Laura Knight, Gypsies

Laura’s friends from the circus, Ally and Joe Bert, introduced her to the spectacle of a race meeting, both from the perspective of the spectators in the stands and the gaily attired gypsy fortune-tellers. After Joe’s death Knight continued to accompany his widow Ally to the races and on one occasion Mrs Bert introduced her to Mr Sully, who owned a Rolls Royce that had driven Joe’s coffin to his funeral. The car was also used to take bridal parties to church at weekends but as it was available during the week, Knight suggested that Sully should drive her and Ally to the races every day during the racing season or to the gypsy camp at Iver to paint the wrinkled visage of Granny Smith or the beautiful raven-haired Beulah. On race days the spacious vehicle was parked on the slopes of the race-track and its elevated position and commodious interior allowed Knight to work on canvases as large as A Dull Day at Epsom, protected from inclement weather or glaring sunshine.

KnightLDullDay Laura Knight, A Dull Day at Epsom, c1940, oil on canvas, 64 x 76 cm, Private Collection

This picture, painted from the open door of Sully’s Rolls Royce circa 1940, captures the excitement of race-day, with one spectator standing on the roof of her car to watch the horses as they gallop past and another scrambling up the back of his vehicle with binoculars clasped to his eyes. The grandstand and its crowd dominates the background but the empty foreground behind the line of cars parked behind the press-tent, demonstrates Knight’s ability to place herself in a more backstage setting, just as she did when she painted ballerinas and circus performers in their dressing-rooms or behind the curtain of an auditorium. These pictures convey the more intimate scenes that Knight was able to witness, as an accepted part of the peripheral life of the racing community and not simply an observer viewing from a physical and social distance.

While at Newlyn, Alfred Munnings often went to country horse fairs and sometimes went off with the gypsies he met. Because of his love of horses, Munnings was also a regular at the race meetings at Ascot and Epsom. He suggested to Laura that these would be good places to go to find subject matter. Laura liked horses and and had painted many during her circus days, but she found that is was the people in the race day crowds which interested her most, especial the gypsies who moved among them, telling fortunes and selling trinkets.

Top left: Laura Knight, Ascot Finery, 1936-38, oil on canvas, Art Gallery, Dundee, UK
Top right: Laura Knight, Epsom Downs, 1938 & Laura Knight, Gypsies at Ascot, 1933, oil on canvas, Museum & Art Gallery, Hereford, UK
Bottom left: Laura Knight, Gypsies on Epsom Downs, oil on canvas, Dumfries, UK
Bottom right: Laura Knight, Romany Belles, 1938, oil on canvas, Art Gallery, Aberdeen, UK

The press took delight in her eccentricity and made her headline news.

Responding to the circumstances, Laura was employing a more sketchy technique than is evident in many of the Circus paintings. The Gypsy paintings are as fresh and bright today as the finery worn by her subjects on those auspicious race days. They were willing to stand and pose for their portraits, that is, if she crossed their palms with silver!

Laura visited the gypsy camps on many occasions and painted people in their own home. Her subjects were often suspicious of her but her friendliness and honesty usually won them over. These were painted at Iver, in Buckinghamshire, a few miles away from Ascot.

Left: Laura Knight, Gypsies at Home, oil on canvas, 76 x 97 cm, Private Collection
Right: Laura Knight, Gypsy Waggon & Tent, date?, oil on canvas, Private Collection & Laura Knight, The Little Beggar, 1947, oil on canvas

Perhaps the most poignant and important paintings of this time are her gypsy portraits, which form a unique record of the people she met in the camps.


Laura Knight, Hop-Picking Granny Knowles, an Old Hand, 1940

The family she came to know best were the Smiths, With Granny (Lilo) one of her nine sons, Gilderoy, and his daughter in law, Freedom, whom Laura chose to call Beulah

Left: Laura Knight, Old Gypsy Woman, 1938, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Right: Laura Knight, Fine Feathers or Gypsy Splendour, 1939, oil on canvas, 102 x 76 cm, Castle Museum & Art Centre, Nottingham, UK

On the right, Granny Smith is dressed ready to go to Ascot. Laura lent her the hat.


Laura Knight, The Gypsy, c1937, oil on canvas, 61 x 41 cm, Tate Gallery, London, UK.

This is Gilderoy.  Laura wrote on 15 November 1957: “He, a gentleman called Mr Smith, one wet day, at Iver, Bucks, in the camp there near the railway, posed for me in a little lean-to tent – just a corner in shelter, crowded by a big double bed where an old gipsy and his wife slept. I painted it in 3 or 4 hours. … I haven’t anything more to say about that Mr Smith except that he figures in several other pictures I painted at Iver – one in particular, his whole family which is somewhere in Scotland – wife, three children and his mother, a beautiful old Romany, queen of the camp.”

Left: Laura Knight, Beulah on top of the Hills, 1959, oil on canvas, 119 x 66 cm
Right: Laura Knight, Beulah, the Gypsy Girl, oil on canvas, 76 x 61 cm, Private Collection

“Beulah’s wagon, shared with her husband, was a picture of shiny ornamental looking-glass, inlet panelling, white bed linen and polished brass and copper – all spotlessly clean. Many wet days I spent inside at work, crouched in a corner close against a lot of hanging garments. I never tired of painting Beulah, typical of her race in her aloofness and resignation to whatever happened: as an animal does not look ahead but takes whatever comes. Her body and limbs were primitive in column of muscle and bone, in movement and relaxation. To say she was beautiful is not enough: apart from perfection of mould, she bore the mark of tragedy as well. Hard would be the clench of those white teeth; and right to the bone they would bite. Although I painted her so much, I never heard her history.” (The Magic of Line, The Autobiography of Laura Knight D.B.E., R.A., 1965, p. 253)

And lastly, three portraits of Freedom Smith:

Laura Knight, Beulah, oil on canvas, 62 x 39 cm, Private Collection
Laura Knight, Beulah No2, oil on canvas, 60 x 38 cm, Private Collection
Laura Knight, Beulah No3, oil on canvas, 61 x 39 cm, Private Collection

BT, Meeting No27, 16 October, 2018

One thought on “Laura Knight, Gypsies”

  1. Hi, Granny Smith was my great grandmother, Freedom (my great aunt) was not the daughter in law of Gilderoy, she was the wife of his brother Harry.

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