Standing on Tregurnow cliff top above Flagstaff Cottage looking down into Lamorna Cove, the bay sweeps off to the east to the headland of Carn Du. On the hillside facing are quarry workings, and the two isolated houses under them, the smaller being the old Quarry Count House, remain today as when Laura Knight painted them at the end of the Great War. In the nineteenth-century granite from these quarries was taken from the little harbour, or by huge horse-drawn wagons via Kemyel down to Penzance, for onward shipment to Tilbury and use in the construction of the Thames Embankment.
This activity was far from her thoughts however when the artist first scanned the surface of the sea on a warm day in 1917. A dated watercolour shows the view, with the tide out and the harbour crane projecting into the picture from the right. Following this, the present work, painted en plein air, excludes the edge of the harbour and concentrates upon the mesmerising pool of colour that has come in with the tide. 'The little bay', she recalled, had been 'turned to gold by the reflection of the sun shining on the cliff above ...it was an excessively bright canvas'. This interlude was so memorable that Knight could not erase it from her mind and in London, 'during one black foggy week by electric light' in the winter of 1919-20 she recreated it on a large scale as Lamorna Cove for the following Royal Academy exhibition.
It is evident from both canvases that the artist's essential preoccupation lay in the myriad hues of sunlight reflected on the surface of the sea. From Tregurnow clifftop one was looking into a pool of shimmering colours. The task lay in representing this ever-changing kaleidoscope. It was a fascination she shared with others. Monet for instance had found a similar challenge on the cliffs at Pourville and Belle-Isle during the 1880s, but arguably even his seascapes lack the luminosity of the present work.
Knight responds to depth, surface, and tidal currents that sweep reflections across the bay employing the full register from yellow and pale green through emerald and ultramarine to mauve and deep purple. The cloudless sky, daringly cut from the composition is ever-present in touches of cerulean. Warm notes of raw sienna reflect the colour of the rocks while the edge of the shore is formed by the staccato strokes of white boulders, echoing William Orpen's pre-war beach scenes painted at Howth Head.
In the larger version the sense of space and distance is achieved by the addition of swimmers and a small rowing boat. The pier-head is re-instated on the right and the sea more densely worked in an effort to retrieve the vital freshness of the present canvas. Here there are no such spatial cues to bring scale and perspective to the surface of the water - only acute observation, alterations of handling and the radiant moment of inspiration.
Since her days at Staithes in Yorkshire Knight had essentially been a coastal genre painter and the move to Cornwall was predicated on the idea that this would develop in a new, more congenial setting. Children playing in the sand and in rock pools (see lot 38) become explorers of a lost domain, and the rocks themselves - Carn Du and Carn Bargis - that flank the cove, provide protection to this shimmering pool. The poet Arthur Symons who visited the area around Land's End for a series of articles in The Saturday Review in 1905 was equally impressed by 'untamed' nature of the scenery, describing it as 'a rough playmate, without pity or kindness, wild, boisterous, and laughing'. Some of this 'ebullient vitality' infused Knight's work making her want to paint the whole world'. However, lapping into the cove, the ocean brought its own unique colour melody. As Symons rightly observed, 'there is a thirst of sight which must wait unsatisfied until the eyes drink the sea'.
1 John Croft points out that three works with this title are known - that exhibited at the Royal Academy was dated c. 1912, but this should have read c. 1917. The size of the 1965 exhibit was given as 20 x 24 in.
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.