Paintings-on-Sea (3): To the Sunny Shores of Cornwall with Harold & Laura Knight…

[From a discussion at The Beecroft Gallery @SouthendMuseums March 2017]

As we have seen in previous posts, Newlyn had become an artists’ colony back in the 1880s. Something of a slump of activity in the 1890s was then revived when Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes opened the Newlyn Art School in 1899 attracting a second generation of artists to the area. The key to the Forbes’ teaching was a focus on realism and the depiction of the everyday lives of the people around them.

The Old Pier Steps, 1911

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947) The Old Pier Steps [1911; Bradford Art Galleries; image c/o @BridgemanImages]

Two of those ‘new’ artists were Harold and Laura Knight whose work, whilst clearly continuing the tradition of realism, would undergo a dramatic change on the sunny shores of Cornwall.

The Knights had been working within the Staithes Group up on the east coast where the subjects of their art were scenes of the harsh realities of life in the fishing port, and the style of their paintings was influenced by close links and visits to artists’ colonies in Belgium and Holland, where a tonal approach to quiet muted colour and an emphasis on interior scenes with cool light coming through the window, derived from the old masters, dominated.


Harold Knight (1874-1961) The Young Seamstress (1907; Touchstones Rochdale @Touchstones image c/o @BridgemanImages)


Laura Knight (1877-1970) Cottage Interior, Staithes (c.1905; private collection; image c/o @BridgemanImages).

It was in 1907 that the Knights decided to move south to Cornwall, and the shift in their work towards colour and light is brilliantly dramatic. In one of his first Newlyn paintings, Harold – always perhaps the more conservative of the two – creates the most beautiful dappled Impressionist light:


In the Spring Time, 1908-9 (oil on canvas)

Harold Knight (1874-1961) In the Spring Time [1908; @LaingArtGallery; image c/o @BridgemanImages]

Immediately we feel the influence of Impressionism – the outside air, the light and leisure, the soft brushstrokes. In the Spring Time has a delicious restraint. The brightness and heat of the sun is held back from the shaded couple taking tea under the cool shade of the tree, creating a sense of their intimacy in contrast to the beating sunlight around them. And there’s such perfect simplicity in the balancing of the man’s darker suit and the shadowed tree trunk as contrast to the woman’s dress which, dappled with light, connects beyond the tree to the group sitting out in the field just beyond.

Harold’s preference was still to paint interiors; this enabled his focus on detail and high finish. What the Cornish light inspires however is colour.

The Reader, c.1910 (oil on canvas)

Harold Knight (1874-1961) The Reader [1910; @BrightonMuseums; image c/o @BridgemanImages]

Set against the neutral wall, the visual impact of that stunning green dress is counterbalanced by the red books that dominate the bookcase, where we also pick up a gem-like blue. Such strong colours brought into harmony.

For Laura Knight as well, Newlyn brought out a whole new palette and approach to painting. In her autobiography “The Magic of a Line” (published 1965), Laura says she found herself liberated by Cornwall, full of strength both in body and purpose, free to ride “in harmony with the mood of the wild” and to “sling” paint onto the canvas without restraint.

(See also Barbara C Morden’s biography “Laura Knight: A Life” published 2013, and the official Laura Knight website ).

The utter thrill Laura must have felt comes through especially in:

Boys (Newlyn, Cornwall), 1909-10

Laura Knight (1877-1970) Boys – Newlyn, Cornwall [1909-10; Johannesburg Art Gallery; image c/o @BridgemanImages]

Here we see the boys drying off after a swim in the brilliant afternoon sunshine; there’s a sense of summer holiday and freedom.

As Barbara Morden writes: “[A] pale golden light bleaches the sea, boats and limbs of the children. It dazzles – a sensation echoed by… the girl [in pink] shielding her eyes from the glare.”

Laura painted out en plein air (see painting by Alfred Munnings below], in the tradition of Newlyn art master Stanhope Forbes, and as viewers we can feel that dazzle of the sunlight, the energy of the scene and a dynamic ‘real life’ quality. This comes through especially in this gorgeous watercolour

Bathing off the Boats, 1912 (w/c & bodycolour on paper)

Laura Knight (1877-1970) Bathing off the Boats [1912; private collection; @BridgemanImages]

These paintings of ‘seaside life’  convey the pleasures of swimming in the sea, sitting on the beach – times of leisure. But for Laura, as an artist, this is the effect of the subject matter only. Her work is a vigorous, hard activity as she pursues the depiction of light and colour to portray the atmosphere of a Cornish summer. Laura’s work – as well as Harold’s – sold well, and was regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy; it means they had money and for Laura this meant the opportunity to invite models down from London – including Dolly Snell, one of the famous Tiller Girls, portrayed in The Green Feather (1911).

Laura Knight - The Green Feather 1911

Laura Knight (1877-1970) The Green Feather [1911; Ottawa Museum Canada, image c/o]

As if in proof of Laura’s energy and determination, The Green Feather is 7ft. tall and 5ft. wide, and was painted in a single day out in the open air – Dolly sustained by coffee, cheese and biscuits! Laura Knight would also come to be fascinated by the depiction of young women – whether dressed a la mode or nude – on the beaches and the cliffs of Cornwall; they became central to her artistic vision as she sought to portray sunlight on the human form – and Laura felt she had found a subject of her own, as an independent, professional artist (Morden, p.107).

The Bather (oil on canvas)

Laura Knight (1877-1970) The Bather [private collection; @BridgemanImages]

A further preoccupation for Laura was to capture the living energy of the sea, whether it’s the deepest of blues or dappled and dyed in reflection and sunlight as:

Lamorna Cove,  (oil on canvas)

Laura Knight (1877-1970) Lamorna Cove [private collection; @BridgemanImages]

Cornwall gave Laura the confidence to explore themes and experiment with colour, rhythm and texture in her art – it was a period that would set her up for the rest of her long and extraordinary career.

Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) Painting (oil on canvas)

Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) Laura Knight Painting [@Castle_Art Norwich; @BridgemanImages]

One of the artists closest to Laura Knight was another force of nature, Alfred Munnings – an extraordinary young man who had been apprenticed to a printer in Norwich at the age of fourteen and studied at the Norwich School of Art in the evenings. As an artist he travelled across the country painting rural scenes, with an especial focus on horses, and his travels with the Gypsy communities.

Laura and Alfred were very much at the heart of the artists’ community, painting every day and enjoying picnics, parties and the pub by night.

Munnings, Alfred James, 1878-1959; Lamorna Inn

Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) Lamorna Inn [1915; @AlfredMunnings Museum; image c/o @artukdotorg]

Jonathan Smith’s novel “Summer in February” (published by Abacus in 1995 and made into a film of the same name in 2013) captures the atmosphere of the community; and, indeed, the tragedy of Florence Carter-Wood’s suicide, after her marriage with Munnings, that would undermine the colony’s atmosphere of freedom and joy even before the declaration of war in September 1914.

But it was no doubt the ‘wildness’ of Munnings’ life that attracted Laura’s attention; and his energy reverberates through the paintings.

Munnings, Alfred James, 1878-1959; The Shady Grove

Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) The Shady Grove [1910; @BrightonMuseums; @BridgemanImages]

Here the vigour of the brushstroke captures the breeze of a hot summer afternoon; the scattering of strong sunlight through the leaves and branches; and the horses’ movements contrasting to the groom dozing in the grass.

Munnings, Alfred James, 1878-1959; A Gipsy Campfire

Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) A Gypsy Campfire [1910; @AlfredMunnings; image c/o @artukdotorg]

Munnings, Alfred James, 1878-1959; Start of St Buryan Races, Cornwall

Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) The Start of St Buryan Races, Cornwall [1914; @walkergallery; @artukdotorg]

Munnings passion for horses and racing is key to his entire oeuvre, as is clearly visible in the Munnings Museum collection of his works

The Great War would separate this ‘second generation’ of Newlyn artists; still Alfred Munnings and Laura Knight would be friends for the rest of their lives, often influencing each other.


Munnings no doubt introduced Laura to horse racing, a subject that would become a focus in the 1930s and, since I am writing this on the day of the Epsom Derby, I should round off with one of her watercolour sketches:

Derby Day, No. 1 (w/c & bodycolour on paper)

Laura Knight (1877 – 1970) Derby Day No.1 [late 1930s; private collection; @BridgemanImages]


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring "The Art & Artists of Russia (1850s-present) currently, and please see the A History of Art in England series; looking forward to discussing "British Art Groups (1930s)" when we can have live group meetings again! Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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