I’m always learning about new artists, old and new, recently I have discovered Doris Brabham Hatt, whom excitedly I discovered lived in Clevedon, not far from where my own art studio is located. Doris stood out not just for her wonderful art, which really pushed boundaries of composition and colour in modern art, but also her pioneering activism on feminist and human rights, and her personal life as an “out” lesbian at that time here in Clevedon.
Born in Bath, on the 24 September 1890, into a well known and affluent Bath family that ran a successful wig-making, hairdressing and perfumery business. After attending Bath High School Hatt went to a finishing school in, Kassel, Germany. It is said that a collection of German modernist works in the Neue Gallerie convinced her of her calling into art. Studying between 1911 and 1919 at Bath School of Art, Goldsmith’s College in London, (at the end of the road from a previous art studio space of mine.), she went onto the Royal College of Art and after ww1 she studied woodcut printing classes in Vienna.
Doris’ lifestyle, and born into privilege of wealth facilitated this, but she would later recognise and challenge these privileges. She discovered a passion for Paris and quickly became friends in the Paris art scene with modernists such as Picasse and Léger. Her work was getting noticed, not just as a painter but as a print-maker, transferring her modernist style across wood and Lino cut printing.
Clevedon, this wonderful victorian town I base my art practice in was also her home, after ww1 Doris and her mother moved here buying a small plot of land just outside the town and through the purchase of an old ex-army portable cabin moved to the site, she lived there. Undertaking a lot of the work on the wooden building herself. Including adding a veranda to the front. It became to be called, Littlemead.
In 1938 a family inheritance from an aunt allowed her to design and have built a Bauhaus / Art Deco house, which survives today as a rare example of a Modernist house.
My own watercolour of Littlemead, 2021
Littlemead became a meeting place for radical activity in both arts and politics, Doris hosted free art classes for children and adults and gave lectures on art by herself and invited guests. Littlemead became a hub away from Bristol for discussing equality, diversity, the human condition and workers rights. It became a focus for the feminist movement and for the elevation of arts and rights. -Something of which I thoroughly identify with!
Doris’ political motivation was shaped while she was in London during the First World War, where she witnessed degrees of poverty she had not seen in Bath and also the plight of returning soldiers, including deaths of two cousins killed in France.
She was aware of the Women's Suffrage and New Woman movements and the combination of these influences, with her developing opposition to the war and conscription in 1916, caused her to commit to socialism and she joined the Labour Party in 1917.
In response to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s Hatt joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, in 1935 which she viewed as the opposing force against fascism. Two years later, in 1937, she and her partner, Margery Mack Smith, visited Russia for the Pushkin Centenary Jubilee celebrations in Leningrad and Moscow.
In 1946 and 1947 Hatt stood as a Communist Party candidate for Clevedon Urban District Council, at a time when there were no women council members, and was unsuccessful on both occasions.
Nonetheless, Hatt and Smith continued to host Sunday afternoon discussion meetings that were attended by left-wing progressives from the arts, academia, politics, the theatre and journalism at Littlemead throughout her life.
To the ‘society’ of the polite town of Clevedon, she was seen as scandalous. Not just living there with her partner, but because she could be found attempting to sell the Daily Worker Newspapers to the local people.
She managed to change the political make up of the small town in the longer term, through becoming a living example of equality, and showing others how to start embracing civil rights and social change through her art, and activism.
It wasn’t until her 60s that she had her first solo exhibition and was recognised as a British artist. Including a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Watercolour Academy.
Doris passed away in 1969 in Weston-Super-Mare Hospital. Her death immediately gave her relatives who disagreed with her views and life as a lesbian a chance to erase her history. Soon after Hatt died on 27 August, a significant quantity of her correspondence and personal records were burned by a relative.
Her partner, Margery acted quickly moving two crates of sketchbooks, portfolios, working drawings, and what letters and writings she could to her new home in Watchet. Sadly the majority of her diaries, writing, sketches, art notes and letters were destroyed in an attempt to cover-up her life as a feminist and lesbian. A sad blow to LGBT+ History and art history.
After her death, she was recognised as a pioneer in the modernist visual arts movement, her artwork has since been exhibited widely.
In the 1950s and 1960s she had a series of one-woman shows at various galleries, plus a retrospective at RWA.
Margery, whom was a teacher and talented artisan weaver, died in 1975, aged 84. Having ensured that Doris’ place in history was still there, and we know as much as we can of her story -Thank you Margery.