Working the Knight shift

The picture shows two ballet dancers standing side by side looking on as they wait to begin rehearsing. One is flexing her leg, while the other pulls a colourful shawl around her shoulders. In the background other dancers can be seen warming up.

Artist Sarah Pickstone in her studio  Picture: Dorothee Gillessen
Artist Sarah Pickstone in her studio Picture: Dorothee Gillessen

This eloquent image – Ready for Rehearsal by Dame Laura Knight painted in the late 1930s – is the inspiration for a new exhibition of paintings by London-based artist Sarah Pickstone which opens at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate today.

Pickstone was invited by curator Jane Sellars to make a new body of work in response to the gallery’s collection. “They have some wonderful paintings there,” says Pickstone. “And I found this beautiful piece by Laura Knight. I liked the fact that the girls in the painting are quite sturdy and don’t look like the usual idea we have of ballerinas.”

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Pickstone was also intrigued by Knight as a person and an artist. Born in 1877, she worked across a range of media becoming one of the most popular painters in Britain and was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy since its foundation in 1768. The major retrospective of her work at the Academy in 1965, five years before her death, was also the first for a woman.

Sarah Pickstone at work on a new collection of work inspired by paintings by Dame Laura Knight

She and her artist husband Harold were founder members of the Staithes group on the Yorkshire coast but she was known particularly for her work depicting the theatre and ballet worlds in London, painting many of the dancers in the Ballet Russes. During the Second World War she was contracted by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee on short-term commissions and in 1946 spent three months observing the war crimes trials in Nuremberg from inside the courtroom. The result was the large painting Nuremberg Trial.

“I didn’t know very much about her and I was fascinated by her as a person,” says Pickstone. “There was something about her work ethic, her lack of ego. I was interested by the fact that she managed to have such an illustrious career as a woman at that time, so the show is really about Laura Knight as a role model as well as ballet which is a bit like painting in that it is a non-verbal art form. I decided to explore the ballet theme because it is an interesting image of femininity.”

Following in Knight’s footsteps Pickstone went to watch ballet performances as a starting point for some of her pieces. “I went to see The Rite of Spring at the Royal Opera House, which I was very moved by, and a couple of my paintings look back to that,” she says. “I was trying to get inside Laura Knight’s head. I have made a subtly comedic painting which has lots of legs in it and the legs are based on those of the girls in her painting. The other ballet I went to see was Manon which is about a young girl who is caught between her own desires and a world waiting for her to make a mistake.”

Those visits inspired two large paintings in the exhibition – Spring (Show Your Workings) and Manon. In the first Pickstone says she is exploring adolescence and also the idea that painting is akin to dance, about gesture and joy, while in Manon there are two figures, Manon and her lover Des Grieux, dancing but not quite connecting, which she describes as being about “not getting it right and practise and play.”

Dame Laura Knight's Ready for Rehearsal which has inspired a new collection of work by Sarah Pickstone

Pickstone says that in all the works she also wanted to convey the notion inherent in rehearsal of practising something, so that there is always the possibility of imperfection. “The paintings are quite abstract, pulled apart, minimal and raw,” she says. “They are very unfinished looking because I wanted to get across that sense of something not quite working.”

Also on display in the gallery will be earlier work by Pickstone from her Writers Series which drew on the lives of women writers who had a connection to Regent’s Park in London, a place where she often goes herself to sketch.

One of the paintings in the series is Stevie Smith and the Willow which won Pickstone the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize in 2012 and was inspired by the poet Stevie Smith’s illustration to accompany her famous 1957 poem Not Waving but Drowning.

Other writers featured in the series include Katharine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen, Sylvia Plath, Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf. “What I was interested in looking at was the creative processes of the women,” says Pickstone. “For example, with Virginia Woolf, I tried to imagine her standing next to the lake at Regent’s Park. There is a scene in her novel Mrs Dalloway where she walks up and down a certain path that you can still walk on today. I tried to think about how she made that work, which is quite broken up and non-sequential, so with the painting I tried to borrow from the structures in her writing.”

A lot of Pickstone’s work develops out of an interest in the written word. “I am not a particularly literary person but I do find it really helpful with my work to read,” she says. “That’s why I am so happy to be coming to Harrogate because of the great literary connections in the area, particularly with the Brontës; and Jane Sellars has a great reputation for championing the work of women artists. It has definitely been a really interesting exploration for me.”

• Sarah Pickstone: The Rehearsal and The Writers Series are on show at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, until July 5.