Laura Knight, The Ballet

The Ballets Russes, under the direction of Diaghilev, first performed in London in 1911, and Valentine Gross-Hugo painted several scenes from their productions.

These two appeared in the earlier talk on the exhibition “Belles de Jour“:

Left: Valentine Gross-Hugo, Karsavina dans le “Spectre de la rose », 1912, wax on wood, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes
and right:
Valentine Gross-Hugo, Karsavina et Nijinsky dans le “Spectre de la rose”, 1912, wax on wood, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes

The paintings are in wax on wood, a supple technique, enabling the artist to represent the gentle, light movements of the dancers.

At a later date, Laura also painted Karsavina:

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Laura Knight, Karsavina in ”The Firebird”, date?, oil on canvas, Private Collection

When they returned to London from Cornwall after the war, Harold and Laura became passionately fond of the ballet and went to performances almost every night.

When the Ballets Russes performed in London, it was often in set pieces at a variety theatre such as the Colisseum, alongside such acts as the male impersonator, Vesta Tilley or the comedian, Harry Tate.

Initially, Laura had to sketch from the stalls.

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Laura Knight Carnival, 1916, oil on canvas, 76 x 102 cm, Private Collection

This was painted during an earlier visit to London.
Laura destroyed most of her early ballet paintings, and this is a rare example.
Centre stage are Tchernicheva & Idjikawski, while Enrico Cecchetti, the great dancer and dancing teacher of the era is probably at the left. By the time the Knights met him he was getting old, having been born in 1850, and appeared largely in mime parts. He and is wife became friends of the Knights, and visited them often in Soho, where Giuseppina cooked for them.

The painting was earlier shown in the earlier talk on Laura Knight in Newlyn.

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Laura Knight, Carnival, 1920, oil on canvas, 102 x 132 cm, City Galleries, Manchester, UK

The breakthrough in Laura’s paintings of the ballet came when her frame maker, Mr Steer, who seemed to know everybody, obtained permission from Diaghilev himself for her to paint and sketch back stage.

This shows the Ballet Russes before the rise of the curtain for a performance of Carnival at Drury Lane in 1920, showing from left to right Diaghilev in top hat; Massine, red coat; Karsavina tying her shoe; Idzikowski, as Harlequin; Sokolova, pointing foot, as Papillon; Woizikowski, in striped tights as Floreston; Cecchetti, in buff coat and green gloves as Pantaloon; Tchernicheva, in blue skirt, as Chiarina

There was a suggestion at the time that the work was similar to Manet’ painting, Le Ballet espagnol of 1862, in which he depicted the Spanish company who were dancing at that time at the Hippodrome in Paris. Among them are Lola de Valence, seated, and, standing, the famous dancer Mariano Camprubi.

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Edouard Manet, Le Ballet espagnol, 1862, oil on canvas, 61 x 91 cm, Philips Collection, Washington, DC, USA

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Laura Knight, Behind the scenes in the coulisses, 1920, oil on canvas, 64 x 56 cm, Art Gallery, Falmouth, UK

Laura lent the dresser her ubiquitous red jacket, to add a touch of colour to the painting

Shown at the earlier talk on Falmouth Art Gallery

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Laura Knight, Portrait of the Ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, date?, oil on canvas, Private Collection

Lydia Lopokova was the first individual dancer to sit for Laura. Althogh very formal in the beginning, she warmed to Laura’s personality, and became friendly. She confided that, although a principal dancer, she was too small and the wrong shape for the principal rôles. She married the economist Maynard Keynes instead. He was homosexual and a member of the Bloomsbury Group, but in spite of all that, the marriage was a happy one. Keynes’ lover Duncan Grant was best man at the wedding.

Harold also painted her.

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Harold Knight, Lydia Lopokova, date?, oil on canvas, 102 x 76 cm, Private Collection

Left:  Laura Knight, Dressing Room No3, 1924, 64 x 76 cm, Atkinson Art Museum, Stockport, UK
and right: Laura Knight, Ballerinas at the Makeup Table, 1957, oil on canvas, 91 x 61 cm, Private collection

The two works were painted more than thirty years apart, showing Laura’ enduring passion for the stage.

One day Laura more or less accidentally found her way into the dressing rooms and became fascinated. After a while Lopokova was put out and sent a message reminding her that she should be painting on stage.

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Laura Knight, The Ballet Girl and the Dressmaker, 1930, oil on canvas, 96 x 122 cm, Private Collection

The model was a dancer named Barbara Bonnar; ‘…a vital and sparkling young creature, [who] was rehearsing for a show at the time and many of the sittings had to take place in the early morning before she went to the theatre.’ A detailed figure drawing for the painting is in the collection of Nottingham City Art Gallery. The artist’s own dressmaker, Miss Fergusson, posed for the woman making the alterations to the dress; ‘her hands and type were perfect.’ The picture was originally intended to hang in the office of the new headquarters of the H Earl Hoover business in Chicago but Hoover was so delighted with it that he decided to hang it in pride of place in his home.

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Laura Knight, Ballet, 1936, oil on canvas, 65 x 76 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, UK

Inevitably, she was from time to time compared to Degas

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Edgar Degas, Danseuses, 1884, pastel on paper, 75 x 73 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

Laura worked in other media for her ballet work. These two aquatints show the development of an idea:

Left: Laura Knight, The Three Graces, 1926, aquatint
and right: Laura Knight, Three Graces of the Ballet, 1927, aquatint

Two more dressing room scenes, painted at different periods. In spite of her passion for the genre, she did not just depict the ballet, and her output was immense and varied

Left: Laura Knight, The Ballet Shoe, oil on canvas, 1932, 43 x 38 cm, Museums and Art Galleries, Brighton and Hove, UK
and right: Laura Knight, A Dressing Room at Drury Lane, 1952, oil on canvas

Although this talk has been about the ballet, Laura painted scenes of many different theatrical production, both on stage and off.

Just one example of her work:

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Laura Knight, The Theatre Wardrobe, date?, oil on canvas, 97 x 66 cm, Private Collection

BT, Meeting No24, 4 September, 2018