PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF MIRIAM U. HOOVER, GLENCOE, ILLINOIS
In 1928 Knight painted a large picture of circus life Charivari, The Grand Parade (Newport Museum & Art Gallery, Gwent) with performing elephants and pie-bald ponies, trapeze artists and tight-rope walkers, clowns and acrobats, stilt-walkers and contortionists. It was painted as a commission for a Major Atherley who was a circus enthusiastic and wanted a painting that showed almost every element of the modern circus. Knight was told that it was impossible to paint but she embraced the challenge and painted a picture that is animated and amusing but it is not a successful composition, being a series of vignettes which do not work together as a cohesive image. While she worked on Charivari Knight also painted a more naturalistic view of circus life, entitled Motley. It depicted the wings of the circus with the beautiful dancer Barbara Bonnar dressed in white taffeta as Columbine, preparing to go on, her dresser making a few last-minute alterations to her petticoats. Beside her was the famous clown Whimsical Walker, now in his eighth decade and still wearing the costume he had worn for twenty years and holding a string of sausages and a stuffed duck (the costume and props are now in the collection of the London Museum). Balancing the composition on the left side was the masked figure of a boy named Van Lukas dressed as Harlequin with other circus performers lit by the glare of the flood-lights.
Motley was painted in Knight’s studio at 1 Queens Road which she transformed into a dressing room for the circus-stars who had finished their season at Olympia in Kensington but stayed in London to pose for the picture. An Irishwoman called Nan Kearns, who was posing as the dresser and would later become a film actress, fed everyone with food from the Cookery School on the Finchley Road. The studio was crowded and alive with chatter as Knight worked, Whimsical Walker regaling everyone with his tales of stage life. In the chapter titled “Motley” in her brilliant autobiography, Knight described this time; ‘I tried to dissociate myself from the gaiety, but it was overwhelming. The young people were having the time of their lives, and Nan in her Irish way drove her load of fun over us all like a car or Juggernaut.’ (Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, 1936, p.316)
Motley was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1930 but due to its large size it did not find a buyer. It was returned to Knight’s studio and she reduced it in size by removing the figures of the clown and the harlequin and the lower portion of the picture to create a more intimate scene. A year later when Earl Hoover, the vacuum-cleaner magnate, lent his newly acquired painting The Dancer and the Dressmaker (sold in these rooms 12 July 2018, lot 80) to an exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Knight offered to lend him Motley to fill the vacant place on his wall. It was a clever move on Knight’s part as Hoover decided to keep both pictures and they remained in the collection until earlier this year when his widow passed away.
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