Blue Barge

Watercolour and body colour
51 x 41 cm
Inscribed verso: Night Effect, River Severn
Provenance: Collection of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

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To Dorothy Selby, 14th August 1932; from F.H., Kings Lynn, Norfolk

‘This place complete washout – won’t do in any way … and we are leaving Tuesday morning for Bridgnorth my old love … I am tingling with impatience to get started – & at work – On reaching Bridgnorth I’ll either wire you – or send you card to reach you Wed: morning – I hope to find rooms all together in the Town nr. river – & promise not to put you up a hill by yourself as last time … Till Thursday then – at Bridgnorth‘.

In August 1931 Frances Hodgkins returned to London from Martigues and St Tropez. Four months later she moved to Bodinnick-by-Fowey in Cornwall, attracted by the prospect of painting landscapes. In February 1932 she exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in London with the Seven and Five Society which was formed in 1919. The seven painter members were linked by the freshness and simplicity of their imagery and the direct way in which the paint was applied and, in addition to Hodgkins, they included Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981), Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Christopher Wood (1901-30), Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979) and Cedric Morris (1889-1982). Morris was a great supporter of Hodgkins’s work, and in 1928 painted her portrait which is in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery. Sculptor members of the Society included Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-75). Hodgkins had first shown with the Seven and Five Society in March 1929, when six of her paintings were included in its ninth exhibition. On this occasion the reviewer for The Times considered Hodgkins the exhibitor ‘most sure of her ground’; her two oils, Boy in Wood and The Garden, were both elegant pictures … grotesque, but consistently so, as if the artist obeyed her natural vision of things’. Hodgkins also had two paintings in the Seven and Five Society’s tenth exhibition in 1931, and in the eleventh the following year she had six, one of which was In Cornwall. She also exhibited in three other London dealer galleries in 1932; Zwemmer Gallery, Tooth’s and Wertheim Gallery.

By April 1932 Hodgkins was feeling more financially secure, especially so when the co-director of the Lefevre Galleries in London took her to lunch and offered her a new year-long contract with an annual income of £200 and the probability of renewal. The agreement would be renewed in July 1938, but was cancelled in November the following year because of the outbreak of war. As noted by Iain Buchanan, while a salary of £200 in 1932 was by no means lavish, it was a reasonable sum for an artist at that time, especially so as contemporary art was difficult to sell and economic conditions were uncertain. As Hodgkins herself commented on her change of fortune with her securing the contract: ‘Funny how these favours come thick & fast when you are established in safety’.

Later in 1932, Dorothy Selby, who had contacted Hodgkins back in 1923 requesting lessons, visited her at Bodinnick-by-Fowey. They spent time with other friends, including Hannah Ritchie and Jane Saunders, in Bridgnorth, an old market town on the Severn, in Shropshire, where Hodgkins had conducted successful summer painting classes in mid-1926. The combination of the season and the company provided the stimulus for a number of works from this period. As described by Joanne Drayton, they showed the influence of French artists, the ‘shimmering playfulness and hot piquancy that is more reminiscent of Raoul Dufy than of the British avant-garde’. These works included several inspired by the pleasure boat section of the river Severn, among them Sabrina’s Garden (Sabrina being the Roman goddess of the river) and Pleasure Boat. The latter, along with Boathouse on the Severn and The Two Canoes, was among the 32 works in Hodgkins’s ‘New Watercolour Drawings’ exhibition at the Lefevre Galleries in October/November 1933. The exhibition also included the 1932 watercolour Pleasure Garden, which was the subject of much controversy in 1948 when it was one of six paintings by Hodgkins sent from London on approval to the Canterbury Society of Arts in Christchurch. When the Society decided against making a purchase, a group of citizens subscribed funds and bought Pleasure Garden for the collection of the city’s Robert McDougall Art Gallery. Debate raged when the City Council declined to accept the offer, and finally, in 1951, when the art gallery’s advisory board was more sympathetic towards modern art, it voted to accept the painting.

The eponymous vessel in Blue Barge dominates the right-hand side of this composition, with a glimpse of the River Severn and a cluster of tall and closely packed houses and hills beyond. A distinguishing feature of this watercolour is the artist’s change of perspective; whereas the barge itself is depicted obliquely, from the front, a pair of canoes on the river are seen from directly above, as in a bird’s-eye view. In this rare ‘nocturne’ the blue of the barge is mirrored by patches of evening sky, and there are also areas of red, but otherwise the predominant colour is the glistening night time grey of the river and the distant hills. This painting bears certain strong similarities to the 1933 watercolour and gouache Pleasure Boats, the focus of both being watercraft which occupy the lower two-thirds of the compositions. Beyond the vessels in Blue Barge can be seen the narrow and steeply-roofed houses of Bridgnorth captured here in an economic and impressionistic manner.