Double Portrait: Finding Frances Hodgkins

Mahara Gallery, Waikanae

12/03/2010 - 14/03/2010

Waikato Museum, Victoria Street, Hamilton

06/07/2012 - 07/07/2012

NZ Portrait Gallery, Shed 11, Queen's Wharf, Wellington

27/11/2009 - 05/12/2009

Production Details

In Search of Frances Hodgkins

A stash of Frances Hodgkins paintings has been discovered in France.

Part of a deceased estate, they land on the doorstep of a Parisian gallery owner who has never heard of Frances Hodgkins. He contacts Auckland Art Gallery and there is a flurry of activity as a female curator tries to prise them out of the hands of the Frenchman and back to New Zealand.

Based upon a real life incident, this is the opening scene of Jan Bolwell’s new play DOUBLE PORTRAIT Finding Frances Hodgkins.

Interest in the life and art of Frances Hodgkins has grown through the years. The celebrated New Zealand artist spent most of her adult life in Europe with brief forays back to New Zealand to promote her work and to see her family.

Largely ignored in her own country, Frances gained a firm place in the artistic world of the first part of the twentieth century, both in Paris and London.

Her private life remained an enigma and in DOUBLE PORTRAIT, playwright Jan Bolwell seeks to unravel some of the mystery.

Hodgkins life was filled with eccentricity, hardship, fun and love. She travelled extensively from Morocco to Paris to Cornwall; from Melbourne and Sydney to Dunedin and Wellington.

Bolwell’s play explores the relationships she had with friends, agents and family.

The play is shot through with humour and pathos, speculation and information.

Director Ralph McAllister has gathered a strong cast, all from Paekakariki. Writer Bolwell will play Frances and Perry Piercy and John Wraight, both experienced professional actors, will play a number of key roles. Costumes have been designed by well known Paekakariki resident Rozel Pharazyn.

Audiences will be invited to stay and discuss the play and the artist after the show.

Hodgkins is buried in the Waikanae cemetery and the Mahara Gallery has a unique collection of some of her works, so it was most fitting that the first performances of the play took place at the Mahara in May 2009. On the strength of these performances, the company was invited to present the play at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery.

In 2010 the play will be presented at the Christchurch City Art Gallery on Hodgkins birthday, April 28th, followed by a tour to other South Island centres, including the Dunedin City Art Gallery . In June 2010 it plays at Expressions Arts and Cultural Centre in Upper Hutt. 

Playwright Bolwell always envisaged this play being presented in an art gallery setting. “I am trying to reach a cross-over audience of people interested in the visual arts as well as in theatre. We are delighted to be working in partnership with the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. It is a wonderful venue and has such a great atmosphere.”

New Zealand Portrait Gallery
Shed 11, Queen’s Wharf, Wellington Waterfront 
November 27 & 28 – 6pm
December 4 & 5th – 6pm

“Like a painting emerging on the canvas as the artist’s brush strokes cast their spell, the play reveals itself as a rich and humorous blend of human drama, historical documentary and social satire.” John Smythe, theatre critic, Theatreview 

Mahara Gallery 
20 Mahara Place, Waikanae
Friday 12 March, 7.30pm
Saturday 13 March, 7.30pm
Sunday 14 March, 4.30pm

Fuel Festival 2012 

Venue Waikato Museum, Victoria Street, Hamilton
Date Friday 6 July – 7.30pm, Saturday 7 July – 7.30pm
$35 Tickets
$25 Student Concession
$25 Senior Concession 

Jan Bolwell:  Frances Hidgkins
Perry Piercy:  Monica Day, Rachel Hodgkins, Dorothy Richmond, Jane Saunders & Nagaire
John Wraight:  Jean Paul Chabrier, Arthur Howell, William Hodgkins, Charles Wallace & Frank

1hr 15 mins, no interval

A passion to paint against all odds

Review by Gail Pittaway 08th Jul 2012

One of a handful of New Zealand artists to achieve fame abroad, Frances Hodgkins has always been an enigmatic figure. Jan Bolwell’s play attempts to give a portrait of the painter, by animating elements of her letters and linking what is known of her life into the context of painting – particularly British painting – in the early Twentieth Century. Certainly she succeeds in showing us a passionate woman, a risk-taker and eccentric, and introduces an eclectic range of real and imagined people involved in this story.  

To our postcolonial ears, Hodgkins’ grumblings about the barbarism of her home country and desire to leave it behind seem affected and somewhat precious. But the play reminds us that her struggle to survive as a painter was complicated by her gender, as was her independence as a woman by her sexual orientation as a lesbian.  

Bolwell softens the expatriate cultural cringe with mention of local art heroes Fairburn and McCormack, laughing at the antics of Katherine Mansfield and, later, concern for the Wanganui painter Edith Collier, whose father burnt a stash of her drawings and paintings after she returned to the family home.  

The play moves in time from the contemporary, when a wonderfully gushy Auckland gallery representative tries to wangle a recently discovered cache of Hodgkins painting from the French art curator who says “Non!” so charmingly, back to Dunedin before WW I, where the same actors depict the household of Walter Hodgkins as Frances argues her case to leave, and finally to England and Europe.

The overriding passion to paint is driven home. Despite discouragement from her own family, who think she is not as good a painter as her sister, and rejection from the Royal Academy in England; despite poverty, loneliness and exile, her single-minded pursuit of whatever is on her easel at any particular moment is the most important theme.

Ralph McAllister’s direction keeps all moving swiftly and John Wraight’s set of canvas covered rostra gives a flexible design to the range of places and times.

Against the sense of Hodgkins’ stubborn will to paint there are flashes of charm and unexpected vitality in contrast to the few photographs of the staid, stern woman that are in circulation. Most lively are the glimpses of her time living with Dorothy Richmond, a fellow New Zealander and painter, especially of their time in France.  Later, camped out in Corfe Castle during German bombing raids in the 1940s, she remembers these happiest of times, living, literally, in Gay Paree, drinking in the atmosphere and breathing in art.  

As Hodgkins, Bolwell depicts an unexpected side to this portrait, dancing to music hall numbers – Mistinguett’s tango – even trying a belly dance, before the more familiar aspects of the older artist emerge, with booming voice, atrocious wig, yet shining eyes. 

Orbiting around her are Perry Piercy, giving warmth and vitality to a range of characters, and John Wraight, doing fine service as a French gentleman as well as many other real and imagined men in her life.

My favourite scene, though, is of a Kiwi couple, Ngaire and Frank, unpretentious yet honest, trying to come to terms with Hodgkins’ art in an exhibition in Christchurch Art gallery. Although comical in intention, the scene articulates the effect of art on the simplest of people, just by standing and looking, giving it time. 


Make a comment

Handstand on Hodgkins a revelation

Review by Wickham Pack 16th Mar 2010

This was indeed a unique experience, as director Ralph McAllister commented when introducing the piece, “to be watching a dramatic portrait of Frances Hodgkins’ life, while surrounded by her paintings.” Handstand Productions and Mahara Gallery are to be commended for bringing this fascinating piece back to Mahara as part of the Frances Hodgkins’ season of events in the International Arts Festival.

Written by Jan Bolwell, who also performed the title role; ably supported by Perry Piercy and John Wraight in a mixed palette of supporting roles, the play is not the chronological sequence of biographical vignettes that might be expected from the title. The collected letters of Frances Hodgkins have clearly been mined for material, but then the dramatist’s imaginative instincts have come into play. Possibly taking Hodgkins’ own comment “it’s the danger that delights” to heart, Bolwell has created a piece that asks “what if?” and “what then?” and “then who?” and the results are a revelation.

Performed on John Wraight’s minimal set of rostra tightly bound in spattered painter’s drop cloths, the play begins with a short incisive sketch that summarises the current art world excitement over Hodgkins’ work. It then leaps back to the telling encounter between Hodgkins and the English gallery owner who did so much to promote her work in the last years of her life, before plunging into the murkier family environs in Dunedin to set the scene for Hodgkin’s departure from NZ.

The play uses ‘flash-backs’ and ‘flash-forwards’ throughout, always coherently, often opening out with music or dance to underline emotional states. All three actors clearly relish embodying the discoveries made by Hodgkins as an artist and a person in this dramatic journey, as did the intent audience, which was made clear by their responses during the play and during the question-and answer session with the actors and director, which followed.

The title? Maybe a reference to the play being told both in Hodgkins’ own words, as well as the words of other people about her; or perhaps because it is both a biographical portrait, as well as an imaginative one. 

Double Portrait strengthened in performance as it progressed, with the writing confident enough to raise as many questions as it answered. I look forward to Handstand Productions next collaboration.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Make a comment

A tough old bird in flight

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 30th Nov 2009

Alan Bennett’s latest play about W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten is called The Habit of Art, a title which could well fit Jan Bolwell’s Double Portrait. It could also be called The Cost of Art.

Habit and cost (to the artist, not the price of a painting) permeate the play as we watch Frances Hodgkins forging her career as an independent artist who thought of painting as "work like any man of business" and allowing nothing to "interfere between me and my work."

Hodgkins was stuck in a colonial backwater yearning for the stimulus and freedom of Europe, which she didn’t escape to until she was 32. She pursued her career in Europe with a passion that overrode poverty, sudden acclaim, and the hardships of wartime until her death in 1947.

Performed (appropriately) in the NZ Portrait Gallery Jan Bolwell’s straightforward but non-chronological account of Frances Hodgkin’s life is played out on a simple set of rostra and an empty easel. Jan Bowell plays Frances with a fierce conviction that makes one believe that this woman knows that painting was "as difficult as writing a Bach sonata". She is well supported by Perry Piercy and John Wraight, who play a variety of roles including the artist’s parents, art dealers, friends, and a Kiwi couple not too comfortable with modern art.

Frances became a tough old bird, untroubled by air raids (excellent sound effects), but she had a softer side that is brought out beautifully in a scene between her and her friend Dorothy Richmond when they dance a mock apache dance in which their sexual relationship is delicately revealed.

While the production and the script need some tightening before it goes on tour next year, Double Portrait is an admirable introduction to Hodgkins’ life and a stimulus to looking at the paintings with renewed interest.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


Make a comment

Intensely colourful life examined in depth

Review by John Smythe 28th Nov 2009

The multi-talented Jan Bolwell has created a very well made docu-drama about Frances Hodgkins. Eschewing the solo performance conventions of their previous collaborations (Standing On My Hands and Here’s Hilda), Bolwell and director Ralph McAllister now add two more actors to the mix: fellow Kapiti Coasters Perry Piercy (a welcome return to a Wellington venue!) and John Wraight (also gracing the Circa stage in Dick Whittington, hence the 6pm start time for the 75-minute play).

Double Portrait: Finding Frances Hodgkins opens post mortem, in the late 1940s presumably, with an animated conversation between Parisian gallery owner Jean Paul Chabrier (Wraight) and Auckland Art Gallery curator Monica Day (Piercy), on the discovery of a trove of hitherto unknown Hodgkins paintings. 

The theatrical portrait that follows is multi-layered and non-chronological. Bolwell first brings us a mature Frances Hodgkins in her "damned awful wig", working compulsively at her easel. Later, when her health is failing, she will insist her kindly Manchurian friend Jane Saunders (Piercy) removes a bunch of flowers, because she cannot look at them without wanting to paint them; to capture their beauty before they die. This moment captures an essence that is comprehensively distilled throughout the play.

The arrival of Arthur Howell (Wraight), owner of the St George’s Gallery in London’s Hanover Square, facilitates some concise biographical exposition while establishing Hodgkins’ no-nonsense personality and setting up this important professional relationship. (Following her death, Arthur Rowland Howell wrote Frances Hodgkins: Four Vital Years, published in 1952.) 

Bolwell slips effortlessly back and forth through a range of ages and stages. Insisting she must go to Europe, the feisty Dunedin daughter of respected amateur artist William Hodgkins (Wraight), and an apparently much older mother Rachel (Piercy), leaves her sister Isobel to delight the likes of Lady Ranfurly and her landed gentry friends with her more conventional painting.

As the innocent abroad, Bolwell uses her dance skills to express her joy at being in Europe and in love with fellow artist Dorothy Richmond (from Nelson) – and Piercy joins in some dance sequences with grace and flair. The prevailing attitudes to lesbian love are neatly encapsulated in a gossipy anecdote about how Katherine Mansfield used to contrive clandestine liaisons with her ‘friend’ in Thorndon.

Like a painting emerging on the canvas as the artist’s brush strokes cast their spell, the play reveals itself as a rich and humorous blend of human drama, historical documentary and social satire. New Zealand at large and Wellington in particular are mercilessly pilloried as a philistine backwater (‘Fanny’s prime time as an artist in Europe "quite unfits me for the colonial hereafter") and the world-wide gender bias against women artists is ever-present, with Fanny herself leading the charge against the "pathetic creatures" who paint "insipid watercolours".

Wartime in London and Cornwall is powerfully made present, not least as part of an excellent unaccredited soundscape, operated by Ralph McAllister along with Wendy Clease’s simple but extremely effective lighting design. The John Wraight-designed rostra covered in ‘distressed’ canvas, set amid the actual Portrait Gallery walls, serves the shifts in time and location well, as do the costumes by Rozel Pharazyn.

Hope for a more enlightened artistic sensibility in New Zealand is manifested in Piercy’s Ngairie, wanting to give Hodgkins’ Modernist style "a chance" despite the inability of her husband Frank (Wraight) to ‘get’ the abstractions.

Less concern with costume changes, or more scenes that do not involve Hodgkins, could obviate the need for musical interludes (courtesy Mozart and Moroccan Bebers) but the content is so rich the opportunities to digest each sequence are welcome. The overall impression is of a compulsively creative life, lived with great depth and intense colour.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council