Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dame Laura Knight - A Girl Reading, probably Florence Carter Wood (later Mrs Alfred Munnings)

Price Realized

signed 'Laura Knight' (lower left)
pencil and watercolour heightened with bodycolour and with scratching out on paper
24 x 20 in. (61 x 50.8 cm.)

A young woman, in profile is reading a letter in a sunlit landscape; she wears a white blouse and her auburn hair is pinned under a broad-brimmed straw hat, its red ribbon falling over her left shoulder. On closer inspection, spots of sunlight piercing through the weave of the hat fall on to her face - a delicate observation, only possible if the picture had been painted in the open air. Behind her, fields stretch into the distance and overhead, a brilliant blue sky is lightly covered with cloud, recalling a typical summer's day on the Penwith Peninsula. 'In this region' Arthur Symons proclaimed, there was 'an air of dreams, at once formidable and mysterious, every hour of the day has its own charm and character, which change visibly and in surprising ways' (A. Symons, 'At the Land's End', Cities, Sea-Coasts and Islands, 1918, London, p. 269. Originally written for The Saturday Review in the summer of 1905).

Although Laura Knight was an accomplished painter in watercolour by the time she moved from Staithes in Yorkshire to Newlyn, her use of the medium flourished in Cornwall. She found it a convenient and portable sketching medium that not only supported her larger oil paintings, but also had unique qualities of its own. She was showing regularly at the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours, an old society whose fortunes revived in the Edwardian years. The previous year, Knight had been elected as a member and her exhibits of 1910, including A Girl Reading, revealed the confidence she now felt. It was a period characterized by Norman Garstin as one of 'opulent colour and sensuous gaiety' (Norman Garstin, 'The Art of Harold and Laura Knight', The Studio, vol. LVII, December 1912, p. 195).

It is possible that the model for A Girl Reading is Phyllis Gotch, the daughter of fellow Newlyn painters, Caroline and Thomas Cooper Gotch, whose fancy dress parties the Knights attended soon after their arrival in Newlyn. Such was their friendship that Harold painted Phyllis wearing Laura's blue silk dress on at least two occasions - one entitled The Reader, shows her posing en plein air, reading a letter (Harold Knight, The Reader, 1910, unlocated). However, a more likely sitter is Florence Carter Wood (Harold Knight, Florence Carter Wood, c. 1910-11, Private Collection). Laura and Florence became close friends when both posed for Harold in Afternoon Tea and The Sonnet, his Royal Academy pictures of 1910 and 1911. Florence married Alfred Munnings in 1912, but her mental condition led her to commit suicide two years later.

In 1936, Laura Knight described her pictures of this period as 'an expression of joie de vivre from which I was suffering. An ebullient vitality made me want to paint the whole world and say how glorious it was to be young and strong' (Laura Knight DBE, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, 1936, vol 2, London, 1941, p. 193). This sense of a world viewed through fresh eyes is apparent in the present work.

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