"Dame Laura Knight painted the series of canvases of clothed figures in the open air on the cliffs near Lamorna, either all in 1917, which seems unlikely even with her extra-ordinary compulsion to work, or more probably in the period 1916 to 1919 and possibly up to late 1920...
and I'll bet many of will know the paintings even if you may have been unaware that they were by Dame Laura Knight.
These are the paintings that frequently grace the covers of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf...
and if you happen to be in the West Country this summer be sure to take a detour to the Penlee House Gallery & Museum in Penzance and spend a few hours at their latest exhibition... Laura Knight in the Open Air which is open until 8th September. I can promise you won't be disappointed, not least because the most stunning painting, unseen in this country for 102 years, is on loan from a gallery in South Africa for this exhibition.
Flying a Kite, painted above the hilltop in Newlyn in 1910 and shown to great acclaim at the Royal Academy that year, was immediately purchased by Sir George Clausen for the National Gallery of South Africa (now Iziko) in Cape Town where it has been ever since. Tipped off that it was no longer on display there, a year of painstaking negotiations have secured the loan of the painting which will tour with this exhibition, before heading to the Yale Centre for British Art in America, returning to Cornwall for display at Penlee House until at least spring 2015.
The exhibition, hung through four separate galleries and covering wide-ranging themes and subjects, from landscapes to gypsies at the horse racing at Ascot, also includes another painting, a true juxtaposition to the idylls of Cornwall, that had us transfixed.
Dame Laura Knight, whose husband Harold was also a respected artist, was engaged as a war artist and depicted the Nuremberg War trials; The Dock, Nuremberg is on loan from the Imperial War Museum for this exhibition. It is a remarkable and perhaps one of the few visual records of those events, with each prisoner viewed sitting in the dock and looked down on from above, whilst to the left blends in the devastated, war-torn landscape of a country still burning from Allied bombings. It is a painting that makes you think on many levels...clearly visible and recognisable are many of the prisoners, including Goering and Hess, listening or in conference with their legal representatives. So you wonder what they are discussing... is it professions of innocence or confessions of guilt... and then you wonder how many of those carefree kite-flying children in 1910 may ultimately have become victims of the wars to come.
The hallway linking the galleries houses a display case of Laura Knight-related books and photographs as well as some wonderful etchings, all confirmation were it needed of this artist's talent and versatility with both subject matter and setting.
Then be sure to head on upstairs to view the museum exhibits as well as a further gallery hung with some of Penlee's resident paintings. These include works by Samuel 'Lamorna' Birch, Stanhope Forbes and Walter Langley... much-loved Newlyn artists all, and many more including Dod Proctor who lived in Tavistock as a child before heading off to art school and thence to Cornwall. If you then decide to head off to the Newlyn Art Gallery just a mile or so around Mounts Bay in Newlyn itself, be prepared to find a modern and innovative exhibition space that, as far as we could see, holds none of the traditional paintings but nevertheless a pleasure to view along with the fine views of St Michael's Mount.
So Bookhound and I spent a very happy few hours exploring the delights of Penlee House last week (great cafe too) and came away enthused about the artistic skill and the perspectives, the colours (Laura Knight uses blue like no other) and the landscapes, and with ideas fermenting away for our own respective areas of creativity. I was home and onto the fabrics within minutes... Bookhound is threatening to get his watercolours out again after many, many years of 'being very busy' and not...and please will you all shout loud enough and MAKE HIM DO IT because I am now going to officially out him on here as a very good artist.
So while I deal with the fall out from telling you that, here are the details from the exhibition press release...
Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance
16 June – 8 September 2012
The redoubtable Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) was a great celebrity in her time and her work is loved as much today as it was at the height of her fame. From her earliest days in Nottingham and Yorkshire she wanted to paint in the open air, which blossomed when she came to Cornwall, where she embraced the county’s wonderful light, its seas and rocky coast, as well as plunging into the colourful life of the artists’ colony. Her long and successful career included becoming both the first woman ever elected as a Royal Academician and the first artist ennobled as Dame Commander of the British Empire.
This summer, Penlee House Gallery & Museum in Penzance is staging the first ever major exhibition of Laura Knight’s paintings to be held in her beloved Cornwall. Called In the Open Air, the show looks at the paintings she executed in the landscape, including her iconic views of women on the Cornish coast through to the wide and beautiful panoramas of English farmland spread out below the Malvern Hills from her golden years as a painter....
Flying a Kite alone is probably worth coming to the exhibition for, but other treats make it a truly unmissable show. As well as Cornish works such as The Beach (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle), Spring (Tate London) and A Summer’s Day at the Rock Pool (Private Collection), the show includes the evocative paintings of gypsies that made Laura Knight famous in the late 1930s, such as Gaudy Beggars (Aberdeen Art Gallery) and Ascot Finery (Dundee Art Gallery).
If you can't make it West then fear not, the exhibition will be heading out on tour to both Nottingham (Djanogly Gallery 22nd September to 4th November) and Worcester ( City Art Gallery 17th November to 10th February 2013) And if you can't get to those venues either check out the Dame Laura Knight website which catalogues all the galleries which hold her work around the world, so perhaps there is one near you. If you know of any works anywhere not listed then John Croft ( Dame Laura Knight's great-nephew) would be thrilled to hear from you I'm sure.
After my last lot of dithering over whether to buy or not to buy books at the recent Eric Ravilious exhibition, naturally I caved in and bought the book of the this one, which I have now read and can also highly recommend, and which the gallery have sensibly priced at £5 off the retail price and just 54p more than Amazon.
Elizabeth Knowles gives a good account of the life and work of this gifted and versatile artist whose work I have loved for many years, and the reproductions of the paintings are predictably splendid. The book makes a welcome addition to my Newlyn artists' shelf which also includes the book which first set me properly on the trail The Shining Sands - Artists in Newlyn and St Ives 1880 - 1930 by Tom Cross
I mean what's not to love about paintings like this...
As for the Virginia Woolf connection, I would love to have discovered that they had met... or that Virginia had viewed the paintings and thought 'Gosh, one would love to see those on the covers of one's novels one day' but sadly I am to be disappointed, as this extract from Virginia's diary for December 19th 1938, and a discussion about the possibility of Honours to be bestowed, reveals...
'John says that 2 cabinet ministers are in favour of giving me the OM. The other candidates are Clemence Dane and Dame --- the painter who does circuses. So the compliment is not as high as I should like: though it is true I was chosen... I mean, preferred; but its only lunch party gossip at Kenneth Clarks...'
Kenneth Clark was at that time the 'brilliant young director of the National Gallery, and the 'Dame' was indeed Laura Knight. In the end none of them received the Order of Merit so gossip it was, but I fear Virginia might not have been as pleased about the book jackets as I had first thought.
My thanks to Katie at the Penlee House Gallery for providing these pictures and permission for me to share them with you.