Nina Hamnett (February 14, 1890 – December 16, 1956) was an artist and writer, and an expert on sailors’ chanteys who became known as the Queen of Bohemia.
Hamnett was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, South Wales, United Kingdom. From 1906 to 1907 she studied at the Pelham Art School and then at the London School of Art until 1910. In 1914 she went to the Montparnasse Quarter in Paris, France to study at Marie Vassilieff’s Academy.
On her first night in the Bohemian community she went to the café La Rotond where the man at the next table introduced himself as “Modigliani, painter and Jew”. In addition to making close friends with Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Serge Diaghilev, and Jean Cocteau, she stayed for a while at La Ruche with many of the leading members of the avant-garde living there at the time. In Montparnasse she also met her husband, the Norwegian artist Roald Kristian.
Flamboyantly unconventional, and openly bisexual, Nina Hamnett once danced nude on a Montparnasse café table just for the “hell of it”. Very quickly, she became a well-known Bohemian personality throughout Paris and modelled for many artists. Her reputation soon reached back to London, where for a time, she went to work at the Omega Workshops on decorative art. Her artistic creations were widely exhibited during World War I including at the Royal Academy in London as well as the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Back in England, she taught at the Westminster Technical Institute from 1917 to 1918. After divorcing Kristian, she took up with another free spirit, composer E. J. Moeran.
During her 40 year career, Hamnett also worked with Bloomsbury artist Roger Fry assisting him with the avant-garde productions of fabrics, clothes, murals, furniture, rugs, and the like. The photo shown here is a 1918 portrait of a very modest Nina Hamnett painted by Fry.
From the mid 1920s until the end of World War II, the area known as Fitzrovia was London’s main Bohemian artistic centre. The place took its name from the popular Fitzroy Tavern on the corner of Charlotte and Windmill Streets that formed the area’s centre. Home of the café life in Montparnasse, it was Nina Hamnett’s favourite hangout as well as that of her friend from her home town, Augustus John, and later another Welshman, the poet Dylan Thomas.
In 1932 Hamnett published Laughing Torso, a tale of her bohemian life, which become a bestseller in the United Kingdom and United States. The poet Aleister Crowley unsuccessfully sued her and the publisher for libel over allegations of Black Magic made in her book.
Although she won the case, the situation profoundly affected her for the remainder of her life. Alcoholism would soon overtake her many talents and a tragic Queen of the Fitzroy spent a good part of the last few decades of her life at the bar, (usually that of the Fitzroy Tavern in Fitzrovia), trading anecdotes for drinks.
Twenty-three years after her first book Laughing Torso was published, Hamnett, in poor health, released a follow up book aptly titled: Is She a Lady?.
Nina Hamnett died in London, England in 1965.
A biography, Nina Hamnett: Queen Of Bohemia, by Denise Hooker was published in 1986.