Harold KNIGHT (1874-1961)
Portrait of the artist Robert Morson Hughes (1873-1953)
Oil on canvas
102 x 127.5 cm
Exhibited: ‘Artists by Themselves’ 2019 Penlee House Gallery
Provenance: From the Estate of Robert Morson Hughes, thence by descent.
A professional conservator's condition report is available upon request.
In 'The Council' Hughes leans forward, intently facing his good friend the artist Samuel John Lamorna Birch. Birch is expounding an opinion, no doubt upon a war-related subject, whilst three other Lamorna locals around the table look on, including Old Jory, the landlord of the Lamorna Wink where the painting is set.
Knight was an accomplished portraitist and completed numerous commissions, but his sensitive portraits of women differ greatly to many of his male studies, which although technically brilliant, could be dour and lacking in emotional warmth. Rapport, respect or a connection with his subject really mattered.
In this portrait Hughes (Bertie to his friends) looks directly at us out of the painting, with a truly penetrating, almost intimidating gaze. He is life sized, and the full force of his personality is almost simmering upon the canvas. It says: “This is a man of character.” And who are we to argue? It is a painting that demands respect. It is one of Harold Knight's most powerful portraits, and is very much a finished work in its own right.
Prior to the war, life for the Knights in Lamorna had been idyllic, aside from the tragedy of Florence Munnings’s suicide in July 1914, these had been halcyon days in the ‘Happy Valley’ of Cecily Sidgewick’s novels, and Harold had done some of his best work here.
They moved to Lamorna in 1913 when Laura’s career was still developing and although Harold had established himself as a portrait painter, money was still tight for them. They needed to sell paintings to live, unlike their friends and neighbours, the independently wealthy Hughes’.
Robert Morsen Hughes and his wife Eleanor were popular and significant members of the artists group living in pre-war Lamorna. Like the Procters, the Simpsons and several others, they had come to Newlyn to study under Stanhope Forbes, had fallen in love, not just with each other but also Cornwall. They married, stayed, and made their lives there.
Along with the Napers, Sidgewicks, Leaders and the Heaths, the Hughes bought a parcel of land from Colonel Paynter of Boskenna and in 1911, designed and built their own home, 'Chyangweal' above the Lamorna Valley. Eleanor was an accomplished pianist and their home became popular for social gatherings and musical evenings. Along with S J Lamorna Birch and his family, this was a social group of great harmony and friendship.
Although undated, this work was probably painted in 1915 and in the context of that time frame, it is a fascinating portrait. As illustrated by ‘The Council’, war dominated every conversation. Many Lamorna friends and colleagues joined up, and by 1915 there had been tragic deaths and woundings amongst them. This portrait and ‘The Council’ document a point in Harold’s life just before a great emotional shift, because in 1916 Harold declared himself a conscientious objector. It was the start of a period of immense mental and physical strain. Friendships fractured, even long standing friendships with the Sidgewicks and the Birchs were put to the test. Although too old to serve, in 1916 S J Lamorna Birch and Robert Hughes became members of a local volunteer force, guarding Newlyn harbour, and so struggled with Harold’s pacifist stance.
When Knight got his call up papers in 1916, he was asked to explain himself before a tribunal. Unimpressed, they sent him to work as a farm labourer on the Cornish coast. He was alienated by friends and colleagues, writing: '’I have lost the friendship of several people whose friendship I valued, and my career as a portrait painter has been prejudiced by my attitude towards the war I have been compelled to take.’'
It must have been an immensely painful episode for him.
Knight was a quiet, sensitive man, often overshadowed by his brilliant, vivacious artist wife, Laura, but this stance showed immense courage. It took its toll on him both mentally and physically. 'Hoeing', Laura remarked, 'for days on end without seeing a living soul. He was again a sick man.' By 1917, Knight's health had deteriorated to such an extent that he was excused from further labour and returned to painting. After the war they left Cornwall for London, whilst this portrait, arguably one of Harold Knight’s finest, remained in the Lamorna home for which it was painted.
We don’t know whether this work was a gift or a purchase, but other than a three month loan to Penlee House in 2019, this marvellous portrait has hung at Chyangweal for over 100 years and never been exhibited elsewhere.
Sold for £46,000
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