Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sandra Blow 1925-2006 ~ in Search of Balance

Sandra Blow was described by Roger Hilton as an ‘heroic painter’. Certainly her late artworks are heroic in size. Currently her canvases can be seen at three locations in Cornwall. The Exchange in Penzance is showing a dozen works from the 1990s onwards, including Brilliant Corner II. Familiarity with reproductions of Blow’s work is nothing like the awe-inspiring experience of getting up close to these enormous originals. Clearly visible are the puncture marks which show evidence of the artist’s experiments with collage. Strips of coloured paper or canvas cut-outs were stapled to the artwork in various configurations until it had attained the sense of balance and harmony for which she strove. Standing back, one can appreciate not only the scale on which the artist worked, but also the challenges involved in transporting and exhibiting such vast paintings.
Brilliant Corner II
1993 Acrylic and collage on canvas 203 x 305cm Courtesy of The Sandra Blow Estate
Nearby, Newlyn Art Gallery focuses on Blow’s studio practice, including a series of polaroids which document different versions of an artwork - not necessarily sequential. On show are previously unseen examples of works from the 1970s. Visitors can also watch a 2006 filmed interview, ‘The Eye’, in which the artist acknowledged the sense of presence or mystery in her work, which she found impossible to define. These two linked exhibitions continue until early October.
Up to the end of September, an early canvas by Blow can be seen at Tate St Ives. ‘International Exchanges : Modern Art and St Ives 1915-65’ is an ambitious exploration of modernism in St Ives, locating its evolution within the broader context of artistic developments in Europe, the USA and beyond. Among the artworks on display in the central gallery, with its unforgettable vista of Porthmeor beach below, is a pair of canvases which perfectly embody the show’s theme. Alongside Alberto Burri’s Sacking and Red hangs Sandra Blow’s Cornwall, painted in 1958.

1958 Oil, plaster and sacking on board 120 x 111cm Courtesy of The Sandra Blow Estate
Burri was an early and significant influence on Blow’s work. At the age of 15 she was accepted as a student at St Martin’s School of Art in London, under the encouraging tuition of Ruskin Spear. From there she moved on to the Royal Academy Schools. Taking a break from her studies in 1947, she decided to visit Italy. After she met the charismatic Alberto Burri in Rome, the pair became a couple and travelled together through Italy. For Blow it was a year in which she gained a profound appreciation of the country’s cultural heritage under her companion’s erudite guidance. Burri had started painting as a prisoner of war – an experience which forced him to improvise on materials. Subsequently he turned to abstraction, using burlap as a substitute for canvas. She learned a great deal from this radical approach to the making of art, far removed from her own academic training.
Aware of the need to cultivate an art practice independent of her mentor, Blow returned to London, but not to her studies. Her recent exposure to Renaissance and abstract art led to experiments with organic materials such as soil, twigs, and ash. With the addition of tea, these were applied to surfaces roughened by plaster or hessian to create artworks in earth tones. Her employment of a singular vocabulary to explore the possibilities within abstraction, ahead of its time, soon attracted critical attention. Contacts within London’s artistic circles included Roland Penrose, who encouraged her to participate in mixed exhibitions at the ICA. She was acknowledged as part of the British avant-garde, although she never identified with any particular group or movement. Early in her career Blow became aware of the difficulty of reconciling a life dedicated to making art with the constraints of a long-term relationship. Never short of male companions, Sandra enjoyed a lively social life but remained single, attaching no particular significance to her gender as an artist. She did not consider herself a feminist, and rejected the label ‘woman artist’.
From the early 1950s she exhibited regularly with Gimpel Fils. It was there that she first met Roger Hilton, with whom she travelled on her first visit to Cornwall in 1957. Already well-established as an exponent of post-war abstraction, Hilton was an outspoken critic whose opinion Blow valued. With his encouragement she gained the confidence to develop her use of line. Soon after her arrival in the south west, she was offered the opportunity to rent a cottage in Zennor, extending her stay for a year. With neighbours such as Patrick and Delia Heron, Karl Weschke and Bryan Wynter, there was much socialising and exchanging of ideas.
Back in London, Blow was invited to participate in the 1958 Venice Biennale. Her work was gaining wider recognition with the acquisition by New York’s MOMA of Winter, a composition in oil, sawdust and gauze, and Space and Matter by the Tate. A part-time lecturing post under the professorship of Carel Weight at the Royal College of Art marked the start of a 15-year teaching career. Her students during the early days of her tenure included David Hockney and R B Kitaj. In 1961 Blow was awarded second place in the John Moores Painting Prize with Sphere Alabaster. It was around this time that she introduced Roger Hilton to her friend Rose Phipps, who was to become his second wife.
In 1962 Blow moved to a studio in Sydney Close, Chelsea, where she was to live and work until 1994. Her earlier impastoed surfaces gave way to canvases of refinement, in which tea and ash were applied in subtle sweeping motions, inducing a mood of contemplation. The arching wave-like motif would recur in later paintings. While always prioritising structure over colour, Blow admitted that the introduction of brighter tones derived from exposure to the intense pop art hues of the 1960s. Another influence was African art. Her fascination for its asymmetry, the antithesis of the classical Greek style, led to the introduction of an element of tension into her mature work.
Tea and Ash
1966 Tea, ash and acrylic on canvas
102 x 91cm
Courtesy of The Sandra Blow Estate
In 1978 Blow was elected a Royal Academician. From then on until her death her work was shown each year at the Academy’s summer exhibition where, in 1988, the ‘wave’ motif of the 1960s reached its apotheosis in a burst of joyful colour. Vivace’s debut at the Royal Academy that year was a wild gestural celebration of red. The spontaneity of the free-flowing V-shape was achieved by initially laying the canvas on the floor, throwing a bucket of paint onto it and directing the flow with a broom or mop. The impact of the explosion was tempered by the bright collaged strips characteristic of the palette of Blow’s mature years. Victor Pasmore described Vivace as ‘a masterpiece of Action Painting … by one of the pioneers of the post-war British abstract movement’.
A year later Blow returned to ‘action painting’ with the rhythmic Glad Ocean, whose title evokes the majesty of the deep. Even more monumental than Vivace, its exuberance is mediated by the interrupted border – a feature of her work which is often lost in reproduction. The great swathes of blue evoke a spirit of carnival, while a sense of structure is maintained by the considered application of shards of collage.
Glad Ocean
1989 Acrylic and collage on canvas 260 x 366cm Courtesy of The Sandra Blow Estate
1994 was a momentous year, in which Blow was honoured with a Royal Academy retrospective. Later that year, rising property values pushed up rental costs, forcing her to give up her London studio. After much soul-searching, she decided to return permanently to Cornwall. Since her sojourn of 1957/8, she had maintained strong links with her friends in the artistic community there, especially Rose Hilton. Soon after her arrival, she took the opportunity of working from one of the historic Porthmeor studios in St Ives, at that time in a considerable state of disrepair. The following year she participated in ‘Porthmeor Beach : A Century of Images’ at Tate St Ives. Although spacious, No. 9 Porthmeor could not accommodate her largest canvases, so she moved to an industrial unit on Penbeagle estate, where a number of her artworks were irreparably damaged by damp. Despite increasing illhealth, the drive to continue working and exhibiting led her to seek out a location where she could comfortably live and work.
Behind a pair of wooden gates in a quiet street in St Ives lies Bullans Court. Originally a stable block, the plot subsequently housed a dairy distribution point, then a carpet warehouse, before lapsing into a state of disrepair. Its transformation by the artist in 1999 involved a substantial amount of building and restoration work. The history of the property is brought to life once a week by Jon Grimble. He and artist Denny Long knew Sandra well from the 1990s onwards and both are executors of her estate. I was lucky enough to be able to join his tour on a busy day in August. Bullans Court was Blow’s attempt to ‘re-create Italy in St Ives’ said Jon. The original part of the building became her living quarters, incorporating a first floor terrace filled with colourful flowering plants, vines and tomatoes. Onto this a substantial L-shaped extension was added, forming the studio and an annexe. The three-sided complex encloses an entrance courtyard, creating a feeling of seclusion.
A lovely light airy space with French windows along its length, the studio currently houses six monumental canvases. The atmosphere is very much one of a working studio, with dozens of pots and tubes of paint and pieces of coloured paper strewn across various surfaces, as if the artist had just popped out for a moment. High up on the wall at one end is a small window, accessed via a staircase beyond, from where Sandra was able to gain a different perspective on the canvases below. This ‘bird’s eye’ view, along with the polaroids, would often prompt her to rotate a canvas (with the help of her studio assistant) in order to achieve what she described as a ‘startling rightness’. Blow confessed that she had difficulty choosing titles for her works, as she did not think of them in terms of words. Sometimes an appropriate title would not suggest itself to her until a painting was en route to an exhibition. And during these years the exhibitions continued, perhaps the most highly acclaimed being ‘Sandra Blow : Space and Matter’ at Tate St Ives in 2001.
A modest room off the studio was described by Jon as her ‘doodles room’. This intimate space evokes the clutter of a busy artist’s everyday life. Above a small desk is a notice board covered with sketches, annotated with ‘to do’ lists and reminders. The room has remained untouched since her death. A selection of outer garments on display reveals Sandra’s love of texture and design - and her flamboyance. A dramatic striped Vivienne Westwood jacket was acquired specially for the celebration of Rose Hilton’s 75th birthday party. She wore this stylish garment only once. Just a few days later, on 22 August 2006, Sandra Blow died, aged 80.
The artist was held in great esteem by those who knew her. Jon Grimble conveyed the impression of a warm and generous friend with a great sense of fun, who continues to be greatly missed. In her paintings and in her Bullans Court studio, the spirit of this hero lives on.
1992/3 Screenprint 122 x 122cm (each) Courtesy of The Sandra Blow Estate
© 2014 Helen Hoyle
Tours of Bullans Court take place most Thursdays at 11 a.m. by appointment only.
tel. 01736 756006 or email
My grateful thanks to the executors of the Sandra Blow Estate for permission to reproduce selected images.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Amongst Heroes ~ Royal Cornwall Museum

We live in an age of equal rights. Female stars of stage or screen, once known as actresses, are nowadays more usually described as actors. While the word ‘seamster’ exists in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, I have yet to come across a male version of a seamstress (though ‘tailor’ is still in use). But ‘hero’ has for some time transcended gender barriers, and I was heartened to see that a number of women, both artists and subjects, are included in ‘Amongst Heroes’. My particular interest in the representation of women in art attracted me to three images from an exhibition which highlights the lives of the ordinary working people of Cornwall over a century ago.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Morag Ballard at Lemon Street Gallery, Truro

Approaching Lemon Street Gallery one morning in January, I had a feeling that Morag Ballard’s first solo show in Truro would surprise and delight me. I was not disappointed. The pristine white walls of Gallery One provide the perfect backdrop to her striking artworks. Spare, clean lines on curved boards or undulating surfaces induce a feeling of calm, while reliefs and collages set out to tease - and challenge - the eye, oscillating between the two- and three-dimensional. Geometric form takes precedence over colour, yet the shimmering hues, meticulously applied, imbue the canvases with a lively rhythm. In some of her works, the manipulation of perspective is reminiscent of an Escher drawing. Mesmerised, I found it difficult to turn my attention elsewhere. Yet the abiding impression is one of balance and harmony. The show continues until 8th March, in celebration of the work of an artist who, up until recently, has attracted more attention in London than the south west.
South Facing 2008 ~ Oil on canvas 30 x 40 in
Visiting Morag a couple of weeks later, I received a warm welcome and a reviving mug of coffee, and felt relieved to be protected from the approaching February storm. She works from a studio in the heart of Penzance. Light and airy, with a lofty ceiling and breathtaking views taking in the wide sweep of Mounts Bay, this space has provided the artist with a wonderful working environment since 2003.
Morag was born in London and remembers being fascinated by shapes from a very early age, endlessly drawing and colouring them in. After leaving school she had a spell in Italy as an au pair. Returning to London, she became a student at Chelsea School of Art, then discovered sculpture at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham. Her studies there brought her into contact with leading figures such as Richard Deacon and Antony Gormley. Experimenting with plaster, string and fabric, she produced bold and individual installations.
Italy beckoned again when, in 1986, she was awarded a student internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. The experience made a powerful impression on her. Here she had the opportunity to absorb works by the Russian Constructivists, the paintings of Jean Helion and the intriguing assemblages of the American sculptor Joseph Cornell. Here also she met her future husband Alan Kingsbury, who had moved to Venice to pursue a painting career. Their relationship prompted him to review his plans, and the couple spent the next five years developing their art practice in south west Scotland.
Coast Wind 1989
Box construction
17 x 7 x 2¼ in.
1990 marked the start of Ballard’s long association with England & Co, a London gallery noted for exhibiting installations and box constructions. A mixed show entitled ‘Boxes & Totems’ included Quoit, a box construction showing the influence of Cornell, which Ballard created in 1989. A series of solo and mixed shows at England & Co followed, charting her artistic development over the next two decades. In a catalogue essay of 1991, Sister Wendy Beckett declared that ‘her boxes and constructions delight by their enchanting freedom of invention ... she has a special gift for luminous use of white and her colour has a sober joyousness ...’
Quoit 1989
Box construction
7 x 11 x 2¼ in.
After holidaying in Cornwall, Ballard and her husband found that the county’s magic had worked its way into their hearts, so in 1991 they left Scotland to begin a new life in west Penwith. The responsibility of bringing up their son and daughter over the next few years restricted Ballard’s opportunities for unfettered creative expression, though she continued to exhibit successfully in Exeter, Plymouth and London.

Shoreline 2000/2001 ~ Oil on canvas 12 x 18 in.
The interrelationship between the two- and three-dimensional, as expressed in the language of constructivism, has always been at the core of Ballard’s art practice. After her move to Cornwall, elements of the landscape and coastline of the south-west peninsula began to infuse an art practice in tune with the essence of post-war St Ives abstraction, yet transmuted through her personal vision.
More recent canvases reflect a fascination for the forms of man-made features and their relationship with the natural world, expressed through curvilinear planes and soaring spirals which bestow energy and vigour. Ballard’s acquaintance with a specific place can offer what she describes as ‘a structural drama’. This provides the basis for an artwork which comes into being after a long period of contemplation and exploration. During this time elements are selected, dissected and re-arranged with the aim of creating a harmonious composition, as aesthetically pleasing as listening to a piece of music.
Carcassone 2003 ~ Oil on canvas 40 x 50 in.
The evolution of her work has coincided with continued representation in London – most notably at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, Cadogan Contemporary, and a series of London Art Fairs. In the autumn of 2013 two of Ballard’s canvases were selected by Liz Anderson, art editor of ‘The Spectator’, for inclusion in ‘The Discerning Eye’ at the Mall Galleries.
As I was leaving Morag’s studio she showed me the prototype for a new artwork with moving parts, which perhaps signals a change of direction - and a fresh challenge - for this artist of formidable powers. But we may have to be patient. Ballard can spend several years on an artwork before she considers it complete. Indeed, she pointed out a canvas on the wall which was exhibited in 2007, and which she is currently planning to re-visit.
Torque 2004
Oil on board
10 x 7 in.
During my research for this article, I consulted Peter Davies’ authoritative book, St Ives 1975-2005: Art Colony in Transition. The front cover is illustrated with a painting which embodies the spirit of abstraction in Cornwall during the post-modern period. That image is Noon by Morag Ballard. The text highlights the fact that, while drawing on the legacy of Barbara Hepworth and John Wells, she has taken inspiration also from continental purism. In his earlier book, St Ives Revisited, Davies writes that ‘Ballard achieves a rare distinction ... by reverting back to, and revitalising, the language of that earlier era’.
Noon 2003
Oil on canvas
10 x 12 in.
Her current Lemon Street Gallery show places Ballard among an illustrious roll-call of artists who have exhibited there in recent years. These include the late Sandra Blow and Paul Feiler, and contemporary artists Kurt Jackson and Neil Canning. Each has made his or her mark in building on the legacy of abstraction in Cornwall. To me, it seems entirely fitting that Morag Ballard should have joined their ranks.
Equation 2010 ~ Oil on board 6 x 8 in.
© 2014 Helen Hoyle
Morag Ballard’s work can be seen at Lemon Street Gallery and on her website at
Further reading:
St Ives Revisited: Innovators and Followers by Peter Davies (1994)
St Ives 1975-2005: Art Colony in Transition by Peter Davies (2007)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Barbara Tribe Revisited

Thirteen years after she died, and on the centenary of her birth in 1913, a collection of drawings by Barbara Tribe has found its way back to Cornwall. The portfolio was acquired by a private collector from an Oxford gallery in 2009.
Although best known as a sculptor, Tribe’s ability in other media was formidable. As I have written elsewhere after her husband’s death in 1961, she added ceramics to her repertoire of talents, creating some memorable pieces in that medium. But her drawings, like those of Barbara Hepworth, have always held a particular fascination for me, and I am delighted to be able to reproduce a selection of them here.
Grazing Cow
Barbara Tribe took her subjects from her surroundings. The domestic animals which she loved to sketch would have been very much part of the landscape of west Penwith where she and her husband, John Singleman, made their home after the Second World War. With just a few strokes of the pencil, the artist has captured perfectly the sense of the cow’s movement, and its endearing expression.
John Singleman –
my Husband

This is a touching and affectionate portrait in ink, made just three years before John Singleman’s death.
Old Mrs Perry
This is one of several ink drawings of the old lady. This version is particularly appealing as her substantial, broad-shouldered figure almost obscures the chair on which she sits. The solid hand lying heavily on the table before her tells us that she is no shrinking violet. Mrs Perry’s expression speaks of a life of hardship, yet she retains an air of quiet dignity.
This is Barbara in playful mood. These delicately drawn anthropomorphic creatures are engaged in a beautifully choreographed dance.
Malinee - Thailand
Although undated, I would guess that this image in graphite on rice paper would have been drawn during the early 1970s, during one of Tribe’s visits to Thailand. Malinee was the daughter of Thai friends, who accompanied the artist back to the UK and posed for her on a number of occasions.
Spider, Caterpillar & Fuschia
Caterpillar & Fuschia
These two paintings in gouache encapsulate the theme of organic growth which was so close to the artist’s heart.
The complete collection of over 50 artworks can be seen at the Hayle Gallery.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Margaret Mellis and St Ives Modernism

Margaret Mellis spent only seven years in Cornwall, yet this period would prove the most formative in a long and wide-ranging career. Fear of impending war brought her to Carbis Bay, near St Ives, in 1939 and the breakup of her marriage in 1946 drove her away.
Of course Mellis was not alone in finding sanctuary in the south west, but she and her husband, the painter and critic Adrian Stokes, were the first of their Hampstead circle to move to Cornwall.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Open Studios Cornwall 2013
Margaret Deans and Julia Cooper

Colour has always been a catalyst for Margaret Deans, and is also linked to turning points in her life. Formerly a garden designer, her experience of bereavement signalled a turning away from the pastel shades she had loved. Bright, vibrant colours began to dominate her planting schemes. Some years later, during a prolonged and uncertain period of recovery from illness, she took up painting. From then on, colour became a life-affirming element of the creative process.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Summer in February
Art in Lamorna ~ 1910-1914
Penlee House Gallery

Summer in February, Jonathan Smith’s novel relating the turbulent events in Lamorna on the eve of the First World War, is an absorbing read. A film of the same title is due to be released in the UK later this year. Penlee House’s latest offering is a beautifully crafted show which links the two, locating both book and film within the context of a unique artistic community whose members are pictured at work and play.

The exhibition was opened last week by Jonathan Smith, who has written the screenplay for the film adaptation. A window display at the Gallery’s entrance includes stills from the forthcoming film, together with the wedding dress worn by the actor Emily Browning.

A delicately rendered landscape in watercolour entitled ‘The Moor’ testifies to the fact that Florence Carter Wood came to Cornwall to study art. This image, a rare canvas by the aspiring painter, is the first of many visual delights which offer an intimate look into the lives of the Lamorna artists and their friends during the closing years of the Edwardian era. ‘Lamorna Cove’ below, by one of the earliest residents of the valley, Samuel ‘Lamorna’ Birch, is undated yet conveys the atmosphere of an era of innocence which was soon to disappear forever.
Samuel John Lamorna Birch (1869 – 1955)
Lamorna Cove
date unknown
Oil on canvas,
28 x 19 cm
Private Collection, image courtesy Messums
© The Artist’s Estate

The community had grown since the founding in 1899 of the Forbes School of Painting in nearby Newlyn. The active involvement of Stanhope Forbes’ wife Elizabeth made the school particularly appealing to women seeking art tuition, and Florence was one of several female students attracted by its reputation. A further incentive for Florence was the fact that her brother Joey was already studying under Stanhope Forbes. Among her fellow students she found companionship and acquired the unflattering nickname ‘Blote’.

Much of the detail of Florence’s life remains undocumented. She is best known as the subject of a number of portraits by the artists of Lamorna. A pair of oils by Harold Knight (one dated 1911) show her in profile, a fine-looking young woman in her early twenties, whose bearing is somewhat aloof. Those who knew Florence found her introverted and prone to depression. Harold was a man of few words who enjoyed working quietly in his studio, so it is likely that the two were comfortable in each other’s company. Laura Knight, while deeply committed to her art, was in many respects the opposite of her husband. She was an extrovert and loved being part of a social circle whose pursuit of pleasure included a great deal of late-night revelry, in which the flamboyant Alfred (AJ) Munnings played a conspicuous role.
Harold Knight (1874 – 1961)
Portrait of Florence
1911 Oil on canvas
74 x 61.5cm
Private Collection
© Reproduced with the permission of
the Estate of Dame Laura Knight
DBE RA 2013 All Rights Reserved.

Florence’s quiet beauty proved irresistible to Alfred, with whom she shared a love of riding. She proved ideal as a model for his equestrian paintings, most famously in ‘The Morning Ride’ on loan for this exhibition, which forms the cover image of Jonathan Smith’s novel.
Alfred Munnings (1878 – 1959)
The Morning Ride
c.1912 Oil on canvas
51.5 x 61.5 cm
Private Collection,
c/o Christie’s Images Limited (2000) © Estate of Sir Alfred Munnings. All rights reserved, DACS 2013

The narrative of Summer in February unfolds from the point of view of Captain Gilbert Evans, who kept diaries of his time in Lamorna. The highly respected and well-liked local land agent, he was torn between loyalty towards his friend Alfred Munnings and his growing love for Florence, in whom he found a kindred spirit. But his lack of confidence prevented him from declaring his feelings for her, and he was devastated when the pair announced their engagement. It was evident not only to Gilbert that Alfred and Florence had little in common. They were considered an ill-matched couple by Lamorna Birch, and by the Knights. Beneath his brash charm Munnings could be insensitive and cruel. Spending a great deal of time away in London or visiting his family roots in Suffolk, he led the life of a carefree bachelor, leaving Florence behind in Lamorna, where Gilbert could be relied upon to keep her spirits up. Gilbert and Florence were in the habit of taking walks together in the beautiful Lamorna valley or along the clifftops, and it was one of these occasions, described in his diary as taking place on a ‘summer’s day’ but dated in February, which inspired the title for the book.

The companion piece to ‘The Morning Ride’ is ‘Portrait of Florence Munnings at Sunset’ by her husband, painted soon after their marriage. Clad in a pale flowing dress, the subject sits atop a stone wall, scarcely distinguishable from her surroundings, flecked with the last rays of the dying sun. The loosely applied brushwork lends her form a remote, ethereal quality.
Alfred Munnings (1878 – 1959)
Portrait of
Florence Munnings at Sunset

1912 Oil on canvas
53 x 61 cm
Private Collection
© Estate of Sir Alfred Munnings.
All rights reserved, DACS 2013

Florence was already deeply unhappy in her marriage. During Alfred’s frequent absences she and Gilbert found solace in each other’s company. Gilbert’s background comes to life in the exhibition through photographs of him posed with fellow players in the 1st XV rugby team at school (c.1899) and later as a member of the Monmouth Militia. Displayed in a cabinet are his medals, including those awarded for service during the Boer War. Also on show are his regimental sword and his fishing rod.

Although his love affair with Florence remained a secret to all but a few, Gilbert was finding the situation intolerable. Early in 1914 he resolved to resign from his job in Lamorna, to join the colonial service in Nigeria. On the eve of his departure, he and Florence met in London. A poignant memento of this occasion was retained by Gilbert. It is the receipt for their lunch, headed ‘14.4.1914, Trocadero Restaurant, Piccadilly Circus’. Afterwards, Florence accompanied him to Paddington Station, where they parted. His diary continues the narrative: ‘I went to the train alone and very sad.’ Later, he added: ‘This was the last time I saw her alive.’

No longer able to bear her husband’s dismissive attitude towards her, Florence Munnings took her own life on 24 July 1914. A few weeks later Gilbert Evans received the news in Nigeria. In September 1914 Britain was plunged into war with Germany. The sorrow borne by Florence’s family was compounded when Joey Carter Wood was killed in battle in France the following year.

In her autobiography ‘Oil Paint and Grease Paint’ Laura Knight referred to the tragedy thus: ‘Suddenly the death of a much-loved member of our colony put an end to all joy.’

In 1920 Alfred Munnings married Violet McBride, a renowned horsewoman. In later life he wrote an autobiography in three volumes, in which there is no mention of Florence.

Gilbert Evans became the Deputy Surveyor General of Nigeria. There he met his future wife, Joan, with whom he had two sons. He retired in 1933 and returned to Lamorna, where he died in 1966.

Gilbert was not an artist, and yet the exhibition is infused with his quiet spirit. A selection of artworks given to him by his artist friends testifies to his popularity. A watercolour entitled ‘A Winter Landscape’ was a Christmas present from Joey Carter Wood in 1913. Flanked by Harold Knight’s portraits of Florence, described above, is a beautifully understated charcoal drawing on paper entitled simply ‘Florence’. The signature ‘MCF’ indicates that the artist was her fellow student Madeleine ‘Madge’ Fawkes. This gift to Gilbert from their mutual friend was discovered years after his death, carefully concealed behind a framed drawing of a fisher boy. After Florence died Alfred Munnings, in acknowledgement of his friend’s relationship with her, left ‘The Morning Ride’ with the Knights - a gift for Gilbert on his return. This must have been a bitter-sweet moment for the recipient.

Laura Knight was one of the most prominent members of the Lamorna community. Professional models and friends would pose for her in all sorts of weather conditions, as she loved nothing better than to paint ‘en plein-air’. A large canvas ‘The Flower’ depicts four female figures out of doors. One is believed to be the professional model, Dolly Snell, while the figure on the right is presumed to be Florence. Prior to the outbreak of war Knight developed a fascination for the ballet and theatre. ‘The Dancer’, a work in oil on paper, was given to Gilbert at this time.

A close friend to both the Knights was the beautiful Ella Naper. The show includes nude photographs of Ella, taken on Bodmin Moor, which were used by Harold for his numerous portraits of her. Alongside is one of the products of a joint artistic venture – Laura and Ella’s tiny, delicate ‘Dancer’ in enamel.

Ella, a ceramicist and maker of exquisite jewellery, is the subject of Laura Knight’s ‘Self & Nude’. Painted in 1913, it attracted a great deal of controversy as it was the first time a woman artist had depicted herself with a nude. The painting was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1971 and is one of their most treasured artworks. Alison Bevan, director of Penlee House Gallery, told me: ‘We have tried to borrow ‘Self & Nude’ on several previous occasions, without success, so we are absolutely delighted finally to have been able to bring it back to Cornwall. It is such a stunning painting and is particularly relevant for this show not only because it depicts two of the close friends of the story’s main protagonists (Laura Knight and Ella Naper), but its production was marked by a party, a souvenir of which appears in Gilbert Evans’s scrap book, on show as part of the exhibition.’
Laura Knight (1877 – 1970)
Self Portrait and Nude aka The Model
1913 Oil on canvas
152.4 x 127.6 cm
National Portrait Gallery
© Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2013.
All Rights Reserved.

This show provides a unique opportunity to see the iconic ‘Self & Nude’ in the context of its time and locality. It also gives film lovers a chance to gain an insight into the fascinating story of the protagonists of Summer in February. Starring Dominic Cooper and Dan Stevens, the film will be released in the UK on 14 June. The exhibition at Penlee House continues until 8 June.

© 2013 Helen Hoyle

Further reading : Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995)
A Painter Laureate ~ Lamorna Birch and his Circle by Austin Wormleighton (1995)

My new blog: Dates in Women's Art