Curator's corner
Rediscovering Dorothy Hawksley

Dorothy Hawksley produced a varied and admired body of work and exhibited in high-profile exhibitions, but has a relatively low profile in the field of art history.
The Museum has recently acquired a collection that helps shed light on her life, work and connections – but there’s lots more research that could be done about her fascinating art and career.

Dorothy Hawksley (1884–1970), Mother and Child. Black chalk on brown paper, 1920–1962. Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate. © Dorothy Hawksley

Born in London in 1884, Hawksley grew up in a large family – the fifth of eight children – with a history of artistic talent. Her mother Maria came from a family of maritime painters and Dorothy showed an early aptitude for drawing, enrolling in St John’s Wood Art School at the age of 15. Here she undertook a rigorous artistic training. In 1906, she transferred to the Royal Academy Schools where she spent a further five years.

Dorothy Hawksley (1884–1970), study of foliage. Graphite and bodycolour, 1920–1970. Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate. © Dorothy Hawksley

As an emerging artist, she became interested in Japanese prints and Chinese artists from the Song (960–1279) and Ming (1368–1644) periods. She absorbed these influences, creating work with an almost calligraphic precision and line, as seen in her studies of flowers and foliage.

Dorothy Hawksley (1884–1970), study of foliage. Graphite and bodycolour, 1920–1970. Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate. © Dorothy Hawksley

Post-Impressionists and the Aesthetic movement had been inspired by Japanese artworks before Hawksley, but she blended these styles with those of Renaissance Italy. Her subtle colour palette, floral motifs and graceful compositions could be said to echo those of Sandro Botticelli (1444/5–1510). Art historian William Connelly has researched Hawksley’s early works and notes that she developed an interesting method of mixing tempera (egg-based paint) with watercolour to build up layers of wash with which to achieve subtle gradations of tone. She experimented with gold underpainting, as well as painting on silk, which combines techniques from both Japanese and Italian Renaissance works.

Dorothy Hawksley (1884–1970), Sir Sydney Cockerell. Graphite and watercolour, 1960. Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate. © Dorothy Hawksley

Insights into Hawksley’s art can be drawn thanks to a collection of her work and papers acquired by the British Museum as part of the John Christian collection. John Christian’s friendship with Hawksley was formed through Sir Sydney Cockerell – a former Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, portrayed above – who had known key figures in the 19th and 20th-century art world. Cockerell met Hawksley in 1917 when she was a successful professional artist, and she became a trusted friend who assisted him in his later years. It was during this time that art historian John Christian, then an enthusiastic student also began visiting Cockerell to hear his memories and ideas on 19th-century art.

Dorothy Hawksley (1884–1970), artist’s working proof for The Story of Jesus According to St Luke. Sketches in graphite and ink, 1948–1949. Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate. © Dorothy Hawksley

Their friendship continued after Cockerell’s death in 1962 and Hawksley handed down a rich archive of highly accomplished sketches, letters, reproductions, sources and an artist’s working-proof copy of a children’s book The Story of Jesus According to Saint Luke, shown above.

Copies of books like this were used by artists and illustrators to mock up their ideas, and test schemes for the placement of images with text. In the image, Hawksley has used ink and wash to create the dramatic and atmospheric scene. A printed version was then created to be used in the final book.

She contributed to women’s magazines and publications throughout her career, often integrating themes of the female body and maternity.

Two printed examples of Peace. Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate. © Dorothy Hawksley

Her haunting painting Mother and Child was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919 under the title Peace. It represents a woman holding her child, and alludes to the experience of women widowed in the aftermath of the First World War. A similar composition was produced as a print, shown here.

Dorothy Hawksley (1884–1970), artist’s working proof for The Story of Jesus According to St Luke. Sketches in graphite and ink, 1948–1949. Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate. © Dorothy Hawksley

As the subject of an interview in The Artist in their Artists of Note feature in 1948, Hawksley was clearly respected during her career. She was closely involved in the contemporary art world of her time, regularly exhibiting at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, and was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour. However, her work and significance justify greater attention today – the acquisition of Hawksley’s work and archive coincides with the timely reappraisal of the canon of art and interest in the careers and practice of women artists.

For her, all effort and aspiration were focussed on what went on within the limits of a picture frame; everything else was irrelevant and beside the point.‘ – John Christian

Dorothy Hawksley (1884–1970), A View of Venice. Graphite and watercolour, 1960. Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate. © Dorothy Hawksley

Hawksley’s works – and all other prints and drawings – are available to view and study in our Prints and Drawings Study Room (when the Museum reopens). In the meantime you can browse our virtual Prints and Drawings gallery here.

This blog post is indebted Rupert Maas and William Connelly who have generously shared their knowledge and appreciation of Hawksley.

Dorothy Hawksley’s portfolio and archive were allocated to the British Museum by HM Government from the John Christian collection as part of the Acceptance in Lieu scheme.