The woman with the severe hairstyle in the black and white photograph, palette in hand, standing on the bottom rung of a ladder as she prepares to put the finishing touches to a Cornish seaside scene of children and fishing boats, is the highly regarded Staithes Group painter Laura Knight.
It was taken, as we can see from the signature and date in her own hand at bottom left, in 1910 and although, at the age of 33, she was already on the path to recognition as one of the most successful and popular painters in Britain, it was another 19 years before she was to be the first artist created a Dame and a further seven before she was the first woman elected to the Royal Academy since its foundation in 1768.
The image, together with preparatory sketches for other paintings and a copy of Janet Dunbar’s 1975 biography Laura Knight, has surfaced at Special Auction Services, of Newbury, Berkshire, with the artist’s (almost certainly unfinished) 1911 portrait, Ella, depicting her friend, the artist and artists’ model Ella Louise Naper. By the time you read this, the lot will have been sold, probably for £4,000-£6,000, which would have been much more if the painting was entirely finished. I’ll let you know next week.
Ella and associated items were consigned by a vendor from a nearby Berkshire town who sold another Knight painting through Sotheby’s some years ago and whose grandmother, Blanche A Thomas, was a friend of the artist. Blanche taught Laura Knight to sing and to play the piano and, in return, the artist gave her some of her paintings.
Some oils by Blanche, together with memorabilia including a copy of a letter from Knight to the family on Blanche’s death, were also being sold by Special Auction Services.
n A footnote on the artist and model Ella Naper: in 1913 she posed for Self Portrait with Nude, showing the independent-minded Knight painting her friend naked – a first for a woman artist. The picture shocked the art establishment, with one critic deriding it as “vulgar” and The Times, even 25 years later, describing it as “regrettable”.
Yet for many it was a breath of fresh air, a graphic declaration that women artists were entitled to paint on the same terms as men. It certainly made a star of Knight, who first visited the picturesque fishing village of Staithes near Whitby in the 1890s as Laura Johnson and later settled there with her husband, fellow artist Harold Knight.