Dame Laura Knight was the first woman artist to be awarded the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1929 and in1936 she became the first woman elected to the Royal Academy. Today she is best known for her striking depictions of the glamorous London ballet, theatre and circus, painting backstage during the Diaghilev ballet's seasons in London and taking lessons at Tillers Dancing Academy in St Martin's Lane in order to draw there. She also travelled with the Mills and Carmos Circus.
An accomplished portrait painter, she painted wartime commissions and was the official artist at the Nuremberg War-Crime Trials. Knight’s roots however lie firmly in the Naturalist tradition of landscape and genre painting, which she first encountered at art school . Whilst studying at Nottingham School of Art, she saw an exhibition at the Nottingham Castle Museum, which included work by Newlyn, St Ives and Falmouth artists. She later recalled that "my favourite picture was Frank Bramley’s Hopeless Dawn. Tears came into my eyes I thought it so wonderful. There was also a little grey picture of Newlyn Bridge by Stanhope Forbes. I did not know anyone could paint like that."
Knight lived and painted in the artist colonies of Staithes in North Yorkshire and Newlyn in Cornwall, before moving to London in 1919. Her time outside the capital allowed her to develop her style, reaching maturity during her time in Cornwall. Her subject matter shared the concerns of the plein-airist Newlyn, Staithes and Glasgow school of painters – to depict the everyday life of the rural population, whilst her technique was a loose naturalistic one, with acute awareness of light, the increasing use of bright colour and vigorous brushwork. This approach was in sharp contrast to many of the Academic paintings still shown at the Royal Academy each year, often depicting imagined historical or mythological subject matter in a highly finished and classically modelled technique. Artist Alfred Thornton, who was secretary of the New English Art Club, where many Newlyn and Glasgow artists exhibited described its exhibitions thus: "Into a hothouse of sentimentality in the late ‘eighties it blew again the fresh breath of the open air, of the vitality of the thing seen, of reality faced and its beauty sought out."
The above painting perfectly demonstrates the height of Knight’s development in Cornwall, and is part of a series of paintings she composed between 1915 and 1919 all sharing an elevated viewpoint, dramatic diagonal composition, vibrant colour and the subject of ordinary country folk’s daily work. It most likely shows Sennen Cove, not far from Land’s End and Lamorna Cove, where Knight also liked to paint. The owner of the land at Lamorna, Colonel Paynter built a small wooden hut for her on the cliffs in which to store her canvases and materials and to offer shelter when the weather was inclement. Knight insisted on painting en plein air and only placed the finishing touches to her works in the studio. The bay is purposefully painted from a very high viewpoint, laying out the cove below in a dynamic diagonal composition which pulls the viewer into the pictorial space and guides them around the curve of the lapping water. The strong light sharply outlines the lines in the sand, which are picked out further by textured impasto. The backbreaking work of gathering seaweed is set against a scene of dramatic natural beauty, the shimmering waves lapping and the vibrant green on the shore.