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This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Hi, I'm Dr Alison Laurie. I was the Gender and Women's Studies Programme Director at Victoria University of Wellington, here in New Zealand, for many years. I'm a writer, oral historian and lesbian and gay activist.

Today I'm going to be looking at Frances Mary Hodgkins, a famous New Zealand woman painter. And I'm going to be considering her painting and her life in the context of her close friendships with women and support that she received from men whom we know were homosexual. And what's interesting about this is the degree to which, in the period in which she lived, a woman living a conventional heterosexual life as a married woman would have been able to have the output of paintings that Hodgkins was able to do and to lead the kind of life she was able to lead and learn her craft the way in which she managed to achieve.

She lived between 1869 and 1947. She was one of a number of expatriate New Zealanders during the early 20th century who lived in Britain or Europe where it was easier to find supportive friendship circles for their lives as artists or as people attracted to their own sex. I believe that the primacy of women in Hodgkins' life was very important, as also was the financial and emotional support given to her by her male homosexual, as well as her lesbian, friends, and that these people made her life possible.

She was born in Dunedin on the 20th of April, 1869. Her mother was Rachel Hodgkins, and her father, lawyer and artist William Mathew Hodgkins. Frances had four brothers: William, Percy, Gilbert and Frank; and one sister, Isabel.

She attended the Dunedin School of Art classes taught by Girolamo Pieri Nerli, who came to New Zealand and taught art here, and then she took pupils herself.

And she had a number of close women friends in Dunedin at that time. She was also a member of a Dunedin women's club, the Kahanga Club.

Her father died in 1898, and in 1901 she left for England where she soon became friends with the New Zealand artist Dorothy Kate Richmond, and they became very close friends and were very important to one another.

Dorothy Kate Richmond, known as Dolla, was born in 1861, so she was a bit older, and she lived until 1935. The friendship probably started at Norman Garstin's art classes in Caudebec-en-Caux in France. This is where Frances, who was age 32, had left New Zealand, and Richmond, who was older, had resigned as art mistress at Nelson College for Girls to study in Paris. Their meeting had been initiated by Dolla Richmond who wrote to Frances, "I'm looking forward to meeting you with real joy. I think companionship doubles the pleasure and halves the sorrows of life."

After being at Garstin's school they travelled together to Paris, Italy, and Tangier and London. Richmond had taken her rubber bath with her and a lot of other conveniences and they did quite a bit of travelling. Frances wrote to her mother Rachel, "The most delightful part is that Miss Richmond is coming with me." She also wrote, "I am a lucky beggar to have her as a travelling companion," and then she wrote, "Miss Richmond has decided not to go to England, so we shall not lose sight of each other even for a few weeks. I have grown so fond of her I don't know how I am ever going to let her go. She is one of these people whom you want always with you."

She wrote to her friend Kate Rattray later that year that Miss Richmond was "the dearest woman, with the most beautiful face and expression I think I have ever seen."

And she wrote to her sister that the other students called Miss Richmond "the divine lady." "When I am particularly down, Miss Richmond comes and tucks me up. She goes to England today. It is very sad saying goodbye to a face like hers, even for a short time. I wish you could see her at night with a black dress with a crimson fichu. I have insisted on her wearing it every night."

Then, to her married sister Isabel she wrote, on the 6th of November, "Miss Richmond's letters are poems. She is the dearest piece of perfection I have ever met, and unlike most perfection, not in the least tiring to live up to. We were to have started for San Remo today, but I felt too seedy to travel. In cases like this we congratulate ourselves that we have no husbands to consider."

Frances had a close relationship with her family and she wrote frequently. She could not have deleted all references to Richmond in her letters, and indeed writing about her travels with an older woman companion as chaperone could have reassured her family of the respectability of her life. The letters seem to be carefully constructed, with her natural delight and joy at having Richmond with her bursting through in these quoted extracts.

On their return from Europe in 1902, after a joint exhibition in Newlyn, the two women lived together in Cornwall. Then, for the first time in over a year they would dwell sundered. Frances stayed in London with two other friends while Richmond went to Invernesshire, Scotland to see Constance Charlotte Astley, a woman who was 10 years older than her. She had met Constance in 1897 when she was visiting New Zealand with her friend, Margaret Sheehan, and had stayed with her before in 1900. Frances and Richmond had both stayed with Astley in 1901 at San Remo when Astley was being treated for tuberculosis.

And Frances wrote to Dorothy from France in July, 1902, "I was indeed sorry to hear of the return of Miss Astley's trouble. It does not look as if Scotland was quite the best place for her, does it? Please give her my love and tell her I didn't in the least grudge you to her. At first I felt a little furious, but slept over it and calmed down. I don't see much of Maud Nickalls nowadays. She is very much taken up with Miss Crompton and they paint and ride a lot together." In this extract Frances seems jealous of Astley, but anxious to reassure Richmond that her own friendship with Maud Nickalls is not a love affair, as Nickalls is so involved with Crompton.

But she could not resist informing her mother that "Miss Richmond is still in Scotland nursing her sick friend, Miss Astley. It is horrid without her."

Then on 30th September, she wrote in some detail to her sister, "Miss Richmond and I go to London in a fortnight, and after that our ways be separate. I don't know what I'm going to do without her. We've taken a long time to consider what is best for us both. She has only another year and must make the most of it, and she feels she must get more studio work. So, Mr Garstin, with the knowledge full upon him that he was breaking up our happy home, conscientiously advised her to go back to Penzance. I'm sure it's for her own good, and she would be unselfish enough to give up her time to me and go wherever I wanted if we didn't put pressure on her and insist on her considering her own interest. So, I shall be alone once more."

By 1903 Frances was in Tangier where she wrote to Richmond, "Of course I know that you would rather nurse one of her," Miss Astley's, "empty envelopes than read the outpourings of my innermost soul, however I mustn't expect too much."

From these letters it seems that Frances was well aware of Richmond's love affair with Constance Astley, which seems to have gone on for three years between 1898 until 1901 when she became involved with Frances, and of its continuation at the time of writing. "Deciding on what was best for us both," could be interpreted as a typical triangular relationship in which nobody can quite decide how to resolve the impasse.

In 1903, however, the two of them return to New Zealand together, and in 1904 through to 1906 they established a studio on the corner of Lambton Quay and Bowen Street in a disused carriage house, and they gave a joint exhibition in 1904 and they took in a few pupils, including Edith Kathleen Bendall who was Katherine Mansfield's lover in Wellington during 1906 – 1908, and other students.

Also during this time Frances had announced her engagement to a man, Thomas Boughton Wilby, whom she'd met briefly on the ship coming back to New Zealand, but they became engaged by post and broke it off by post the year later, and they don't really seem to have had much of a relationship at all.

Then Frances Hodgkins returns. She leaves Richmond and she leaves New Zealand in 1906, and although she does come back briefly in 1912 and stays for nearly a year, and sees Richmond during that period, it's unclear what their relationship would have been at that time.

She determines to go back, and during her life living in Britain two of her most important friends were Dorothy Jane Saunders and Hannah Ritchie who were friends from Manchester. She had another close friend, Lucy Wertheim, who was a generous benefactor, also from Manchester. And these people helped her both financially and also to get various amounts of work. She made have had a relationship with any of these people; it's difficult to know.

Toward the end of her life she has another very close woman friend, Amy Krauss, who lives in Dorset, and that's a very important friend to her as well.

She also had very important male homosexual friends, in particular Arthur Lett Haines and Cedric Morris and she knew others in their homosexual circles – for example the writer Geoffrey Gorer and his friend Arthur Elton, and they're very important to her. They helped her for over 30 years and helped her during times when she was very poor.

At the age of 63 she was found in her basement studio with the water and light turned off. She'd pawned everything and was lying in a bed covered in newspapers. Arthur Haines rescued her, motored her down to his mother's house in the country, fitted her up and set her to work.

Morris, who'd become a leading painter of the post-war generation did what he could to help Frances Hodgkins become established as a painter. He arranged art exhibitions, proposed her membership in the influential Seven and Five Society, and helped her meet Saint George's Gallery director, Arthur Howell, who exhibited and sold her paintings.

Later, McCormick, who was an important New Zealand biographer for her, helps to popularize her work in New Zealand.

So, it's interesting, and it's interesting to compare her life with that of her sister, Isabel. Initially her sister had been thought to be the better painter, but her sister married, and she married William Field, who was a Member of Parliament. After that she never painted seriously, she just painted small scenes on the Kapiti Coast for sale and sold these and her husband used the money to buy more land and property, so she did not make the same kind of successful art career as Frances did, so it's an interesting comparison between them.

Frances died in England and later her nephew brought her ashes back and she is buried in the Field family tomb at Waikanae with her sister, and her mother is also there. And that's quite a place of pilgrimage for those interested in Frances Hodgkins, who is indeed one of our greatest painters.

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