Laura’s Studio at Staithes, 1898
Laura and Harold needed a place that would offer the inspiration they had failed to find in Skegness. The answer came from Thomas Barratt, a teacher at the Nottingham Schoool of Art, who said: ‘Go to Staithes … there is no place so splendid for an artist in the whole of England. I have a cottage there I go to every summer. Harold and you will want to spend all your time painting’. And so in the late summer of 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, to Staithes they all went.
When the railway came to Staithes in 1883 some three hundred fishermen were working out of the port, with the Whitby, Redcar and Middlesbrough Union Railway running three trains a week from the station at the bank top to transport the catch to markets nationwide. Yet the community below maintained its self-contained isolation. They considered even those who lived and worked “up top” as foreigners. Even so, for all its apartness, Staithes could not ignore the trickle of outsiders who came to the village: painters attracted by its picturesque character, its dramatic weather, strong light and long days. Seeking out remote, rural and coastal places, they were part of the new movement that was transforming the art-world at home and abroad. They brought with them modernity and a whiff of revolution to this remote place.
Left: Mark Senior, Runswick Bay, c1883, oil on canvas, 51 x 36 cm, Private Collection
Top right: Frederick Jackson, In the Garden, 1886, oil on canvas
Bottom right: Gilbert Foster, Wild Flowers in Yorkshire, before 1906, oil on canvas
By 1880 three influential artists were working in the Staithes-Whitby area: Gilbert Foster, Frederick Jackson and Mark Senior.
They established what was to be a loosely associated colony of painters resident there for over 30 years and known as the “Staithes Group”. Harold and Laura were associated with Staithes for over ten years (from their first visit in 1897 to their removal to Newlyn in 1907) and it was at Staithes that both of them threw off the restraints of academic art and provincial attitudes. As Laura affirmed, Staithes was for her a ‘tremendous influence on work, life and power of endurance’.
She found herself as an artist at Staithes.
Laura and Harold married in 1903; he was 29, she 26. They had been companions since she entered Nottingham School of Art when Laura was 13. Harold died in 1961 at the age of 87, after 58 years of marriage.
In this photograph Harold, a self-effacing man, is standing at the back.
He became a well known artist, specialising in portraits
Harold Knight, Arthur Balfour, 1st Baron Riverdale, 1936, oil on canvas, 76 x 63 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK
He painted Laura, on several occassions. Here, along with her portrait of her sister, is the first, painted shortly before her fifteenth birthday
Harold Knight, Laura Johnson, 1892, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Laura Knight, Sis, 1896, oil on canvas, 46 x 56 cm, Private Collection.
Laura Knight, Packing Fish on the Quay at Staithes, c1899, oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm, Private Collection
Laura Knight, Cobles at Runswick, 1897-1907, oil on board, 39 x 29 cm, Brockfield Hall, nr York, UK
Laura Knight, A mother and child in a kitchen, 1905-1908, oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm, Private Collection
This appears to have been painted between Laura and Harold Knight’s first trip to the Laren community in the Netherlands, in 1905, and their leaving Yorkshire to move to Cornwall in 1908. After their wedding in 1903, the Knights generally stayed with a Mrs Bowman when returning to the Staithes area in Yorkshire and in between visits to Laren. She lived in nearby Roxby, and the couple would walk over the fields every day down to Staithes, where they had their studios. Laura painted several oils similar in style to A mother and child in a kitchen, using Mrs Bowman’s cottage interior as a background. A similar work, Dressing the Children, below, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1906, Both show some Dutch influence, gained from the Knight’s trips to Laren. Laura painted several works while in Staithes, subjects ranging from old women in interiors performing simple household tasks such as knitting, peeling potatoes and plucking geese, to children playing on the beach. Laura paid her models in pennies, which small sum she could hardly afford.
Laura Knight, Dressing the Children, 1906, oil on canvas, 102 x 140 cm, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, UK
Laura Knight, The Girl & the Letter, 1906, oil on canvas, 102 x 127 cm, Harris Museums and Art Gallery, Preston, UK
Left: Laura Knight, The Elder Sister, c1907, oil on canvas, 33 x 25 cm, Touchstones, Rochdale, UK
Right: Laura Knight, The Rocking Chair, c1906-1907
The same scene and the same models, painted in different styles.
Left: Laura Knight, The Fishing Fleet, 1900, oil on canvas, 123 x 84 cm, Art Gallery, Bolton, UK
Right: Laura Knight, Fisherfolk Baiting Lines on the Cobbles, Staithes, date?, 45 x 54 cm, Private Collection
Laura Knight, On the Quayside, watercolour, Private Collection
Left: Harold Knight, The Storm, c1901, oil on canvas, 91 x 121 cm, Wycombe Museum, High Wycombe, UK
Right: Harold Knight, Grief, c1901, oil on canvas, Private Collection
The painting on the right is of a girl who was to marry Billy Uthank. He, his father and his brother were all drowned on the same day, a few days before the wedding.
The Knights had had enough of the raw pain of the place and, now that the winter set in, missed the companionship of other artists that they had enjoyed at Laren. Harold in particular was emotionally drained, tired of watching the never-ending tragedy of life on the Yorkshire coast. Yet Laura was reluctant to leave for she owed so much to the place. Staithes had offered her emotional and professional nourishment and throughout her life she would think back to her time in that ‘wildified place’ as marking a rite of passage. It was there, she says that ‘I … found my own way of seeing and trying to speak of it in pencil and colour, instead of copying other people, particularly Harold.’
The time had come to move on. So, they burned their unwanted canvases and looked south and west with the promise of warmer climes, longer days and brighter skies of Cornwall.
Laura Knight, Staithes, Yorkshire, 1900, oil on canvas
BT, Meeting No21, 24 July, 2018