Until 10th February 2013, Worcester City Art Gallery is hosting this exhibition of works of Laura Knight which are painted outdoors, from large landscapes to sketches of sheep. I don’t think of Knight as an outdoors kind of person, or painter, but this exhibition shows how much of her work is preoccupied with nature, although not perhaps in the same way as other painters. In an interview in 1964, she said that she and her husband, Harold Knight, were ‘great walkers’, and explained that ‘what entranced me most [in the Malverns] were the immense views so detailed with patchwork, with little shapes of field and red roofed farms, cattle in the fields, and hens pecking round the farmyards…’. This explains so much about the subject matter and construction of her paintings: with a few notable exceptions, the paintings in the exhibition depict figures in landscape, often working – hop pickers, fishermen, carthorses, etc.
Of course, Knight is most well known for her paintings of the theatre and for her work as a war artist, both of which in their own ways show people at work, entirely focussed on using their skills. But her paintings of landscape, from Cornwall to the Malvern Hills, do something similar: she seems preoccupied with showing humanity in relation to nature, though usually as quite large figures in the landscape, rather than dwarfed by the natural world. Paintings such as ‘The Cornish Coast’ (1917) are both completely of their time, given the figures’ costumes, and also timeless, of the coastal landscape: this contrast is striking and also pleasing. The selection of pictures in this exhibition also gives one the opportunity to admire Knight’s skill in painting water, fields, the effects of weather and the change of seasons: ‘Autumn Sunset’ and ‘Snow on the Hills’ are excellent examples of this, with the former providing an almost Turneresque effect of light in the sky (unusually: her paintings, even her landscapes, don’t often show very much sky), and the latter inviting the viewer into the snow-covered fields to admire the vista beyond. But though no figures appear in either of these, both show the effect of occupation: ploughed and furrowed fields, a distant train, carefully ordered hedges. Knight’s landscapes are not wild, they are subject to agriculture and to civilisation, though the Malvern Hills in the distance resist such man-made shaping.
The exhibition also displays Knight’s remarkable versatility as an artist: she employs so many media (mostly oils, watercolour and etchings, with a few pencil sketches) and styles: if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t guess that ‘A Balloon Site, Coventry, 1943’ and ‘In the Sun: Newlyn’ (1910) were painted by the same artist (albeit 30 years apart). The exhibition also includes one of her most famous war paintings: ‘The Dock, Nuremburg 1944’, which qualifies for this exhibition, I presume, because of the shattered, war-torn landscapes which appear in the top left of the painting, as if themselves accusing those in the dock for the harm done.
The exhibition closes with a series in a gypsy encampment. Again, Knight’s primary focus is on the figures, rather than their landscape, and here the characterful faces of the subjects almost obliterate the carefully-painted landscapes behind. Yet, the implication is, here are people who are a part of the open-air life, who are in many ways a part of the landscape. Here the similarities to her theatre paintings are most obvious, and here, perhaps, her work seems at its most coherent as a body.
I agree that Laura Knight was busy showing humanity in relation to nature, usually as quite large figures in the landscape. Her images of mothers and children on the beach, and working fishermen for example, were wonderful. The Cornish Coast is just how I loved Knight’s work.
This was possibly less true for paintings where she concentrated on water, empty fields and weather. Turner himself may have faced the same problem – how to engage the viewer with large, empty landscapes using nothing but the amazing light.