularly Cézanne, Hamnett painted still lifes, landscapes, and views of roof-tops and the backs of houses, concentrating on the underlying formal structure. But she was always more interested in human beings and declared: My ambition is to paint psychological portraits that shall represent accurately the spirit of the age (Gordon-Stables, 11215). Her sitters included many of the leading artistic personalities of her time: Ossip Zadkine, Sickert, Horace Brodzky, Edith Sitwell, Osbert Sitwell, W. H. Davies, Rupert Doone, and Álvaro Guevara. Her portraits are strong, bold statements of character in which features are simplified and exaggerated to express her concise view of the subject's personality. Fine draughtsmanship, well-defined modelling of forms, and a richly low-toned palette relieved by well-placed details of colour give her portraits in oils an almost sculptural solidity. With her sharp eye for the underlying human comedy, Hamnett was always attracted to people and places with any kind of oddity value. Endlessly fascinated by life around her, she found a rich source of subject matter in cafés and pubs, the circus, the boxing ring, and the park bench.
Hamnett excelled as a draughtswoman. Sickert praised the sharp silhouette that her uniform and sensitive line defines with such expressiveness and such startling virtuosity (Hooker, 116; Cambridge Magazine, 8 June 1918, 77071). The ease and fluidity of her line, and her pared-down simplification of form, had much in common with Gaudier-Brzeska and Modigliani. Her witty pen-and-ink illustrations (1928) to Osbert Sitwell's The People's Album of London Statues rank among her best work and display what Augustus John called her perfectly original talent which (in the case of her drawings) falls into line with the grand tradition of British humouristics (Hooker, 187; Vogue, April 1928).
From 1920 to 1926 Hamnett was the best-known British woman painter in Paris, a focal point for the large expatriate community, and friendly with Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, and the composers known as Les Six. However, her commanding position in the hectic social life of Paris and London took its toll; by the mid-1930s her talent was in decline and she produced little beyond quick portrait sketches. In the 1930s and 1940s she presided over London's Fitzrovia and Soho, ever willing to tell another anecdote in return for the next drink. She had always led a financially precarious life, alleviated somewhat by the generosity of her rich and famous friends, but by the 1950s poverty, drink, and ill health severely restricted her movements. When she died in London on 16 December 1956, after falling from a window and being impaled on the railings below her flat at 164 Westbourne Terrace, Paddington, the coroner delivered a verdict of accidental death, which was hotly debated by her friends. She was cremated at Golders Green crematorium on the 23rd.
Hamnett is immortalized in the work of numerous writers and artists, notably Gaudier-Brzeska's famous 1913 marble torso of her (now in the Tate collection) and Roger Fry's portraits of 1917 (University of Leeds; Courtauld Inst.). Vignettes of her appear in countless memoirs of the period and she wrote two volumes of autobiography, Laughing Torso (1932) and Is she a Lady? (1956).
D. Hooker, Nina Hamnett: queen of bohemia (1986) [incl. illustrations and bibliography] · L. Gordon-Stables, Nina Hamnett's psychological portraiture, Artwork, 1 (19245), 11215 · W. Sickert, Nina Hamnett, Cambridge Magazine (8 June 1918), 77071 · A. John, Vogue (April 1928)
BL NSA, BBC Sound Archive, Café Royal, broadcast 28 Dec 1955
H. Gaudier-Brzeska, marble torso, 1913, Tate collection · W. R. Sickert, oils, 1916, Tate collection · R. Fry, oils, 1917, Courtauld Inst. [see illus.] · R. Fry, oils, 1917, U. Leeds · double portrait, photograph, 1917 (with Pamela Diamond), King's Cam., Fry MSS · J. Kramer, oils, c.1926, priv. coll. · D. Farson, bromide print, 195055, NPG · D. Farson, photographs, c.1954, repro. in Hooker, Nina Hamnett · portraits, repro. in Hooker, Nina Hamnett
Wealth at death
see Hooker, Nina Hamnett