When you think of the Bohemian scene in London, a few obvious names spring to mind. Oscar Wilde. Augustus John. Dylan Thomas. But to my mind, no figure sums up the era of Bohemianism in London than Nina Hamnett.
Nina was many things – artist, writer, model and raconteur. But these days, she is probably best remembered not for work but for play. Christ but that was a clumsy sentence, better come up with something better before I click “publish”.
Nina is, these days, best remembered for her unconventional lifestyle and general ability to party hard. She first became known on the artistic circuit in Paris before becoming a regular in London at the Cafe Royal in Soho, a centre of Bohemianism from the 1890s onwards which closed down only in 2008. When that became too touristy, Nina and friends made the Fitzroy Tavern their new base from 1926 onwards.
Nina was known as the Queen of Bohemia, embodying fully the hard-drinking, hard-partying, bed-hopping lifestyle that scandalised the Daily Mail-reading public. The money she made from her art would disappear as quickly as it would arrive, and she would alternate between living the high life and living in conditions of abject poverty. She had a flat on Charlotte Street where she would often find herself dining on porridge or boiled bones.
In her time, she associated with some of the great names of the twentieth century – Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Augustus John, Dylan Thomas and George Orwell were all acquaintances at one time or another. She even fell afoul of the notorious Aleister Crowley, when in her book The Laughing Torso (named after a sculpture of her that is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum) accused him of being a black magician. Crowley sued for libel and lost catastrophically. Legend has it that he placed a curse on Hamnett thereafter.
The sad reality is that what became of Nina mirrors many other Bohemians through the decades. While she had been regarded as a great artistic and literary talent in the 1920s, by the mid-1930s the artistic world had caught up with her. She was no longer cutting-edge, but distinctly average. Sales of her work fell.
In part, this was down to alcohol. She found booze dominating her life more and more, and consequently she found it harder and harder to commit to her work. Her life became fragmentary, a series of short-term relationships and dashed-off works of art.
The poet and publisher Tambi (J. Meary Tambimuttu) had warned writer Julian Maclaren-Ross, “Only beware Fitzrovia. It’s a dangerous place, you must be careful… You might get Sohoitis, you know… if you get Sohoitis, you will stay there always day and night and get no work done ever. You have been warned.” He might have had Nina in mind when he said those words.
By the mid-1930s, Nina had begun to trade off her reputation more than her art, accepting money to give guided tours of the Boho haunts of Fitzrovia. Ironically, her presence became a tourist attraction in itself, the very pubs she and her circle had come to in order to avoid the crowds becoming intolerably crowded. The Wheatsheaf and the Bricklayers’ Arms, a short distance away, were the new favourites.
It’s sometimes suggested that the Second World War was what brought an end to the West End Bohemian scene, and others have suggested that it was the welfare state. Whichever one you blame, or even if you don’t blame either, it’s fair to say that things were different in the 1940s.
Nina was by this stage a figure in terminal decline. Her artistic career was dead and her behaviour was becoming even more erratic and occasionally violent. She would spend her time going from pub to pub, collecting donations in a tin towards the cost of another drink. In exchange, she would either tell anecdotes of the good old days or, when more befuddled, threaten to expose her breasts to those who didn’t pay up. When particularly smashed, she was in the habit of vomiting into her handbag and wetting the barstool (which I suppose is one way to make sure no one steals your seat).
In December 1956, in constant pain from a botched leg operation three years earlier, Nina was at a low ebb. She was deeply upset by a radio play, It’s Long Past Time, featuring a character named Cynthia who was clearly based on her. The play, in Nina’s opinion, depicted her as a pathetic, broken-down and washed-up figure. Worse, it had been written by a friend, Bob Pocock. A few days later, she from falling out of her window on to the railings below. There is some dispute as to whether this was suicide or an unfortunate accident – either seems possible.
A party was held in her honour some days later, appropriately enough, at the Fitzrovia.
Nina Hamnett was one of those larger-than-life figures who these days would probably find herself on the cover of the celebrity gossip magazines. Despite her sad decline – a fate all too common among the Bohemians – there’s no doubting that nobody reflected and contributed to the spirit of the West End between the wars quite like Nina.