Sunday, November 18, 2012

Laura Knight - Her Early Life, and the Painting of 'Self and Nude'

The early life of the painter Laura Knight was dominated by adversity and overshadowed by tragedy. Her father abandoned the family shortly before Laura's birth in 1877, leaving his wife struggling to support their three children. Both elder siblings were sickly, and when Laura was 12 the younger of the two died. Two years later cancer claimed her mother's life, and Laura had to assume responsibility for herself and her remaining eldest sister. Courageously, she took over her mother's job as an art teacher by convincing the authorities that she was older than she was.

Shortly afterwards she gained a place to study at Nottingham School of Art. Here female students were denied access to nude models, having to make studies instead from plaster casts. It was at art school that she met her future husband, Harold. He was five years her senior and Laura, greatly in awe of his technique, used to peer over his shoulder as he worked, rather to his annoyance. Harold was very different in temperament from Laura. While she was gregarious and outspoken, his emotions were inhibited by a strict Victorian upbringing. This shy and introverted man was a deep thinker who advocated the cause of pacifism.

After their marriage the couple moved to Staithes, on the Yorkshire coast, where seafaring tragedies were an ever-present threat to the community. The Knights' Staithes paintings documented the harsh lives of the fisher folk. Laura's portrayals of women and children at this time seemed to hint at nostalgia for the lost world of her childhood, which had been abruptly cut short.

In 1907 they decided to move to the south west. The contrast between the coasts of Yorkshire and Cornwall could scarcely have been more dramatic. Here the sun sparkled on an aquamarine sea bathed in light. Laura had shouldered enormous responsibility from a young age and had struggled through early adulthood to forge her career. Newlyn represented a carefree way of life in which she could relax in the company of like-minded friends and fellow-artists. Cornwall's mild climate enabled her to work out of doors, which she took to with enthusiasm. She became accustomed to dragging unwieldy canvases across rough terrain to obtain the perfect vantage point from which to work. Newlyn had become a popular holiday destination and her paintings now reflected this lighter mood, with the sea forming a backdrop to scenes of children playing on the beach, splashing about in the water or exploring rock pools.

But I believe that it is in her representations of women that Laura Knight's best work is to be found. 'Self and Nude' is probably her most well-known painting, and the relationship between the women depicted in this work was far from conventional. In 1913 the Knights, who had no children, left Newlyn to settle in the secluded Lamorna valley. Here they made a number of close friendships, in particular with their neighbours, Ella and Charles Naper. Ella was a ceramicist and maker of exquisite jewellery, and the two women collaborated on enamelling projects. Laura and Harold had drifted apart emotionally and Harold fell in love with Ella, though there is no evidence of marital infidelity. Laura encouraged the relationship as it made Harold easier to live with. Furthermore, she was attracted to Ella's beauty and gained emotional sustenance from their friendship. In her autobiography Laura described Ella as 'an adorably lovely slim creature, brown as a berry'. The Napers had a hut on Bodmin Moor which provided a retreat where they would relax away from social pressures. Often they were accompanied by close friends such as the Knights, where they would enjoy a bohemian existence, swimming, sketching and taking photographs.

'Self and Nude' is a large canvas depicting the artist, viewed from behind, with her head in profile, turned to the right towards her friend. Unclothed, Ella is positioned standing on a dais with her back to the viewer, hands raised and clasped behind her head, with her body turned slightly toward the left. Though painted in a studio setting, this work manifests the ability Laura Knight had acquired, through earlier studies of the female nude, to portray the effect of light on bare flesh. By contrast, she presents herself in practical working mode, dressed in a bold red cardigan, paintbrush in her right hand, with her trademark black felt hat lending a bohemian touch. Ahead of her time, she proclaims her status as an independent individual, in control of her destiny. The image is repeated on the left, as a work in progress. This is a painting within a painting - and also, a double portrait. The artwork represents a seminal moment in the career of a painter at the height of her powers - a woman confident enough to risk scandal by encroaching on the territory of male artistic creativity. Perhaps she was aware that the world was on the brink of a tumultuous upheaval which would, in the longer term, herald a new era for the status of women.

The First World War abruptly changed the lives of the Cornish artistic community. Many young men volunteered for the trenches. Harold Knight suffered from poor health, and would have been eligible for exemption from active service. Despite Laura's pleading, he refused to undergo a medical examination. Instead, he declared that he was a conscientious objector, in the full knowledge that he would be subjected to a harsh regime of working on the land for the duration of the war. Laura was furious and it is said that she never forgave him for this. The tough manual labour affected him physically and mentally, and he became unable to paint. Those in the local community who lost fathers, husbands or sons during the conflict felt betrayed by Harold's stance.

The Knights left Cornwall in 1919 to begin a new life in London. Harold returned to his career, becoming a successful portrait painter, while Laura developed a passion for theatre and ballet. A divergence of interests was probably inevitable in such an ill-matched pair. Harold would never be drawn into discussing painting with his wife. He rarely expressed an opinion on the calibre of Laura's work, possibly because he felt threatened by her talent. They never again lived in Cornwall though Laura often returned, maintaining a close and life-long friendship with Ella Naper.

'Self and Nude' was dogged by controversy when it was first exhibited in 1914. The elevated position of the nude figure confounded the traditional balance of power between the artist and subject, confusing the critics at the time (who were, without exception, male). It is difficult to ascertain what Laura really thought about her painting. There is no mention of it in her autobiography of 1936. Perhaps her reticence on the subject reflected an unwillingness to engage with emotions associated with memories of her married life in Cornwall. 'Self and Nude' was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 1971. This iconic artwork continues to exert a fascination today.

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