The artist life
The 1947 publication, Aspects of British Art, was the only art book in the library at the boarding school Gisborne painter Peter Ireland attended in the mid-1960s. One of the book's 48 colour plates was of a painting by early New Zealand modernist, Frances Hodgkins.
“It looked like any two-year-old could do that,” says Ireland of his early impression.
In time, that perspective changed, of course, and Ireland's exhibition, The Artist Life, at the Rabbit Room in Napier, is a collection of paintings based on Hodgkins works.
The circular format of each painting, and the text patterned on each one, echoes the pieces of embroidery or cross-stitching that were produced as a “specimen of achievement”. The oldest surviving European samplers were made in the 16th and 17th centuries. Whenever a needleworker saw a new example of a stitching pattern, they would sew a small sample of it on to a piece of cloth — their “sampler”.
By 1969, Ireland was very interested in modern art and had begun painting seriously. While working in Wellington he visited an exhibition of Hodgkins' work.
“That got me going,” he says.
“I found her work intriguing.”
Many years later, in 2017, while reading Letters of Frances Hodgkins, edited by Linda Gill, Ireland got the idea for his Frances Hodgkins sampler series that uses imagery from the paintings and fragments of wording from the artist's letters.
“I made use of her imagery and revised it for my purpose. The phrases are all about making a living from her art. Some of her letters with her mates are more revealing than others.”
Ireland cites the quote he used in Sampler XV (eggs and willow).
“I could do with less admiration & more sales”.
Friends helped with that. They bought her work and got her a place to live, Ireland says.
She never had a place of her own and moved several times in England for her art, says Ireland.
“That's all she was interested in. She was uncompromising about that and totally dedicated.
“I was instinctively drawn to her because of her tenacity.
“She painted in watercolours and was a superb water-colourist. I had to translate her colour and style into oils. It's not easy but I was determined.”
The samplers are a tribute to Hodgkins, says Ireland, and appropriation is not an issue.
“I've been doing that for years but I make it my own. You have to avoid getting in a groove. That's a terrible trap.”
By studying and copying from Hodgkins' paintings Ireland's palette opened up as he mixed colours to match the tones used by Hodgkins.
“I did break through into her palette,” he says.
“I cracked it but I felt a bit like a trespasser.
“Because she was poor she had to be economical with her paint. She had six or seven colours she did a whole painting with.”
Ireland achieved his breakthrough in his Sampler V (barnyard), a detail from a work by Hodgkins. The painting comes with the quote from a 1924 letter Hodgkins wrote to her mother, Rachel, “Art is like that — it absorbs your whole life & being”.
“I worked out where in the tondo (a circular work of art) it was going and copied it as exactly as I could. In some of the other paintings I edited and shifted stuff around but it still looks like her work.”
He painted the lettering on the tondos in the style of the cross-stitch.
“It's more personal than anything I've done before.”
For the sampler collection Ireland was interested only in Hodgkins' work from the 1920s when she picked up on modernist trends.
During the early 1900s, Hodgkins had sought out in Europe the acceptably picturesque themes, writes Linda Gill in a biography of the artist, “market places, street scenes and local people”. By the end of her stay the illustrative element was taking second place to concentration on colour and light . . . her pictorial language was transformed as she assimilated modernist ideas.
“Her work became more abstract, with simplified forms and surfaces enriched with patterning. The increasingly expressive use of all kinds of lines pointed ahead to the characteristic calligraphic markings of later paintings.”
She did a lot of work that was pretty experimental, says Ireland.
“But she was prepared to give it a try.”