Thursday, June 21, 2012

Laura Knight ~ In the Open Air

Penlee House Gallery, Penzance 16th June – 8th September 2012
Gallery 1, Penlee House Gallery
Step into Gallery 1 at Penlee House, and you will be enfolded in the languorous embrace of an endless Edwardian summer. On every wall is a delectable array of paintings celebrating Laura Knight’s joy at finding herself in Cornwall. After the challenges of life in the harsh environment of the Yorkshire coast, Laura and her husband Harold moved to the south west in 1907.
Here, the relaxed atmosphere of Newlyn engendered a more light-hearted approach to the creative process. Laura readily adopted the Newlyn School practice of working ‘en plein air’. She became accustomed to dragging unwieldy canvases across rugged terrain, seeking out ideal vantage points from which to paint. Such works as ‘The Beach’ and ‘A Summer’s Day at the Rock Pool’ evoke a lost era of sunlit innocence. The figures in ‘The Beach’ seem to fit perfectly into their surroundings. One can almost feel the sand between the children’s toes, and sense the little girl’s hesitancy before testing the water in the pool.
Dame Laura Knight
The Beach, exh.1909
Oil on canvas, 127.5 x 153 cm
Laing Art Gallery (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums)
© Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2012 All Rights Reserved.
But the pièce de résistance in Gallery 1 is undoubtedly ‘Flying a Kite’. This shows a group of carefree children, hair streaming in the wind, high up on a hill overlooking Newlyn harbour. It was shown at the Royal Academy soon after being painted in 1910, and was subsequently bought for the National Gallery of South Africa (Iziko) in Cape Town, where it has remained ever since. It is a tremendous achievement by Penlee House to have secured the loan of this iconic work, on show in the UK for the first time in a century. Appropriately, this painting is reproduced on the cover of the book by Elizabeth Knowles which accompanies the exhibition.
Dame Laura Knight
Flying a Kite, 1910
Oil on canvas, 150 x 180 cm.  Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town. © Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2012 All Rights Reserved.
In the corridor which separates the galleries is a cabinet displaying photographs of the Knights and their circle. Of special interest is the scrapbook of Ella Naper, ceramicist, maker of jewellery and close friend to Laura and Harold. The photographs document the group at leisure, camping at Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor, where the Napers had a painting hut. The beautiful Ella was the subject of a number of portraits by both the Knights, most famously Laura’s ‘Self and Nude’ which has pride of place in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Above the cabinet are some fine etchings - a medium to which Laura turned, with tremendous success, in the 1920s.
In Gallery 2, on loan from Tate Britain, is the large canvas ‘Spring’, a depiction of the Lamorna valley bursting with new growth. This was painted in 1914, when wartime regulations prohibited artists from working out of doors in coastal areas, in case of espionage. Laura took to diving for cover under bushes when necessary, to avoid detection – not the most propitious circumstances in which to create an artwork. The figures in the foreground are Ella and Charles Naper.
Laura and Harold left Cornwall in 1919 to begin a new life in London. Galleries 3 and 4 focus on the development of Laura’s career from around 1920 (though Gallery 1 includes views of Mousehole and Sennen Cove produced during the early 1920s, reminding one that Laura returned regularly to her beloved Cornwall). A fascination for life behind the scenes at the ballet and theatre provided the impetus for her creativity over the next few years. While beyond the scope of this exhibition, Laura’s paintings of this period reveal an extraordinary level of skill at portraying rapid movement and spontaneous gesture. Her figures of dancers and acrobats are characterised by a vitality and immediacy which, to me, is lacking in some of her later work.
It was during the 1930s that Laura began to attend the races. She also became acquainted with those on the fringes of society - gypsies and circus performers - whose nomadic way of life intrigued her. They enjoyed posing for her and welcomed her companionship, inviting her to travel with them while the circus was on tour. The representations of gypsies in works such as ‘Ascot Finery’ strike me as somewhat wooden, lacking in individuality.
Dame Laura Knight
Ascot Finery, 1936-8
Oil on canvas, 76 x 63.5 cm
Dundee Art Galleries and Museums
© Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2012 All Rights Reserved.
Young Gypsies’  is a delightful group of young children relaxing in the grass, oblivious to the fact that they are under observation. A particularly successful agricultural scene is ‘Sowing Potatoes on a Windy Day’. While most of the figures are lacking in facial expression since they are pictured from behind, this watercolour leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the effort required to carry out such back-breaking work.
In 1936 Laura attained full membership of London’s Royal Academy – the first woman to do so since its establishment in 1768. This achievement secured her reputation as one of the country’s foremost academic painters, and after the outbreak of World War II she was appointed as an official war artist. Two major canvases in Gallery 4, on loan from the Imperial War Museum, testify to Laura Knight’s stature as a representational painter. ‘A Balloon Site, Coventry’ dated 1943 shows the role played by women working alongside their male colleagues during wartime.
Next to it is a painting which represents a highly significant post-war event – ‘The Dock, Nuremberg’ of 1946. This compelling image was the culmination of several months’ worth of preliminary drawings, sketched from a vantage point in the broadcasting box high above the proceedings. Laura’s position allowed her to work unseen by those below, but she was deeply affected by the harrowing evidence which emerged. While the unusual viewpoint ensures that many of the faces of the defendants are obscured, there is an eloquence to their body language which reveals attitudes ranging from boredom to despair. The background presented a considerable challenge to the artist, who eventually settled on an apocalyptic representation of the ruined city, whose devastation surrounded her each day on the nightmarish journey between hotel and courtroom. As a result of the Nuremberg trials, twelve of those convicted were sentenced to death for Nazi war crimes, while the others received long prison sentences.
Dame Laura Knight
The Dock, Nuremburg, 1946
Oil on canvas, 183 x 152.5 cm
Imperial War Museums
© Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2012 All Rights Reserved.
After the war Laura and Harold settled more or less permanently in the town of Malvern in Worcestershire, a county which they had grown to love over the years. Here Laura spent much of her time painting local landscapes. Gone were the carefree summer days of Cornwall. Two final images in Gallery 4, ‘Rainbow and Storm over a Landscape’ and ‘Storm over our Town, Malvern’ depicting nature in all its unpredictability and drama, provide a sombre conclusion to this wide-ranging and absorbing exhibition.
© 2012 Helen Hoyle

‘Laura Knight ~ In the Open Air’ continues at Penlee House Gallery until 8th Sept.
From there it travels to Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham (22nd Sept - 4th Nov)
and Worcester City Art Gallery (17th Nov 2012 - 10th Feb 2013).
Thanks to Katie Herbert at Penlee House Gallery.
Elizabeth Knowles'  Laura Knight In the Open Air can be purchased at the gallery. Lavishly illustrated, this book is an excellent accompaniment to the show. But it goes further, providing a wealth of fascinating information which charts the progress of Laura Knight's career, from her early life in Nottingham to her death in 1970. A former director of Newlyn Art Gallery, Elizabeth Knowles has researched her subject thoroughly, gaining access to a number of important archives, including the Royal Academy. The book forms an engaging narrative about the artist and the friendships which enriched her exceptional life.


  1. I always admire the graphic clarity of Laura Knight's work - this exhibition is clearly not one to miss!

  2. Laura was indeed seen by the prisoners below, and recounts in her autobiography The Magic of a Line " Goering glanced up at me today"....Hess again looked up at me with his mad stare" etc.

  3. Laura Knight to me was a local artist, as I grew up in Nottingham. Besides her paintings, her autobiography Magic of a Line shows what a wonderful quick eye she had when sketching movement, eg ballet and circus.

    Her current position of oblivion is quite unjustified.