'Dame Laura Knight RA: In the Open Air'
Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance, 16 June-8 Sept 2012; Djanogly Art Gallery, University of Nottingham, 22 Sept-4 Nov 2012; Worcester City Art Gallery, 17 Nov, 2012-10 Fe 2013)
Laura Knight in the open air
Sansom & Co Ltd, 2012, ISBN 978-1-906593-65-0, 24.95p [pounds sterling]
Exhibition and book sponsored by MeSsum's
After the soggiest of summers, an exhibition promising toremind us of halcyon days dipping in and out of sparkling Cornish seas, gathering fruit in sunny orchards, or flying kites from the top of windswept cliffs, held an irresistible attraction. This delightful exhibition of Laura Knight's plein-air paintings, thoughtfully selected and arranged by Alison Bevan and Katie Herbert of Penlee House, delivered all this and a good deal more, saving its biggest surprise until the end. The touring exhibition opened in Penzance, near the Lamorna Valley where Laura spent some of her happiest years just before and during the First World War, and was then shown in two other locations which have close associations with her work at different periods of her life: Nottingham, not far from where she was born and at whose Art School she enrolled in 1890 as a precociously talented 13-year-old; and Worcester, a few miles from the Malvern Hills where she lived for most of the last 30 years of her life.
Both the exhibition and the informative, comprehensively illustrated book that accompanies it concentrate on an aspect of Laura Knight's work which has hitherto received less attention than the ballet, theatre and circus paintings for which she is probably best known: her landscape and figure studies painted in the open air. Laura and her husband Harold Knight, whom she met as a student, were part of what might be termed the second generation of British plein-air painters, following in the influential footsteps of French pioneers of the latter half of the 19th century such as Jules Bastien-Lepage and the early Impressionists, who sought to 'liberate' art from the studios and academies by adopting a fresher, more direct approach to their subjects. As Stanhope Forbes, the acknowledged leader of the colony of artists which settled in the Cornish fishing village of Newlyn in the 1880s, put it: 'Most of us young students were turning our backs on the great cities, forsaking the studios with their unvarying north light, to set up our easels in country districts, where we could pose our models and attack our work in sunshine or in shadow, under the open sky.'
By the end of the century, there were several such colonies scattered around the coastline and in rural areas of both Britain and the Continent. One of these conclaves of artists was in the coastal village of Staithes, North Yorkshire, which Laura Johnson (as she was then) and Harold Knight visited first in 1894, before returning to live, paint and eventually, in 1903, to marry there. In the following year the newly-married couple made the first of several prolonged trips to the art colony at Laren in Holland. Laura's paintings from this period, such as The Fishing Fleet (c1900, Bolton Museum and Art Gallery), are sombre in colour and execution, reflecting her empathy with the harsh and impoverished conditions in which the men, and especially the...