At last, London heads west, and the Laura Knight 'Portraits' exhibition managed to make its way from the National Portrait Gallery, down to the bit of the south west beyond the out-of-action Dawlish sea wall, and into the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. With indecent haste Bookhound and I were in there the day after the exhibition opened, and as it is free entry we will probably be visiting on countless occasions before it closes in May.
I don't want to say we are culturally deprived down here, because if you look hard enough there is plenty to see and do, but it is a treat to have something as accessible as this, and so in tune with our own tastes, and needless to say we have booked to listen to the two talks that accompany the exhibition in the coming weeks, so expect much more about Dame Laura.
Ethel Bartlett now dominates Plymouth's Drake Circus, something she and Laura Knight could hardly have dreamed of in 1926 when the portrait was painted. Ethel was a concert pianist who along with her husband Rae Robertson became an internationally succesful piano duo. This much and more the catalogue to accompany the exhibition tells me, and whilst I always hesitate at the cost of these (£25, but considerably cheaper You-Know-Where) it would be, in the case of an artist I love so much, ridiculous not to have it to hand. There is only so much I can take in at a viewing, and usually this would be a once only, but how much we are looking forward to return visits armed with more background information each time.
As we walked into the gallery my breath was quite taken away by the arresting sight of the enormous 2150 x 2610mm (7ft x 8ft 6" for us imperial klutzs) painting of Lamorna Birch and His Daughters.
Begun in 1916 Laura Knight kept the painting unfinished in her studio until 1933, exhibiting it at the Royal Academy the following year. Heaven knows how it was transported anywhere back in the day, you only have to visit Lamorna and try to imagine someone lugging a canvas this size up the hill. Not surprisingly given the time lapse of the painting, and its various revisions and over-painting Lamorna Birch and His Daughters is a mish-mash of styles, but both dramatic for its sheer size and scale, and completely endearing for its content. Lamorna Birch, king of the Newlyn and Lamorna Valley artists had welcomed Laura Knight and her husband Harold into this close-knit community in 1907, and thus began one of the phases of her career for which Laura is (and if not should be) so well known. There is a true facial likeness between father and daughters and something completely captivating about the eyes and the pose... elder daughter Mornie sitting astride a branch whilst Joan is tucked casually under his arm. It just seems to exude the relaxed informality of the father-daughter relationship and with bunches of flowers, striped socks and boots all creating wonderful detail.
It is possible to get very close indeed to all the paintings and always lovely to have Bookhound explaining things like Vanishing Points which I can never see but which he can immediately. It was quite something to look carefully at each one and then to stand back, and see, on Ethel Bartlett for example, the shading on the hair that gives it that sheen, and the elegance of the pianist's fingers.... and as always to wish that I could draw.
As we reached the end of our first circuit I realised that hands are something Laura Knight does exceptionally well and I started to look at them much more closely. How many hours and hours can she have spent perfecting the technique. Every bone and tendon evident in so many of the paintings, hands that wrote...
Painted in Surrey in 1942, apparently nothing is known about the Jacklins, but don't you just love William's jumper. It looks like as if it has been through the wash and the wringer a fair few times, probably done several children, but felted means warm, and the leggings too, and those shoes. The rabbit meanwhile munches his way through some leafy veg. I can't help feeling that Betty's face, surrounded as it is by her lovely crimped permanent wave (or maybe it's natural) and that sweet little Peter Pan collar, is masking the fact that this is wartime and she will be wringing the rabbit's neck and it will be in the pot any minute now.
As for the 'writing' hands you can read some amazing background to the painting of Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner on the Persephone Post here)
Next time we go to the exhibition perhaps I will look carefully at mouths, or feet, for sure Laura Knight will have mastered it, and if you are within striking distance of Plymouth and missed this in London it is definitely worth a visit.