Around 1913, before she painted her monumental Self-Portrait with Nude (fig. 1), Laura Knight purchased a long red hand-knitted "cardigan" at a fair in Penzance. This celebrated garment, known as "The Cornish Scarlet", was worn by the artist and habitually handed out to models when a vivid color note was required for a composition. It features so prominently in the center of two versions of The Fairground, Penzance that it has been claimed that the figure wearing it is the artist – albeit a younger self.1 The fun fair in question was a regular event at Penzance in Cornwall.
Knight is likely to have been introduced to the idea of painting The Fairground, Penzance by her friend, Alfred James Munnings (see lots 67-68), who had been painting similar country fairs since the early years of the century. His reputation as a "hell-raiser" went before him and his sudden arrival at Lamorna Cove in 1911 was greeted with much excitement. During the next three years, as he commuted between Cornwall, London and his native Suffolk, he encouraged Knight to broaden the range of her work and this was evident by the time she and her husband, Harold Knight, staged their joint exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in April 1914.
At first the outbreak of war did not impede her artistic development or production, but when in November 1915, she broke her ankle it presaged more dramatic changes.2 Her recovery in 1916 was signaled by Spring (fig. 2, Tate, London), the major Academy-piece of that year, and then, by the versions of The Fair, of which the present is the larger.3 It is likely that it was painted specifically for the forthcoming Autumn Exhibition in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, where the artist had been invited to stage a small retrospective of over forty works in Room VII. The local newspaper commented on her "wonderful vigor" and "sense of color which places her apart from her contemporaries"; many artists do not survive such a test, but "Mrs. Knight does not suffer but gains from her collective exhibit."4
Travelling fairgrounds, carnivals, circuses and side shows, often operated by gypsies, were, of course, a common feature of English towns and villages at the turn of the twentieth century. Many, such as that at Penzance, had venerable histories.5 As is clear from the present work, the roundabout or "Merry-go-Round" was the most popular feature of such events, although, as we see in the background of the present work, acrobat and clown performances on makeshift platforms were not uncommon. One would also encounter peddlars, beer-sellers and individuals performing card-tricks, as here, in the foreground. The attraction of such an occasion for the artist lay obviously in a crowd that might contain all types of fun-seeking visitor. These should be grouped and connected to draw the eye. For all their seeming serendipity, the pleasure-seekers at Knight’s Fair are no random miscellany.
The work proved seminal; other pictures of fairgrounds, such as Ernest Procter’s The Merry-go-Round, 1924 (Private Collection), would be impossible without it. Yet its impact on Knight herself was to be highly significant. The ‘Cornish Scarlet’ reappears in a celebrated series of clifftop pictures in 1917 (fig. 3), and of course, she would much later take to the road, following a travelling circus. But first, back in these eventful war years, she was commissioned to paint the Canadian troops in training at Witley Camp – a task she undertook with typical gusto. In the moment of respite and recuperation, before this occurred, when nomads and natives come together at Penzance Fair, there was a unique and exhilarating social microcosm to draw the eye.
1 Caroline Fox, Dame Laura Knight, 1988, Oxford, p. 34-6.
2 Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, Autobiography of Laura Knight, London, 1941, vol. 2, p. 211-2; Barbara C. Morden, Laura Knight, A Life, Carmarthen, Wales, 2014, p. 123-4.
3 The smaller variant, measuring 46 by 59 1/2 in. (117 by 151 cm), shows an identical setting and the same central figure. Other foreground figures are however completely different, and their grouping, less satisfactory, with the odd intrusion of a carved figurehead, presumably intended to represent a section of the fairground booth that provides the artist’s viewpoint.
4 "Liverpool Autumn Exhibition – Third Notice," Liverpool Post and Mercury, October 17, 1916, p. 7.
5 Penzance Fair dates back to the fourteenth century.