Laura Knight and her husband Harold were central to the Cornish community of Lamorna and Newlyn between 1907 and 1918. According to their friend Norman Garstin, the move to Cornwall from Yorkshire precipitated in the work of both husband and wife ‘an utter change in both their outlook and method: they at once plunged into a riot of brilliant sunshine of opulent colour and sensuous gaiety.’ (quoted in Caroline Fox, Dame Laura Knight, 1988, p.28) Janet Dunbar has more recently explained ‘the conditions were perfect: continual sun with varying cloud effects. The models had beautiful figures, and she herself felt gloriously well and strong, ready to work from dawn to dusk’ (Janet Dunbar, Laura Knight, 1975, p.84.
The Picnic relates closely to Harold Knight’s The Sonnet of 1911 (unlocated, possibly destroyed). Both pictures capture the artistic environment in Cornwall in those pre-war years, when long hot days were spent reading poetry and painting in flower-filled meadows beside azure sea, sipping tea from porcelain cups and beer from chilled bottles carried up the hillside from Lamorna Cove in wicker baskets by the group of young men and women. These were carefree and inspiring times when ambitions were high and large pictures were painted without a care about whether buyers had room for them.
The models for the figures in The Picnic demonstrate the close camaraderie of Cornwall in those years. The face of the younger girl was based upon Elizabeth ‘Mornie’ Birch, the eldest daughter of the Knight’s friend, the painter Samuel John Lamorna Birch and his wife ‘Mouse’. Born in 1904 at Flagstaff Cottage in Lamorna, she lived her entire life in Cornwall and died in the same house that she was born, in 1990. She appears with her sister and father in a wonderful painting by Knight begun in 1913 and completed in 1933 (Djanogly Art Gallery, University of Nottingham) on the banks of the stream that her father often painted. The male figure lying in the grass and reading poetry to the young listeners in The Picnic, is a likeness of the charismatic artist Alfred Munnings who often accompanied the Knights on their painting excursions and was a constant companion in those years. He also appears in Harold Knight’s The Sonnet, reading poetry to another appreciative female audience, including his future wife Florence Carter Wood a marriage which was unhappy and led to her tragic death.
In 1965 Smith tested Knight’s memory when he asked who had posed for the beautiful figure of the seated woman with golden hair and white gown in The Picnic – she replied; ‘The third person in the picture was one of three models, who out of work in London during the summer months, were employed during that season posing for Harold Knight and me. I wish I could remember her name, but it is a long time ago. She was quite a beautiful creature and a charming girl. I am sorry to say I lost touch with her when she returned home. World war II came to be in a few years time. At such times many breaks in friendships occur. Lets hope she was happily married with children of her own to care for and love.’ (letter from Knight to Smith, dated 2 October 1965). The three models that Knight referred to were Dolly Snell, Dolly O’Henry and Beatrice Stuart. It is unlikely that the girl in The Picnic was Dolly Snell, a former Tiller-girl who married Knight’s brother Edgar; presumably Knight would recall the name of her sister-in-law. We can also rule out Dolly O’Henry, as Knight is unlikely to have forgotten that she was tragically murdered by her jealous lover John Currie; she appears in Marsh Mallows of 1914 (sold Sotheby’s, New York, 22 May 2018, lot 12). Therefore the model was presumably Beatrice Stuart, a popular artist’s model in London who had posed for many painters including Dod Proctor, Frank Dicksee, John Singer Sargent, Alfred Munnings and Augustus John. She was also the model for the figure of Peace driving a quadriga in the bronze group by Adrian Jones’ on Decimus Burton’s Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner. Knight described her with much affection, as ‘a beautiful young creature…by her grace and poise, as well as by her activity and apparent ease in climbing rocks on the Cornish shore, few people knew her terrible loss.’ When she was seventeen she suffered from a bone disease which led to the loss of a leg.
The rediscovery of The Picnic is important in understanding the ambitions that Knight had during those inspiring years in Cornwall. It is a utopian idea of life in which beautiful people idle long hot summers in meadows filled with the perfumes of wild-flowers and sea air. In only a couple of years this fragile idyll would be shattered by war but in Knight's painting the summer endures forever.
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