The Museum of Somerset is helping to spread the word about a forgotten English Modernist painter from Somerset; the fascinating Doris Hatt
Apart from one obvious drawback, it’s true to say there’s never been a better time to be a dead British mid-century modernist painter. So it comes as a bit of surprise to find there are still some talented artists of the period who remain off the radar, hardly mentioned in the books about the period, barely represented in national collections and absent from the flourishing postcard and prints market.
Doris Hatt (1890–1969) is one such forgotten painter, a Somerset pioneer of British modernism, a feminist and a socialist who has all the apparent elements to make her very popular today.
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Born in 1890 into an affluent Bath family she was drawn to art during her teenage years and followed her passion by studying at Bath School of Art, then Goldsmith’s College and the Royal College of Art. She also spent time in Vienna and Paris.
Her vibrant works were exhibited over almost five decades, beginning in the 1920s at the Grosvenor Gallery in London with appearances at the New English Art Club, Clifton Arts Club and the National Portrait Society. She also contributed to many exhibitions in the South West, but due to a variety of reasons she remains relatively unknown.
“I think there are a number of factors” says Sarah Cox, the Exhibitions and Programme Officer at South West Heritage. “I think part of it is the simple fact of her gender; being a female artist in the 20th century wasn’t an easy ride to say the least, and I think that feeds into why she hasn’t been looked at up until this point.
“And although she exhibited prolifically she always stayed in Clevedon [Somerset]. That was her home. She never did the ‘moving to London, finding a London dealer’ thing which would be what a lot of people would do to get their name.”
Politics may have also played a part in her obscurity; during the 1920s she was part of the New Woman and Women’s Suffrage Movements and in 1935 she joined the Communist Party and later visited the Soviet Union with her life partner, the teacher and weaver Margery Mack Smith.
In 1946 and 1947 she stood unsuccessfully as a Communist Party candidate for Clevedon Urban District Council at a time when there were no women council members.
“She used to go around the pubs selling the Daily Worker”
“It was quite unusual for someone, especially a woman, to be so vocal about their support of left-wing ideals at that time, so I think that’s another reason why she’s been overlooked,” adds Cox.
Hatt’s political awakening began in her late teens during the First World War. Having designed a recruiting poster at the start of the conflict she soon became horrified by the war’s impact, and it awoke her pacifism. When she later moved to London to study she encountered a level of poverty she hadn’t seen before in her privileged upbringing in Bath and it further strengthened her opposition to inequality.
“That really struck her and awoke her political conscience,” says Cox, “it was then that she joined the independent Labour Party and then the Communist Party and that was where her heart rested.
“She became known in Clevedon for her communism. She used to go round the pubs selling The Daily Worker and there are nice stories of her and Margery organising coaches from Clevedon for people to go to the theatre in Bristol, which wasn’t too far away.
“For a period before the Second World War she ran some free art classes as well, so she got to know the children of families that lived locally.”
Alongside her political and social motivations, Hatt’s painting style developed as she absorbed the major influences of 20th-century modernism, including cubism, purism, abstraction and the works of Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Dufy and Léger.
Looking at her work today you can see the how the styles of the continental artists played out across her canvasses with paintings that evolve through representational art into abstraction via portraiture, still life and landscape.
The exhibition features more than 70 of these beautiful and instantly accessible paintings, most of them oil on canvas, or board, together with a smattering of delicate watercolours and early forays into printmaking.
“Margery moved in with her in 1929 and they lived together for 40 years”
And having lived, with Margery, in Clevedon for most of her life in the Modernist house she herself designed in the 1930s, there are many scenes from the local area including Clevedon, Watchet, East Quantoxhead and Wedmore among the recognisable South West landscapes.
“She was a prolific sketcher,” adds Cox, “she would always have a sketchbook with her, and we’ve got some lovely photos of her in locations drawing, together with her sketchbooks.
“There’s also a section on her representations of working people; as a communist she was really devoted to working people’s voices and giving them a platform, so we have some lovely paintings of fishermen and fisherwomen.”
But Cox admits that she was not really aware of Doris Hatt before curating the exhibition, and it was the Court Gallery in West Somerset that came across her when a few of Hatt’s paintings came into the gallery for sale.
“They did some research and came to us saying this is a story that really deserves to be told,” she says. “Because there haven’t been ways of accessing her story and because a lot of the work is held in private hands it just hasn’t been accessible to the public. Up until this point there haven’t been any books written about her so there has just been no way into the family and her story.”
“Margery moved in with her in 1929 and they lived together for 40 years, so that’s a really strong partnership and a lovely thing to be able to celebrate because they were clearly devoted to one another. It is such a strong Somerset story, so the Museum of Somerset is a natural place for it to happen.”
And perhaps in a homage to Hatt’s sense of duty and much admired local munificence the gallery has been welcoming young students aged between 10 and 12 into the museum to sketch her works. “We are putting on an exhibition of their work that they’ve created in response,” says Cox, “and I think it’s something that Doris would have approved. I sent an email to one of the lenders and she said that Doris would have really appreciated it, and would have been joining them on the floor sketching.”
Many women of British art’s mid-century are now emerging out of the shadows cast by their male peers – Tirzah Garwood, Peggy Angus, Enid Marx – to name just a few. It’s time to add another name to the list.
‘A Life in Colour: The Art of Doris Hatt’ in association with the Court Gallery is at the Museum of Somerset, Taunton, until June 29.
The Museum of Somerset
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