Page 1: Biography
Hunt, Frances Irwin
This biography, written by Mary Gillingham, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Born in Cambridge, New Zealand, on 26 July 1890, Frances Irwin Hunt was the second of four children of a farmer, Nicholas Irwin Hunt, and his wife, Annie Lilian Souter, a former schoolteacher. Around 1901 the family purchased land at Paemako, near Te Kūiti, where they developed a prosperous farm and became part of the local gentry. Frances attended Melmerly Collegiate School in Parnell, Auckland, in the early years of the twentieth century. She showed promise as an artist and pianist, but when Nicholas Hunt died in 1909 she had to return to the farm.
As the family's only surviving daughter, 19-year-old Frances Hunt faced a life of spinsterhood as her mother's companion. During the First World War she ran the farm in the absence of her younger brothers: William, who was serving overseas, and Francis, who was still at school in Auckland. Exchanging Edwardian gown for riding breeches, and smoking roll-your-own cigarettes, Frances laboured on the farm until William returned.
In the early 1920s Frances Hunt and her mother moved to Auckland and settled into a large house in Ranfurly Road West, Epsom, where they lived together until Annie's death in 1947. Frances seized the opportunities available in the city to develop her interest in art, taking lessons in watercolour at Frank Wright's academy in Victoria Arcade. During the 1920s she produced numerous romantic, topographically accurate watercolours of picturesque spots around Auckland, and exhibited them at the Auckland Society of Arts, of which she was elected a working member in 1924. The following year she was elected to the National Art Association of New Zealand.
In 1927 Hunt left New Zealand with her mother and brother Francis for an extended European tour. They visited the major art galleries, but exposure to foreign influences apparently had little impact on Frances's painting. Soon after her return to Auckland, however, she experienced doubts about her artistic direction. Possibly fearing stagnation, she ceased exhibiting watercolours at the Society of Arts and in 1932, at the age of 41, enrolled in the Elam School of Art's three-year full-time course. There Hunt was taught by A. J. C. Fisher and John Weeks. The latter, whose work she particularly admired, became her mentor, teacher and friend.
Rejuvenated by her time at Elam, and increasingly confident of her ability, Frances Hunt threw her energies into painting professionally. She added a large studio to the Ranfurly Road house, recommenced exhibiting at the Society of Arts, and was a prominent member of the Rutland Group, which was made up of former Elam students. Over the next decade Hunt painted continuously. Now working in oils, she continued to favour landscapes, but her repertoire included still lifes and portraits. She painted at Taupō, Rotorua, Waikaremoana and, most often, near her childhood home in the King Country, working up sketches made on these trips in her studio at home. In her most well-known painting of this period, 'PWD tents, pumice country, Taupo' (1939), she vividly captured the bleakness of an unemployed workers' camp during the depression.
Hunt's artistic ability and public profile reached their height in the late 1930s and 1940s. In 1940 her work was included in two national centennial exhibitions celebrating New Zealand art, and she was awarded the Bledisloe Medal. She experimented with abstraction through the 1950s and 1960s, but by the time of her 1975 retrospective exhibition at the Auckland Society of Arts had stopped painting. She never married, and in later life lived alone in her cluttered Epsom home with two cats and an ever-increasing brood of bantams. She died there on 25 August 1981, aged 91. Throughout her life Hunt had supported local artists, particularly women, by purchasing their work. She left this valuable collection, and her own paintings, to E. H. McCormick and his sister, Myra. They later sold them and donated the proceeds to the Māori Education Foundation to fund an award for aspiring Māori students of performing or cultural arts.
Art critics and historians have identified Frances Hunt as an able practitioner of the conservative tradition of landscape painting, which was popular in Auckland in the 1920s and 1930s. Although her life was generally sheltered and quiet, and constrained by family responsibilities, she was committed to her career as a professional artist. Her work is represented in the Auckland Art Gallery's collection.