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Gallery flies a kite for Laura by bringing home painting after a century in Africa

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: June 26, 2012

  • A detail of Flying A Kite by Laura Knight, which is on show at Penlee House

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There are close on 60 very good reasons, all of them drawn or painted by Dame Laura Knight, for seeing the latest exhibition at Penzance's Penlee House Gallery and Museum.

The first major show of her work to be held in the land of which she was so fond, In The Open Air consists mainly of landscapes, hence the exhibition title. However, it also contains two large canvases that would, in themselves, be worth going that extra mile to see.

Flying A Kite is a landscape. Used as the cover illustration for Elizabeth Knowles' excellent book, In The Open Air, published by Sansom & Company at £24.95, it was painted in Newlyn and shown at the Royal Academy 1910 when it was bought by Sir George Clausen for the National Gallery of South Africa. It has been in Cape Town ever since.

Laura Knight later wrote: "I did a six foot study out in the wind for that landscape. Every house, farm and field was put in so that Joey Carter Wood would know which it was. I hurled myself in extraordinary abandon on the canvas."

It was energy well spent and resulted in a superb painting in which the artist looks down on Newlyn from Paul Hill towards Penzance. A fascinating work of art which, as well as being filled with movement and bright, breezy sunshine, also contains such a detailed background it is almost an illustrated history of the development of Newlyn and its surroundings.

It has taken Penlee House director Alison Bevan "a year of painstaking negotiations" to secure its loan and she is to be congratulated on having brought it back to where, in a manner of speaking, "it belongs to be".

The second of the two large paintings is The Dock, Nuremburg 1946 and although completely different is equally striking. Appointed as a war correspondent, Laura Knight had access to the BBC's box which was situated just above those being tried for their war crimes. She witnessed the trials of all the leading Nazis, including Herman Goering, Rudolph Hess, Joachim von Rippentrop and Karl Doenitz.

An experience which affected her deeply, she later wrote: "It seemed to me that every corner of that city told its own poignant and terrible story."

As well as those in the dock, their guards and court officials, the painting also includes an impression of war-torn Nuremburg burning – "a landscape of desolation floating above the courtroom like a shared nightmare".

A consummate artist, the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy and the first artist to be made a Dame Commander of the British Empire, it is intriguing to note that, although married for many years to Harold Knight, a considerable artist in his own right, she was held in such regard that in a 1913 issue of The Cornishman the couple were described as "Mr and Mrs Laura Knight". It is a reminder of what a celebrity Dame Laura was in her time.

With such Cornish landscapes as The Beach, Sennen Cove, The China Clay Pit and A Summer's Day At The Rock Pool, plus those made in Yorkshire, London and the Malvern Hills, not forgetting her studies of members of the gypsy community, this exhibition pays a splendid tribute to the prolificness, professionalism and prowess of one of this country's leading 20th century artists.

Sponsored by Messum's Gallery, In The Open Air is at Penlee House Gallery & Museum in Penzance until September 8. It is open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm. Admission is £4.50 for adults, £3 for concessions, under-18s free, and free to all on Saturdays.

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