Laura Knight, The Circus

Laura received a letter from Major Evelyn Atherley, who had read of her studies of the circus in the papers. He asked her to paint a picture for her. His first request was for a portrait of the clown, Whimsical Walker, standing astride, with his dog, Blinkers standing in front of him. He then asked for another clown, Joe Craston, to be included, and then for something else, and the for something else. The requests multiplied, and Laura agreed to them all, and accepted the commission.

Harold thought she was mad.

This is the result.


Laura Knight, Charivari, also known as The Grand Parade, 1929, oil on canvas, 99 x 125, cm, Museum & Art Gallery, Newport, UK

She and the major became lifelong friends and he died shortly before the publication of her first autobiography.

The circus was a popular national entertainment in the 1920s, and Laura visited both Fossett’s Circus at the Islington Agricultural Hall and Bertram Mills’ Circus based at Olympia. Mills invigorated the British circus tradition by presenting a polished, glamorous show with international performers that attracted a celebrity audience, including Sir Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. For Laura, the physically audacious performers in spectacular costumes were irresistible subjects.

When her painting Charivari, a depiction of multiple performers at Mills’ Circus, was exhibited at the Royal Academy it was criticised and lampooned in the press. Undeterred, Laura joined Mills and his company when they embarked on a national tour in partnership with Great Carmo’s circus. She shared temporary lodgings with the clowns and acrobats, drawing and painting the performers at work and rest over an intense four month period. The more reflective portraits made at this time show a deep understanding of the life and experiences of the travelling performer.
In “Oil Paint & Grease Paint”, she says “I was as much a part of the circus as anyone in the show, used to putting up with anything, living solely in its atmosphere.”


Laura Knight, Major Atherley, 1932, pastel & watercolour, 46 x 52 cm, Private Collection

She painted the major’s portrait. She invented the pictures behind him, so that he could have more for his money. Top right is the lion tamer Togare, preparing to wrestle with Paris, and on the left is Blinkers, the major’s dog.


Laura Knight, Circus Matinee, c1938, oil on canvas, 84 x 114 cm, Perth & Kinross Council, Perth, UK

A scene at Bertram Mills’ Circus. The clown is Joe Bert; he and his wife Ally were friends of Laura. The acrobat is Herbert Hanson. The horse in the centre is the Knapstroper horse Hassan, and on the right Sulliman.


Laura Knight, The Rosinbacks, oil on canvas, 78 x  64 cm, The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, UK

The Rosinback is distinguished by a broad back on to which resin is sprinkled, to give the performer a firm foothold.

Left, Laura Knight, Haifa and Hassan, 1930, oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm, Private Collection
and right, Laura Knight, Elsie on Hassan, 1929-30, oil on canvas, 69 x 76 cm, City Museum, Nottingham, UK

Laura painted Fred Carmo’s troupe of beautiful spotted acrobat’s horses several times at Bertram Mills’ Circus, on this occasion in 1930. The breed was called ‘Knapstroper’, peculiar to Eastern Germany and Russia.


Laura Knight, A Musical Clown, 1930, oil on canvas, 76 x 64 cm, Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, UK

Left, Laura Knight, Three Clowns, c1930, oil on canvas, 76 x 64 cm, City Museum, Leicester, UK, and right, a sketch of Joe Craston.

As we have already seen, Laura was fascinated by the ballet, and the excitement of the circus was another passion. She had a gift for entering the lives of the performers and was friends with many of them. Her introduction behind the scenes was via her friend, Alfred Munnings, who asked the circus owner, Bertram Mills, if she could paint and sketch, much as she had done in the ballet.
After the death of Whimsical Walker, of whom more below, Joe Craston became the principal clown in Bertram Mills Circus.


Laura Knight, Joe Craston & Buffer, scene from a circus , 1929, charcoal, pencil & watercolour, 36 x 26 cm, Private Collection

Buffer is the generic term for a clown’s dog. A performing dog is a Slanging buffer.
Joe is shown here in the guise of a Joey, the white faced sad clown, named in honour of the great Grimaldi, who died in 1837. He is known for the expansion of the rôle of Clown in the harlequinade that formed part of British pantomimes.


Laura Knight, Whimsical Walker, coloured crayon and gouache over traces of pencil, 37 x 27 cm, Private Collection

Whimsical Walker from Charivari


The Whimsical Walker (1851-1934), who wore this costume in the 1920s, worked as a clown in both circus and pantomime. Born Thomas Walker, he first appeared in 1865 and subsequently worked in England and America. In 1886, he appeared by royal command before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. The donkey misbehaved and the Queen was not amused.
Walker’s act was popular with generations of children. In 1928 Dame Laura Knight recorded his appearance in her oil painting, The Whimsical Walker and His Buffer, which shows him in this costume with his circus dog or ‘buffer’. The artist and performer met and made friends in the 1920s when Walker was working at Olympia for Bertram Mills’ and Carmo’s circuses. Walker’s props were those of the traditional clown: a string of sausages, a goose, and a red-hot poker.


The Whimsical Walker’s costume, displayed in the London Museum

Laura cared for his widow, and took his costume and wig, which was hired from Clarkson’s and which she bought for 2/6d, to the London museum. Note the string of sausages, one of Whimsical Walker’s trademark acts.


Laura Knight, Goliath, c1930, crayon and pencil, 25 x 35 cm, Private Collection

This is the dwarf Goliath from Charivari. His best trick was to place his hat on the ground, bend over, put his head in the hat, and stand up again.
Boom! Boom!


Left,  Laura Knight, Two Clowns, c1929, watercolour & charcoal, 50 x 34 cm, Private Collection, and right, Laura Knight, Clown’s Refreshment, c1929, watercolour & charcoal, 36 x 27 cm, Private Collection

As with the ballet, Laura was interested in what went on behind the scenes. The couple on the right are probably Joe Craston and his wife, with whom Laura established a close friendship.

Left, Laura Knight, Circus People, oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm, Private Collection, and right, Laura Knight, The Finishing Horse, 1951, oil on canvas, 74 x 69 cm, Private Collection


Laura Knight, The Last Act, 1929, oil on canvas, 140 x 107 cm, Art Gallery & Museum, Dundee, UK

Put them all together again:
Togare, the lion tamer with Paris; the pig who spelled his name, “Happy”; Joe Craston on the left; and Major Atherley, with his dog and an unknown woman.

BT, Meeting No26, 20 October, 2018