To Rachel Hodgkins, 19th April 1901; From F.H., 20 London Road, Upper Norwood, London
‘… Then change at London Bridge, bus to Victoria and down to Norwood. Effie and Mr Spence were waiting for me. Effie and I went to town for the first time on Monday … We took a bus and rode up some of the principal streets. I caught sight of the New English Art Club in Piccadilly, so in we went’.
Frances Mary Hodgkins was born on 28 April 1869 in Dunedin, the third child and second daughter of William Mathew Hodgkins, barrister and solicitor and amateur painter, and Rachel Owen. While her older sister Isabel obviously inherited their father’s artistic talent, Frances developed more slowly, and the earliest of her sketches date from about 1886 when the family was living at Ravensbourne, near Dunedin. In November the following year she exhibited for the first time with the Otago Art Society, and subsequently with the Canterbury Society of Arts and the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington. Her fifth showing with the Otago Art Society, in November 1894, included the watercolour Old Boathouse, Port Chalmers and four other works, Water at Leith, Study of a Head, Washing Day, and Study in Charcoal – Girl Reading.
Old Boathouse, Port Chalmers presents a view across a corner of Otago harbour, with the right-hand side of the composition dominated by the structure identified in the title. In front of it appears to be a rail from which fishing nets are hung, presumably for drying and maintenance, and several dinghies are stacked vertically nearby. Beyond, and to the left, other small sailing craft have been hauled up on the shore, and above them on the horizon is the spire of the Iona Presbyterian Church in Mount Street, Port Chalmers, built in 1883.
Eighteen ninety-four has been described by Roger Collins as one of the ‘glorious years of the Otago Art Society’. In addition to Frances Hodgkins and her father, the 126 working members of the Society included such notables as James Nairn, Alfred H. O’Keefe, James Crowe Richmond (father of Dorothy Kate Richmond, a friend of Frances Hodgkins), Petrus Van der Velden, and Alfred W. Walsh. Frances Hodgkins’s inclusions in the 1894 exhibition were favourably reviewed by the two local newspapers, the Otago Daily Times noting that one of her two figure subjects was ‘painted with great skill’ and that her work generally showed ‘strong signs of earnest and attentive study’. The Evening Star was also positive, observing ‘Miss Hodgkins is evidently making satisfactory progress with her study’, and singled out her Old Boathouse, Port Chalmers as being ‘carefully rendered in a sound style’.
Old Boathouse, Port Chalmers was probably painted in 1893, the same year that Hodgkins commenced lessons with Girolamo Nerli, and her focus on an aged and characterful building reflected other titles by Hodgkins – all watercolours – from that same period: The Old Barn, The Old Brewery, and The Old Mill, while buildings were also included in Back-garden Scene, Sheds by the River and The Leith. The Port Chalmers boatshed appears to have had a colourful history, with one source suggesting it began life as the cabin on the ship Industry, which was wrecked, and then salvaged to become the storehouse of the well-known whaler and shipping operator Johnny Jones (1809-69). In 1899 the Otago Witness reproduced a photograph of the structure, showing ‘the practical applications to which a wreck may be turned’, and known as the Green Cabin where the local fisherman ‘French Louis’ lived. It was a well-known landmark and featured on postcards of Port Chalmers and eventually was lost to the development of Port Chalmers port where the container terminal now stands.
It was not uncommon for Hodgkins to produce two versions of her paintings, and she did so with Old Boathouse, Port Chalmers. One version, now held in the Auckland Art Gallery, is lighter in colour, while the present work appears the more assured and finished, and so was presumably the second to be executed.
Three months after showing at the 1894 Otago Art Society exhibition, Hodgkins began attending the Dunedin School of Art preparing for the South Kensington examinations for which she received first-class passes in both the elementary and advanced stages. In August 1896 she opened a studio in View Street, Dunedin, and advertised for pupils. She continued to show with the Otago Art Society (exhibiting 8 works in 1896, 5 in 1897, 7 in 1898, 6 in 1899 and 7 in 1900), as well as with the Auckland Society of Arts, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and the Canterbury Society of Arts. On 6 February 1901 she left Dunedin on the Moana for Sydney, via Lyttelton and Wellington, and from there sailed for London, where she arrived on 7th April.
It is likely that Hodgkins produced Old Boathouse, Port Chalmers whilst travelling around the Otago region with her painting companion Effie Spence. The Spence family, from Dunedin, later retired to Upper Norwood, southeast London, and accommodated Hodgkins when she first arrived in that city in 1901. She began painting in London soon afterwards, again accompanied by her friend Effie. Eric McCormick describes how the Spences had established ‘a small corner of Dunedin’ in London, adorning their house – which they named ‘Totara’ – with Otago art, including at least one painting they commissioned by Frances Hodgkins.