Laughing Torso by Nina Hamnett

published 1932  chapter 5

At this time Mark Gertler was very much talked about. He was painting pictures of Jewish characters in Whitechapel which were very interesting, and I saw an exhibition of his things at Chenil’s in Chelsea. There was a self-portrait there of a young man with a fringe and very blue eyes. One day I met him and a girl called Carrington, who had won a Scholarship at the Slade. She had fair hair which was cut like an Italian page. She was one of the first women in England to cut off her hair and was very much stared at as she never wore a hat. I invited them both to tea and felt rather as if I had invited a god and goddess. Carrington appeared in one red shoe and one blue. We talked about Art and the future and I preserved Gertler’s tea-cup intact and unwashed on the mantelpiece.

observations: I was doing some Twitter-bonding with Alexandra Pringle over a shared love of Sally Jay Gorce and the Dud Avocado, and she suggested this reference in this book. I’d never read it – it was one of those early Virago reprints that I thought I might get round to one day, and now the day has come. Nina Hamnett (1890-1956) was an artist, and it’s not at all clear how good she was – I would love to know – but she led a wildchild life, dividing her time between Paris and Soho/Fitzrovia in London. The fascination of this book lies in her lifestyle, and that she knew everybody: Stravinsky and Modigliani, Aldous Huxley and Augustus John, Ford Madox Ford and Aleister Crowley – who sued her over mentions of black magic in this book of reminiscences. In one startling moment, she claims to have introduced Rudolph Valentino to James Joyce, a meeting to make the mind boggle.

It’s an enjoyable and strange read, with so many descriptions of clothes that she will certainly furnish several entries for the blog. She was quite consciously Bohemian:
I wore in the daytime a clergyman’s hat, a check coat, and a skirt with red facings, including the button-hole, which was faced with red too…I wore white stockings and men’s dancing pumps and was stared at in the Tottenham Court Road. One had to do something to celebrate one’s freedom and escape from home.

Her later years were rather sad, as she apparently became an alcoholic, but the book is cheerful and jolly, despite artistic poverty and some very varied love affairs.

Carrington herself is another fascinating character: an artist in her own right who had an unusual relationship with Lytton Strachey - there is an excellent film about her life.

The lady with the non-matching shoes is, of course, 
Helena Bonham Carter, wearing Vivienne Westwood. The non-matching stockings for good measure were photographed by Douglas Estey and are on this fashion webpage.

Thanks to AP for the suggestion.


  1. Moira - Ir sounds as though she led a fascinating life. And people like that - who seem to be in the think of things - often seem to tell such interesting stories. I'll be looking forward to our other posts on this book. But for now, I'm letting it sink in that she knew Stravinsky, Huxley.....

    1. Yes it's a weird book, but she has such an eye for clothes, and of course celebrities. she sounds rather sweet, one of those unabashed people, quite self-knowing, with a huge appetite for life.

  2. The description of Hamnett's costume sounds bizarre enough but a few years ago I was given a late 19th century clergyman's hat. It's made like a regular silk topper of the period except with a lower crown and a wide, flat brim. Later on, it had had some fresh ribbon added and was punctured with many pin holes such as would be made by those lethal foot-long hatpins needed to hold on the big hats worn before the first world war. I wonder if she started a trend followed by bohemian clergymen's daughters in rural Nova Scotia?

    1. It sounds gorgeous. Nice to be reminded that women were always inventive and original when appropriating items for their wardrobes... Nina Hamnett was obviously brilliant at that, more entries to come!


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