More than a footnote – Frances Hodgkins’ textile designs

There are a number of paintings by Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947) in the latest season of  Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa  – Te Papa’s new, changing programme of art from the national collection and beyond. Among them are familiar favourites waiting to be revisited – including Hodgkins’ wonderful impressionistic view of a group of women on a windswept Wellington hill-top, and a surprise  – a whole room of Frances Hodgkins’ textile designs. Yes, textile designs!

Textile design by Frances Hodgkins, c. 1925. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds

Frances Hodgkins’ fleeting career as a textile designer took place in Manchester between 1925 to 1926 at the Calico Printers’ Association (CPA). It is an aspect of Hodgkins’ career that has often been relegated to footnote status or described in somewhat dismissive terms (alas even a colleague has written about how Hodgkins ‘resorted (my italics) to working as a fabric designer’).  As Hodgkins’ sparky letters reveal, however, she jumped at the chance at the time and in today’s terms could almost be described as a ‘fabricaholic’. As such it is fantastic to see Hodgkins’ textile designs in the limelight, and to have been able to shed a more positive light on her time as a designer in Te Papa’s new online magazine Off the Wall.

Te Papa’s group of eight textile designs by Hodgkins’ were purchased in 1998 from the John Leech Gallery in Auckland. The designs surfaced in England from the estate of the British painter John Piper. Piper, and his wife Myfanwy Evans, who published a book on Frances as part of the Penguin Modern Painters series in 1948, had become close friends of Hodgkins, and were executors of her estate.

Textile design by Frances Hodgkins, c. 1925. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds

While Piper deposited a range of material relating to Frances Hodgkins in the Tate, he retained this group of textile designs for some reason – whether it was due to fondness or the fact that he’d simply forgotten about them we don’t know. We are, however, grateful that he kept them, and that they made their way via various dealers into Te Papa’s collection. As far as we know, they are the only extant examples on paper of Hodgkins’ design work. The only actual textile that we know of is a small silk handkerchief which was gifted to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 1971 by Eardley Knollys – a rather dashing critic, dealer and collector associated with the Bloomsbury School of artists, who befriended Hodgkins later in life. Frustratingly I am sure, however, that there’ll be vintage dresses and furnishings made from Frances Hodgkins designed fabrics in homes across the UK . If only they were labelled!

To read more about Frances Hodgkins’ brief career as a textile designer, from the excitement of Paris and the 1925 International Decorative Arts exhibition to the realities of foggy, dank Manchester, visit Off the Wall. To see Frances Hodgkins’ textile designs in person, make sure you get to Te Papa before the 16 January 2014 – as they are gouache on paper, they are only on display for three months.

Textile design by Frances Hodgkins, c. 1925. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds

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