Exhibition Review: Virginia Woolf


The view of Godrevy Lighthouse (which inspired To the Lighthouse) from the hotel.

Last weekend I went all the way to St Ives in Cornwall with some friends for a fabulous time visiting the Virginia Woolf exhibition currently on at Tate St Ives. It’s the perfect place to explore Woolf’s ideas, landscape and feminist consciousness; St Ives is well known as an artists’ place, with its light and landscape which has inspired so many; and Woolf wrote so fondly of the inspiration and happiness provided by her early summers spent at Talland House (which we sought out, of course). A Londoner by birth, Woolf writes Cornwall into several of her novels, including Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. She wrote that

‘I went for a walk in Regent’s Park yesterday morning, and it suddenly struck me how absurd it was to stay in London, with Cornwall going on all the time,’ she records of her sudden train journey from London to Cornwall in 1909. I have been walking along the sands and sitting in the sun… I am so drugged with fresh air that I can’t write…As for the beauty of this place it surpasses every other season.

As someone who frequently feels the urge to hop on the Penzance train instead of going home at the end of a long day, I understand completely. For Woolf, Cornwall offered a kind of freedom from the social life and claustrophobia of London (which, equally, she


Talland House

thrived on), and this and so much more is reflected in the exhibition. Woolf’s life and work are situated in a web of cultural forms, from art to bookbinding, home furnishings to sculpture, and of course she had close ties to the women’s suffrage movement and wrote passionately about women’s creativity and education. This exhibition, then, in the year in which we mark 100 years of women’s suffrage, is particularly significant, and all the more so because it only features women’s work. Over the last decade attention has repeatedly been drawn to studies about the under-representation of women artists, and this has been repeatedly ignored, but here is an exhibition that makes a wonderful attempt to redress the balance.


(c) artcornwall.org

The show offers, consequently, an insight into the changing landscape of women’s lives over the last 100 years. Many of these insights are internal: there are some of Vanessa Bell’s wonderful still lives, which seem to echo Woolf’s novels is so many ways, as well as furnishing fabrics, ceramics and portraits. From Gwen John’s uncompromising stare in her self-portrait to Laura Knight’s The Dark Pool (one of my favourite paintings, but which does not appear in the catalogue, sadly), to photographs of Dora Carrington as a ‘living sculpture’, unconventional creative women are celebrated throughout. There are several wonderful ‘windowsill’ paintings, by Bell, Knight, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and others, which transform a woman’s point of view from a domestic centre by looking outwards. Some are almost mocking in their refusal of domestic life (such as Knight’s Cactus, complete with dead flies), and they indicate both the necessity of a ‘room of one’s own’ along with a denial of ‘traditional’ feminine values.

Woolf argued that, as women, we must ‘think back through our mothers’, indicating the need for a strong female tradition in art and literature to rival that of the male tradition. The exhibition offers a way to do this. Judy Chicago’s setting for Woolf from her famous work The Dinner Party (1978) offers a feminist approach to thinking about female creativity and sexuality, while other exhibits such as Claude Cahun’s fascinating photographic self-portraits explore multiple selves and aspects of gender which seem to echo Woolf’s Orlando. Gluck’s marvellous landscapes, meanwhile, so low and with so much sky, position the woman in the landscape itself. The many contradictions of social, personal and cultural constructions of womanhood are explored in their glorious, confusing multiplicity: women both is and isn’t a part of ‘nature’, for example; womanhood means many things and both is and isn’t an ‘essence’. Women are not necessarily mothers, or nurturing, but what we learn is that women are creative, and perhaps all the more so when this is against the odds. Perhaps women’s work looks different when it is not displayed alongside often larger and showier masculine artworks (although some of these are larger and showier, too!) but in some ways I left feeling that gender is perhaps less important to art than I thought: there are some wonderful works here, demonstrating female excellence in a range of media, and though the public and private faces of womanhood are central to many of them, they are not the only thing that matters.


Gluck, Before the races, St Buryan, Cornwall (1924, private collection)



Laura Knight Portraits

264lk_selfportraitAt the moment the National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition of Laura Knight’s portraits.  There have been quite a few Laura Knight exhibitions over the last few years, including Laura Knight in the Open Air and Laura Knight at the Theatre, plus appearances in Cornish Childhoods, Women War Artists and The Magic of a Line. This exhibition is somewhat different, since it only features portraits, usually of named figures. These portraits, as the exhibition notes point out, are “in the realist, figurative tradition”, demonstrating her “distinctive” approach to portraiture, “bold and compassionate” and “reflecting her experience of modern Britain”. Though these descriptions seem to contain a lot of buzzwords, in fact I tend to agree: there is a remarkable modern colour and life about Knight’s portraits. Still, I have seen several reviews of the exhibition which suggest that Knight’s approach was rather old-fashioned even at the time – that her contemporaries were experimenting with modernism and other isms, which make her recognisable approach seem rather regressive. Looking at this exhibition, I don’t agree. While her work is infrequently experimental, her empathy with her subjects and her expressiveness of style makes her work always interesting, and after all she was hardly the only successful painter not to embrace the art movements of the twentieth century.

The exhibition begins with the famous self-portrait, exhibiting her pleasure in being able to paint nudes after being denied the opportunity at art school. This is accompanied by a lovely, in(c) John Croft; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationformal sketch of Ella Napier, the model for the nude, sitting in a tree. I was interested in her large oil of Lamorna Birch and his daughters, which I don’t recall seeing before: it’s an odd painting, combining a realist style with an impressionistic background. While the painting indicates freedom and an unconventional and happy childhood, the figures are not smiling. Birch, a fellow Newlyn School painter, was a friend of Knight’s and one feels there must be history behind the painting.

The exhibition is divided into sections: Early years and Cornwall; Ballet and Theatre; John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore; Circus; Gypsies; War; The Royal Academy. These show a helpful trajectory in Knight’s life, work and subjects, though as ever the ballet and theatre paintings seem to take centre stage (no pun intended!) These paintings are so detailed, with many, such as her portrait of Lubov Tchernicheva, almost photographic. It is interesting that she paints Tchernicheva not as a dancer but as a knight-laura-1877-1970-united-the-ballerina-lydia-lopokova-1090806fashionable young woman, with sad, soulful eyes, in contrast to her painting of Lydia Lopokova, also a dancer, this time in the act of preparing to dance, looking almost childlike.

Knight’s paintings of gypsies have led to accusations that she abused the trust of her sitters by painting them over and over, but I find it difficult not to be drawn to these images, particularly those of the women, strong but sad, with experiences drawn into every line on their faces. I think Knight is at her most sympathetic as an artist when representing those whose lives have been a struggle, and the sadness of the gypsies’ eyes demonstrate this. There is an inner beauty and strength in many of these women, particularly ‘Freedom’ Smith, in a painting which reminds me of Tess of the D’Urbervilles!264lk_beulah2 And in the war pictures, from “Take Off”, with its focus, concentration and tension, to “Corporal J.M. Robins”, a woman who won a Military Medal for bravery, realism is a necessary part of the picture’s construction and meaning: to say Knight is not avant-garde enough is to miss the point.

Knight is significant for her determination to succeed as a woman artist, not only for finally becoming the Royal Academy’s first full female member, but also her desire to record the experience of women – at work, at war, as mothers. Many of her paintings are deceptively simple, but contain a wealth of meaning and experience behind their bright and vivacious surfaces. While this exhibition may not change your views of Knight’s work, it does bring a large body of her portraiture together and in so doing assemble a strong case for her significance as a twentieth-century painter.

Laura Knight in the Open Air

0467be557c0b8a002975a64818ab4055686bdd5fUntil 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 4110503nature, 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.

Dame+Laura+Knight+-+A+Ballon+Site+Coventry+1943The 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.

Women War Artists

Whilst at the Imperial War Museum, I also took in the exhibition on Women War Artists, which is on until November 27th. It’s quite a small (free) exhibition,  but includes some diverse and interesting paintings that demonstrate aspects of women’s engagement with war throughout the twentieth century. There are paintings which depict women war workers, such as Laura Knight’s famous Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (1943), right, and Flora Lion’s Women’s Canteen (1918), left, as well as some lovely individual portraits by Victoria Monkhouse. Each painting is accompanied by a brief discussion of the role of women as depicted in the painting, making it a very informative exhibition. There are, of course, paintings by women who went into war zones, using the title ‘Official War Artist’, commissioned during the Second World War (before then women could not use this title). Some of the paintings, such as those by Linda Kitson, were actually commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, when she went to the Falklands with the troops – the first time a woman artist had been able to do this. There are other battlefield images, but after the battle: Olive Mudie-Cooke’s images of the Somme and the Italian Front, for example.

Another very moving painting, and very famous, is Laura Knight’s The Nuremburg Trial (1946) – a very powerful painting which combines the stillness of the courtroom with the horrors of war. The pictures included in the exhibition record hospitals, sites of battles, ships, farms, a forge, factories, and the home front, such as Evelyn Dunbar’s The Queue at the Fish Shop (1944), below, a reminder of the hardships of life away from the heat of battle. The exhibition certainly shows an unofficial side to war as well as the development of the professional woman war artist. As the notes to the exhibition say, the cost of war is clearly counted in these pictures: ‘homelessness, exile, occupation, deaths and atrocity’ all feature, as well as experiences of the Blitz.

Cornish Childhoods at Penlee

Today we went to the lovely Penlee House Gallery in Penzance, where the current exhibition, just opened, is A Cornish Childhood: Paintings of Children 1880-1940. The exhibition blurb talks about the lives of children in the county having been recorded by some prominent artists, looking at children’s pastimes from playing on the beach to going to Sunday School. Paintings of children can be a little problematic because of the tendency towards idealization and nostalgia, and it’s true that there is plenty here to provoke nostalgia, but actually the sentimentality is kept to a minimum and there are some very interesting paintings here – both as works of art, and as a collection which documents children’s historical lives in Cornwall.

Laura Knight’s paintings are, of course, well-represented here, with paintings such as In the Sun, Newlyn (1910) (left) which has a wonderful holiday feel to it, and which contrasts interestingly with Dorothea Sharp’s more nostalgic and, dare I say it, slightly twee pictures. Knight’s images of children seem nicely un-posed and relaxed, as though she caught them unawares. Other pictures, such as Jessie Ada Titcomb’s When All the World Was Young, c 1895, are carefully constructed to provide shape to the canvas, with young girls in white dancing in a flower meadow in a rather aestheticised construction that, bizarrely, reminded me of The Dance by Matisse. Some pictures are a little Famous Five, particularly Frank Gascoigne Heath’s paintings of his family at Lamorna, though the children remain real children, not idealized or seeming overly posed or synthesized.

There are many paintings by Harold Harvey in the exhibition, including Wading Ashore (1909), which I like because the child wading looks sunburned and cross at having to carry her sibling, as if making no concession to the painter. Harvey’s remarkable sunlit scene in Apples (1912), the girl’s face screwed up against the bright light, is reminiscent of Ford Madox Brown’s The Pretty Baa Lambs. One of the most striking images of the exhibition, I thought, was Harvey’s The Gate (1919), which shows an almost naive landscape and children, a boy sitting on a gate playing a pipe to two girls. It’s so evocative one can almost hear the music drifting across the fields behind them in the sunlight – and all the more poignant for its date, just after the end of the Great War, when such innocence was to be treasured. There are, of course, pictures here that are less about innocence and more about the lives of Cornish children – collecting firewood, or carrying water; as apprentices, or leading horses. The sadder side of childhood seems apparent in Walter Langley’s paintings, which seem to specialize in wistful looking children, particularly in paintings such as A Fisherman’s Son (1884), in which a small boy sadly contemplates his toy boat, leading the viewer to suspect that he has lost his father to the sea, a theme also present in Memories (1885). This is a very full exhibition, with a wide range of themes relating to childhood, and one which will have a wide appeal, not just to the summer season of holiday-makers, but to those with all kinds of interests in art, too.

The Magic of a Line

The Magic of a Line: Drawings and prints from the Newlyn School artists, Penlee Gallery, Penzance
After visiting the Laura Knight exhibition in Nottingham earlier this year, I’ve been looking forward to this – and it didn’t disappoint. The title of the exhibition is taken from the title of Laura Knight’s autobiography, and nicely suits the works included. Incidentally, this exhibition is part of the Campaign for Drawing’s annual “Big Draw”, to encourage everyone to pick up a pencil, and there was paper and pencils all around the exhibition for anyone who felt so inclined.
Many of the drawings in the early part of the exhibition were by the Birmingham-born Walter Langley, whose Newlyn School drawings display wonderful local flavour and attention to character. “Study for a Daydream” (1884), a portrait of a distracted young girl, had perfect, dreamy eyes, ignoring the viewer. The grainy effects of his lines are put to good use in images of local scenes, and characters such as elderly, weatherbeaten fishermen, whose relationship with the sea is etched in every line of their faces. Langley was clearly particularly interested in the local habitat, exploring the domestic side-effects of the local fishing trade such as wives left at home as their husbands were on the sea, widows and children portrayed inside the bare cottages. The tragedy of life in the area is particularly well-depicted in “Among the Missing”, where a woman, supported by an older woman, reads her husband’s name on the list of the dead. Other pictures such as “Alone” show the desolation after the death of a husband, while “Widowed” shows the young widow cared for by her mother.
The sea provides metaphors for other aspects of life, particularly death. In William Holt Yates Titcomb’s “Piloting her Home”, 1893, an old woman lies in bed, awaiting death with a radiance of divine love and peace on her face, while those around her raise their hands to God. Similarly, Langley’s Study for “The Seas are Quiet” shows an elderly lady lying on pillows, smiling, with the turbulence of her life past.
One of my favourite pictures here was Stanhope Alexander Forbes’s “The Cello Player” – one can almost hear the sonorous music in this dark and thoughtful study. I found this drawing to be more like his wife’s than many of his are: Elizabeth Adela Forbes’s drawings of “The Bakehouse” and “The Cornish Pasty” depict dark interiors, with only the figure in action lit for the viewer, suggested a theatricality in the ‘staging’ of the drawing. I’d not seen her illustrations for King Arthur’s Wood (1904) before, but was struck by their delightful medievalism – the wonderful texture of her other drawings is here used to evoke myth and enchantment. I was also interested in Thomas Cooper Gotch’s Pre-Raphaelite-esque cartoons for “A Mother Enthroned”, in which a mother of many daughters is clearly paralleled to the Virgin Mary. (see painting, left)
Harold Knight didn’t get much of a look-in here, with just a few portraits of almost photographic detail; but beside those of his wife Dame Laura they seem to lack conviction, while her portraits of young women – “Seated Girl Reading”, 1892, “Self Portrait”, etc, have so much life, feeling and movement even in repose. Knight seems to have a gift, in her portraits, for convincing the viewer of the character of the sitter with just a few lines. I was caught by “Madonna”, 1923 – very much of its time, this seems to be an early echo of the later theatrical works by Knight, despite the beatific expression on the Madonna’s face. Few of the works here are theatrical, though there is a wonderful sketch of “George Bernard Shaw Posing for his Bust”, but there are some amazing leaves from her sketchbook, which give an excellent insight into the clean lines she uses for movement and grace in the dancers she later painted – especially the ballerinas’ arms, so hard to capture correctly. I also rather liked “Country Girls” (1926) – especially appealing, I think: three girls seated together, side on; one looks anxiously – or is it slyly? – at the viewer, while the other two gaze unconcernedly into the distance. It’s stylised and of the period, yet still seems so natural.
Somehow I find going to an exhibition of drawings a very different experience to one with paintings – less colour, less large, dramatic paintings, more shadows and darkly intense, small pictures. And there are some perfect gems here.