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At the Edge of the Cliff

At the Edge of the Cliff
signed 'Laura Knight' (lower left)
oil on canvas
23 x 28 in. (58.4 x 71.1 cm.)
Painted circa 1917
Possibly, with The Leicester Galleries, London, 1917.
Mrs R.J. Boyd, by 1940.
Ernest Brown & Phillips at The Leicester Galleries; Christie's, London, 2 August 1940, lot 122, as On the Edge of the Cliff (23 gns to Mitchell).
with N. Mitchell Fine Art Gallery, London.
with David Messum, The Studio, Marlow, 1988.
Private Collection, UK.
with Richard Green, London, 1999, from whom purchased by the present owner.
L. Wortley, British Impressionism. A Garden of Bright Images, London, 1988, p. 272, illustrated.
R. Pilcher, Coming Home, London, 1995, p. 387.
V. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Oxford World's Classics, Oxford, 2008, illustrated on front cover.
B. Hawthorne, Rosamunde Pilcher's Cornwall, Wellington, 2019, p. 90.
D. Tovey, 'Marjorie Taylor - Pinning down the Pin-up', The Flagstaff, issue no. 48, Winter 2021, p. 13, illustrated.
F. Blanchard & A. Spira (eds), Laura Knight, A Panoramic View, exh. cat., London, 2021, p. 44, illustrated.
Marlow, David Messum, British Impressions, 1988, no. 91.
Leyburn, Tennants, Light & Shadow, 24 - 30 November 2018, no. 22.
Penzance, Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Laura Knight: A Celebration, 17 May - 16 September 2021, unnumbered.
Milton Keynes, MK Gallery, Laura Knight, A Panoramic View, 9 October 2021 - 20 February 2022, unnumbered.
Nottingham, Nottingham Castle, Laura Knight & Caroline Walker: A female gaze, 19 March - 5 June 2022, unnumbered.
Special notice

Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

Brought to you by

Alastair Plumb
Alastair Plumb Specialist, Head of Sale, European Art

Lot Essay

In 1907 the young and very talented Laura Knight and her husband Harold moved to Newlyn in Cornwall to join the artists’ colony there, attracted by the light, space and freedom that the setting provided. Following the example of the French Impressionists Laura gathered her canvases and paints and set off along the coastline and into the countryside in order to paint ‘en plein air’. Hiring her own models, often local girls such as Phyliss Crocker and Marjorie Taylor or fellow artists like Florence Carter-Wood and Dod Proctor, Knight captured them in real life settings rather than posed in a studio, creating a feeling of spontaneity, for instance in In the Field (fig. 1, 1912, Private Collection).
Whilst her early Cornish scenes display an increasing use of loose impressionistic brushstrokes, thick impasto and a light and uplifting palette, they still retain an Edwardian feel in their costumes and outlook (fig. 2, The Beach, c.1909, The Laing Gallery, Newcastle). However, with the visit of Augustus John and his partner Dorelia McNeil in 1913, these fashions soon changed. This young bohemian couple, fresh from the Slade School of Art, appeared from London brimming with ideas and modernity. Dorelia’s loose-fitting clothing with shorter hemlines and more practical shapes had a huge impact on the women of the Colony who soon abandoned their long, cumbersome dresses for more contemporary designs. The change in sartorial fashion is reflected and recorded in Laura’s paintings from this period, which show a shift in style around the outbreak of the First World War.
The arrival of war in 1914, coupled shortly afterwards with the suicide of Florence Carter-Wood, the first wife of Alfred Munnings and a close friend of the Knights, had a lasting impact on both Harold and Laura. Life in Lamorna was no longer the ‘carefree... sunlit pleasure’ it had been before. Laura’s first autobiography Oil Paint and Grease Paint (London, 1936 and 1941) simply states ‘Lamorna was no longer the “Happy Valley”’ (p. 206). The couple suffered from bouts of ill health and the impact of the war with its ‘total destruction of safety and security as we had previously known’ took its toll. The outbreak of war had a more practical impact on the life of the Cornish artists - between 1914-8 the War Office placed restrictions and regulations on artists in coastal areas, preventing them from painting outdoors. Forced indoors to their studios, artists such as Harold Harvey altered their subject matter to domestic settings and the interior life, and others, like Henry Scott Tuke, lost most of their models to the front. The absence of young men is also reflected in the series of paintings that Laura produced during this period, which solely feature female models.
By the end of 1915 Laura had obtained a special permit from the government that allowed her to paint outdoors, and the period 1916-7 saw a frenzied outburst of creativity inspired by this renewed coastal access. The series of clifftop and coastal paintings that she produced over these years are some of her most renowned and best-loved paintings. Featuring women clothed in ‘modern’ dress, often colourful and always practical, on the clifftops above Lamorna Cove the paintings share a strong aesthetic and the same sensibility. The women often face away from the viewer, either looking out to sea as in At the Edge of the Cliff, and The Cornish Coast (fig. 3, 1917, National Museum Wales), or absorbed in their occupations such as in On the Cliffs (1917, Private Collection). The air of introspection and contemplation that this creates reflects the preoccupations of the time with the ongoing conflict across the water in Belgium and France and the rising death toll and sense of loss. It can be argued that these women represent the artist – a modern young woman full of life and vigour appreciating the beauty of her surroundings but with a growing sense of concern about the world she inhabits.
At the Edge of the Cliff is one of the strongest works in this clifftop series. The young woman in her striking striped blue and white skirt and white jumper has a timeless quality to her, her outfit feeling as modern to a contemporary audience as it did over 100 years ago. She stands on the cliffs at the top of Lamorna Cove, gazing out at the turquoise and deep blue sea, lost in thought. Given access to a hut on the cliffs by Colonel Paynter in which to store her canvases and paints, Knight painted in situ, writing of climbing ‘along the cliff edge and over the slippery rocks every day carrying six-foot canvases on my head.’ She used bold strokes of colour painted wet onto wet in order to create expressive impasto and to add a vibrancy and immediacy to the paint.
The model for the painting has been identified as Marjorie Taylor, a local girl born in 1900 to a Penzance coal merchant, John Taylor and his wife Theodora. After their marriage broke down Theodora and the children moved to Cliff Cottage, Lamorna supported by Theodora’s brother Tom Beckerleg, the manager of Bolitho’s Bank in Penzance. With her long dark hair, often worn in plaits, and her beautiful features Marjorie soon became a favourite model for artists such as Laura Knight and Alfred Munnings (Marjory (A Girl on Horseback), 1913, Private Collection).
At the Edge of the Cliff entered a private collection in the early 20th century, only reappearing on the market three times since it was painted, in 1940 at auction, and then at Messums in the 1980s and Richard Green Gallery in the 1990s. Its selection for inclusion in all three recent Laura Knight exhibitions that took place at Penlee Art Gallery in 2021, MK Gallery from 2021-2, and Nottingham Castle in early 2022, is testament to its importance in Knight’s oeuvre and its enduring popularity. Perhaps the painting’s most unusual claim to fame is that a print was owned by the author Rosamunde Pilcher and she featured it as the talismanic picture the aspiring artist Gus carries a copy of in his pocket in her novel Coming Home.
The painting is to be included in the catalogue raisonné of Dame Laura Knight currently being compiled by R John Croft FCA, the great-nephew of the artist.

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