Laura Knight, WW1 1914-18


Laura Knight, Spring, 1916-1920, oil on canvas, 182 x 153, Tate Gallery, London, UK

Laura needed to paint a picture which symbolised hope at a time when there seemed little prospect of better times: hence the rainbow. She reworked it over several years.

The models are Charles Naper, and his wife Ella, whom we last saw without her clothes.


Laura Knight, Self Portrait with Model, 1913, oil on canvas, 152 x 128 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

As far as I know, there are no paintings of Charles without his clothes, but he also painted his wife, as well as specialising in Cornish Landscapes


Charles Naper, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, pencil


Photograph of Charles Naper, Laura Knight, Cecily & Alfred Sidgwick, and Harold Knight in August 1914

The photograph was taken at the time of the outbreak of the war. Laura rarely looks at the camera. I have the feeling that it was not intentional, but that she always seemed to find something else to do at the time.

The detail from Spring shows a single magpie. Laura’s friend Gertrude Harvey was Cornish, and superstitious. She tried to get Laura to paint out the unlucky magpie, without success.

Gertrude Harvey was the wife of Harold Harvey, who painted the portrait of Dorothea Sharp, the subject of an earlier presentation


Harold Harvey, Portrait of Dorothea Sharp

He also painted his superstitious wife, who evidently had no objection to a single parrot.


Harold Harvey, Gertrude Harvey with a Parrot in the Artist’s House, oil on canvas, 46 x 48 cm, Private Collection

During the war Harold Knight’s principles led him to be a conscientious objector, which earned him the rebuke of many of his colleagues and former friends, and put a strain on his physical and mental health, as he was required to work as a farm labourer. He was 40 at the outbreak of war. He produced a number of sensitive scenes of women in interiors during this period, in part because artists were forbidden to produce views of the Cornish coastline for security reasons during the First World War, but perhaps also to reduce the stress of his life at the time.

Left, Harold Knight, Knitting, 1915, oil on canvas, 46 x 46 cm, Private Collection, and right, Harold Knight, The Green Book, c.1915, oil on canvas, 51 x 46 cm, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, UK

Laura, on the other hand, was as busy and adventurous as ever


Laura Knight, At the Edge of the Cliff, 1916, oil on canvas, 58 x 71 cm, Private Collection

She cared little for the restrictions, and continued to paint coastal scenes. Eventually she had to stop, and afterwards always painted from a high viewpoint and with no horizon, so that she could not be accused of being a spy.
The model is Marjorie Taylor, the sixteen year old daughter of a local coal merchant.

In November 1916, the wealthy Canadian newspaper owner Lord Beaverbrook founded the Canadian War Memorials Fund. The Fund hired more than 116 artists in Canada and Great Britain to paint over 900 scenes of Canada at war. Some artists were sent to the front lines in France and Belgium to sketch Canadians in battle. Back in their studios in London, England, they completed larger paintings in oils. Other artists painted scenes of the home front in Canada

Future members of Canada’s celebrated Group of Seven also found new inspiration as war artists, painting the landscape of the western front. After the war, they depicted Canadian wilderness scenes in which damage caused by forest fires and the harsh climate was a prominent feature. The image of the destroyed, but still upright, tree appears in many of their compositions.

Here is one example:


Frederick Varley, German Prisoners, c1918, oil on canvas, Canadian War Museum, Ottowa, Canada

Anna Airy, 1882-1964, was one of the first women officially commissioned as a war artist and was recognised as one of the leading women artists of her generation.


Anna Airy, Cookhouse, Witley Camp, 1918, oil on canvas, Canadian War Museum, Ottowa, Canada

Laura also received a commission to paint at Witley Camp, near Aldershot. Her brief, strange though it may seem, was to paint Canadian soldiers bathing in the river. She couldn’t find any, but met Joe Shears, the Imperial Forces bantam weight champion. He was kind, cheerful and popular with everyone. She decided to paint a picture of a boxing match instead.


Laura Knight, Boxing Match, 1916, oil on canvas, Canadian War Museum, Ottowan Canada

The painting is more than three metres wide, and features Joe on the left in his black shorts and red sash.

These two sketches were probably drawn at Witley


…as were these black and which illustrations, taken from her first autobiography, “Oil Paint & Grease Paint”, published in 1936.

Laura was a woman, commissioned to paint a subject unfamiliar to her. Some years earlier, George Bellows, one of the Ash Can School of artists in New York, had painted a more brutal depiction of a boxing match…


George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909, oil on canvas, 92 x 123 cm, Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH, USA

Two boxers fighting in the private athletic club situated across from his studio. Bellows used quick strokes to create a blurred image, simulating the two fighters in motion. He also chose a low point of view to put the viewer among the crowd watching the fight. Participants in the boxing ring were usually members of the club, but occasionally outsiders would fight with temporary memberships. These fighters were known as “stags”.

BT, Meeting No 23, 21 August 2018

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