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How to read it: Dame Laura Knight RA’s ‘Ella Naper in the Apple Orchard at Trewoolfe’

Published 6 January 2020

Dame Laura Knight RA was denied access to nude models throughout her studies. In Cornwall, she found the freedom and the friends to make up for lost time.

  • So who was Ella Naper?

    Dame Laura Knight RA moved to Cornwall in 1907 to join the artists’ colony at Newlyn. This was a period of incredible creative output for Knight, making drawings and paintings with relentless energy. It was also where she met her neighbour, Ella Naper.

    They became friends and Naper modelled nude for paintings such as Self Portrait (The Model) (National Portrait Gallery), painted in 1913. Naper was an artist and jeweller and collaborated with Knight on painted jewellery and enamel plaques such as Two Dancers.

  • Trewoolfe: the place to get away from it all?

    Trewoolfe is near Lamorna in the westernmost part of Cornwall. Ella Naper and her husband, the painter Charles Naper, lived at Trewoolfe House.

    Another artist living at Lamorna was Knight’s great friend Lamorna Birch. Birch renamed himself ‘Lamorna’ as there was another artist called Lionel Birch. Knight painted a large group of him and his family which was started in 1916 and then reworked for the 1934 Summer Exhibition.

  • Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, 1934

    Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, 1934

    Dame Laura Knight standing in front of her painting ‘Lamorna Birch and his Daughters’ in Gallery IV on Members’ Varnishing Day. Dame Laura Knight was the first women elected as a Royal Academician, in 1936.

    Photographed by The Topical Press Agency. Photo: Collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • What effect did moving to Cornwall have on Laura Knight?

    Laura Knight and her husband Harold moved down to Cornwall from Yorkshire partly because they thought that there would be more daylight hours in which to paint.

    They weren’t wrong, but they also found the move had more benefits than more light. She recalled though in her autobiography that they discovered a new “carefree life of sunlit pleasure, and leisurely study.”

    They enjoyed socialising with a new group of artists and Knight’s palette significantly brightened. She started painting new subjects including figures on the clifftops or by the sea, and finally decided that she wanted to learn to paint the nude figure.

  • Why did Knight want to draw people in the nude?

    Knight studied at Nottingham School of Art from the age of thirteen but throughout her studies she was denied access to nude models. In the Life class she was only allowed to draw or paint a head or a draped model.

    In Cornwall Knight decided that she wanted to master drawing and painting the nude. Local models were reluctant to pose in the nude so she hired models from London, often dancers, or occasionally used her friend Ella Naper.

    • Is that why she presented Dawn as her Diploma Work to the Royal Academy?

      When elected to the RA in 1936 Knight chose to present as her Diploma Work a painting titled Dawn which depicts two semi-nude women. It is likely that this was a critique of the exclusion of women from the Life Room and a demonstration of her mastery of the nude.

      Knight enjoyed capturing the physical strength of her subjects and often drew and painted ballet dancers. The dark-haired woman in Dawn is the dancer Barbara Bonner.

      Dame Laura Knight RA, Dawn

      Dame Laura Knight RA, Dawn, 1932-33.

  • Want to find out more about Laura Knight and her life in Cornwall? You can see more of Knight’s works in our free display Laura Knight RA: A Working Life in the Tennant Gallery at the Royal Academy until 2 February 2020.