Thursday, 4 March 2010

Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia by Denise Hooker

I threatened a return visit to Fitzrovia about six months ago, and if anyone’s life encompasses the three criteria of 120 Units – pleasures, pains and perils – then it’s Nina Hamnett’s. In Denise Hooker’s revealing and poignant biography she comes across as one of the truly great characters of her age, but one whose undisputed talents were ultimately wasted by drink.

Born in 1890, Nina had a miserable childhood but her skill at drawing allowed her to escape the stifling background at home. She began exhibiting in London and hanging around in arty circles in the 1910s. The Bohemian culture in Fitzrovia was fairly well established by then. Augustus John, who knew how to put away the drink himself, was one of its denizens:

If not drinking his favourite hock and seltzer, John was known to demolish a bottle of brandy with little apparent effect and it was said that he had the drinks while his friends had the headaches.

Nina modelled for John, as well Roger Fry who admired her queer satyr-like oddity and grace, and numerous other artists, as well as painting herself. She found herself in Paris before the first world war where Modigliani introduced himself to her.

It’s a matter of conjecture as to when the wheels come off in Nina’s story, but for my money, things are on the wane by the time of her second visit to Paris in the 1920s. She is distracted more and more by the bottle, doing the rounds in Montparnasse, where:

...they drank a lethal concoction called Pernod Suze Fine, consisting of Pernod, gentian and Brandy.

Back in London, Nina embedded herself with one foot in the art word and the other firmly in its café and bar society:

Despite her need to be liked and admired, the more she gloried in her immense social success, and the more she frittered her talent in oceans of drink and casual debauchery, the clearer eyed she became about the futility of it all.

Not that it slowed her down.

By the mid thirties Nina was producing very little work beyond quick portrait sketches in pencil or chalk... Distracted by life, Nina had not been able to develop her talent and fulfil the faith that people had in her... Always willing to tell another anecdote in return for the next drink, gradually Nina Hamnett the personality, the celebrated reine de bohème, took over from the serious artist.

Nina took up residence in the corner of the bar at the Fitzroy Tavern and held court there for the best part of two decades:

On a good night, with the right company and a suitable amount of alcohol, Nina was very amusing. She was always on show, always playing to the crowd, and at her best she gave command performances. With a little too much to drink she could be disconcerting – as when she would boast that Modigliani said she had the best tits in Europe and pull up her old jersey to show them off.

After the war, the slow path to the dying of the light. Bombed out and under redevelopment, Fitzrovia was a ghost of what it once was. As was Nina:

The years immediately after the war saw the last flickering of the dying flame of Fitzrovia... More than ever Nina became a monument of a lost Bohemia and was affectionately valued as such by some, considered a boring irrelevance by others. Sitting back on her bar stool, a little drunk, she would talk straight ahead of her, barking out stories or exclamations before demanding, “Who’s going to buy me a drink?”

She made appearances in Soho as the arty crowd moved south of Oxford Street, but Nina in her last years was drunk and unpredictable, peeing on the furniture and throwing up in her handbag before staggering home to Paddington. Her second biography, Is She A Lady, was described as rambling, disjointed and inconsequential; sadly, so was Nina.

In December 1956, Nina Hamnett fell over forty feet from her window and was impaled on the railings below. The Queen of Bohemia died a few days later.


  1. My Ma took up a kind of friendship with Nina Hamnett along side Baroness Edit von Ullman of Little Venice.
    Ninas last man friend, I think he was a seaman, treated her badly, over a number of years. In her last days Nina had an injury that incapacitated her, and, of course, she hated the life. She did a little sketch of my Ma, which I have, still.

    1. Hi, If love to speak to you about an exhibition we have coming up!