When they moved from Staithes in Yorkshire to west Cornwall, the Knights famously 'plunged into a riot of brilliant sunshine, of opulent colour and of sensuous gaiety'.
For Laura in particular their new surroundings provided the carefree atmosphere she had not enjoyed as a child. It was a liberation: she had, she declared, 'never known the joys of youth before' and at that time '...the very bright of life [sic] beamed on us'. Not long after their arrival at Newlyn they became friendly with Samuel John 'Lamorna' Birch, the landscape painter, and by 1910 were gravitating towards his stamping ground, Lamorna Cove, where the high cliffs and secluded rock pools were an endless source of attraction. Here Laura employed imported London models to pose for Daughters of the Sun, a large canvas destined for the Royal Academy of 1911. It was, according to The Manchester Guardian as 'a killing picture', a paean to light and sensuality that was greatly admired. There was nevertheless a contradiction at its heart. Realism and idealism sat uncomfortably together. In a naturalistic setting the Grecian pose of the central figure seemed out of place, and although the picture toured extensively, it remained unsold, was later damaged and finally dismembered. The success and failure of this project acted as a spur to Knight's long sequence of coastal scenes painted during the early years of the Great War and in its immediate aftermath.
Rocky inlets deep enough to bathe in continually caught her eye. The massive formations of interlocking granite slabs which characterise the area were, according to Arthur Symons, 'great blocks and columns,...fitted and clamped like cyclopean architecture... Bathers in these pools became, in a sense, unfinished business. Smaller works, modelled by the children of fellow artists, Frank Gascoigne Heath and his wife, Jessica, seemed more satisfactory in that they reported on real life. Children do edge gingerly into the water. Its depth and temperature must be tested. Even on a sunny day it could be notoriously cool and a secure footing beyond the reach of sea creatures has to be found. All this acuity of observation is concentrated in Bathing, the present picture, in which a girl in bright red cap lowers herself into the water. It extends to a series that includes, The Bathing Pool, A Summer's Day by the Rock Pool, Divers and The Dark Pool.
Also painted at this time it shows an unidentified naked model, seated on the rocks gazing down into the pool. Laura's lively impressionistic touch, in her husband's work, is becalmed. The water is unruffled and Harold's nude, lost in thought. Critics of the day, Norman Garstin and Herbert Furst were much preoccupied by the differences of temperament in this artistic marriage. Garstin christened them 'binery stars' but fought shy of expanding on his theme in 1912. Furst was bolder in 1917, declaring that while Harold 'quietly pursues his problems with great knowledge and competence', Laura reacted to 'the here-and-now, the at-once...' One has, looking at her work, the conviction that she paints for the joy of life and painting. She seems unconscious of her technique, which is merely an expression of her joy, and so all her work has a poetic quality.
It has often been pointed out that such hedonistic pictures give no sense of the all-enveloping conflict on the Western Front. It touched the Heath family directly in that the girl's father was gassed in 1915 and returned from the trenches suffering from cerebral meningitis from which he never completely recovered. But nor can this flight from the brutality of war be considered an evasion. It was for D.H. Lawrence, that other great Nottinghamshire artist, fleeing the 'ugly triviality' of life, a 'new world with a new thin unsullied air'.
Laura's models, children bathing or wrapped in towels, her girls clad in cardigans and stout cube-heel shoes, are removed from the ugly triviality of modern life. They loiter at the end of the world, literally land's end, stare into dark pools and their talk is carried away on the breeze. The experience was unforgettable. Arguably it sustained the painter through difficult times. In later years when they had set up home in Langford Place, St John's Wood, she looked back with great fondness to these times - 'Nostalgia' she said, comes each spring in London, for the rain, the mist, for the mud and dung, for thick shoes and a mackintosh, for the glory that is Cornwall, the mystic Cornwall that goes to people's heads...'
We are grateful to John Croft, F.C.A., the artist's great nephew, for his help in researching this picture, which will appear in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Dame Laura Knight.