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Frances Hodgkins and Corfe

In the south-west of Dorset is the beautiful village of Corfe. The village sits beneath the impressive castle ruins which today draw many visitors to the area. Starting as a Saxon stronghold, the site has gone through several metamorphoses, as a Norman Castle with the Keep built by Henry I, a home for the Bankes family (both before and after its destruction in the Civil War), and eventually, since 1982 (and thanks to the generosity of the same Bankes family), a property of the National Trust.  

It was not the castle nor the scenery of Purbeck, however, that drew Frances Hodgkins, a fellow expatriate and one of New Zealand’s (and Britain’s) finest artists to Corfe in 1937, but her friendships with the potter, Amy Kraus and the artist, Francis Newbery.  Hodgkins had lived in England since the early 20th century, travelling widely in England and Europe before moving to the south-west during the late 1930s.  Turning seventy in the year that war broke out, Francis found herself caught in the village where she was to spend most of the last seven years of her life in the village, before her death in 1947.

It was not an altogether happy time.  She spent most of her years in Corfe (which she initially described as ‘ a proper little hole‘)  trying to get away to visit friends in the Home Counties or in Wales. Her financial position, however, was precarious and so she remained there for the remainder of her life trapped by her impecuniosity ; and while it was an uncomfortable and demanding sojourn, it was also highly productive for her as an artist, a period during which she added to her already considerable reputation as one of Britain’s leading modernist painter. 

Frances Hodgkins was born in the town of Dunedin, New Zealand  in 1869, (my own birthplace). His father, William, a law clerk, was also a talented painter and co-founder of the Otago Arts Society was a significant influence on her journey into art; her mother, Rachel, whose parents had settled in New South Wales after the battle of Waterloo, by contrast provided the glamour and mythology through Francis’s great grandmother, Lydia Phillips, said to be an heiress form the upper echelons of society. 

Francis was a precocious talent and soon made a name for herself as an artist in the town and by 1890 was exhibiting around New Zealand before in 1901, making the first of her journeys to Europe, where she exhibited at the Royal Academy and three other London galleries. Her reputation grew quickly and she was highly regarded by British avant-garde society and by the later stages of her career her reputation as a key figure in British Modernism was publicly celebrated by such critics as John and Myfanwy Piper, Eric Newton, the English artist and art critic (who described her as  ‘a painter of Genius’ the Art Critic of the New Statesman who labelled her ‘the most inventive colourist in England’ and Geoffrey Gorer who described her as ‘the most original painter working in England.’

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Moving to Corfe in 1937, she lived first with Amy Krauss or in lodgings, including in what she described as the ‘lost village’ of Worth Matravers until she eventually rented her own cottage next to the Studio of the elderly artist, Francis Newbery, that she was using. Situated in a building that had previously been a non-conformist chapel adjoining a small courtyard, it gave her the space she needed to paint. She also made good use of the Greyhound Inn, both for meals and, occasionally, as an escape from her cold and unappealing cottage for which she struggled to heat by not being able to afford the necessary fuel.     

She did escape occasionally, to Bradford on Tone, Camarthen, Devon and on one occasion to Cerne Abbas which she described as a ‘rather a darling little village with a few haughty houses.’ Meanwhile, despite Corfe’s proximity to the coast and bombing raids nearby, she continued to exhibit, twice at Lefrevre and once at Leicester Gallery. But it was a desperate time for her. Not only did her health suffer, she also struggled to get news from family and friends back in New Zealand. In particular, the death of her brother Willie in 1945, with whom she corresponded regularly, was a heavy blow to her.

Today, she is acknowledged as one of the leading artists of the mid-twentieth century, celebrated both in England and New Zealand as one of their own. But she was more than that, as the art critic, M H Middleton asserted, when he described her in The Spectator as ‘One of the most remarkable woman painters of our own or any country, of our own or any time.’

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