‘Laura was undoubtedly happiest when painting informal scenes backstage or dancers in their dressing rooms… Her dressing-room paintings express this joy in her surroundings…’ Caroline Fox, Dame Laura Knight, 1988, p.52
'...this painting displays no self-conscious artifice. The dancer is caught mid-glance looking left, her body arrested in movement, while her dresser fixes a flounce on her skirt. Notwithstanding the delicate colour harmonies, the pink tights and ballet shoes and petal-like net of the skirt, here there is authority, power and control.’ Barbara C. Morden, Laura Knight – A Life, 2013, pp.173-174
Laura Knight loved the ballet and had a particular fascination with the backstage rituals of the performers which she captured with the intimacy and sensitivity of someone who was closely observing and being inspired by not just the starlight and glamour but also the more domestic aspects of stage life. The Ballet Girl and the Dressmaker was commissioned by the vacuum-cleaner millionaire. H. Earl Hoover in 1930 when he visited Knight’s studio and saw her last ballet picture, entitled Motley and showing a dancer and clowns in the wings being prepared to take to the stage. Motley was too large for Hoover so he asked Knight to paint him a similar back-stage scene. Knight designed a clever composition; ‘…of two interlacing pyramids. To me it is more difficult to arrange two equally important figures together than three. However, my pyramids worked and the picture went through from start to finish without the slightest alteration, one of those lucky ones that paint themselves without disagreement with the painter.’ (Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint,1936, p.322) The model was a dancer named Barbara Bonnar; ‘…a vital and sparkling young creature, [who] was rehearsing for a show at the time and many of the sittings had to take place in the early morning before she went to the theatre.’ (op.cit Knight, p.322). A detailed figure drawing for the painting is in the collection of Nottingham City Art Gallery. The artist’s own dressmaker, Miss Fergusson, posed for the woman making the alterations to the dress; ‘her hands and type were perfect.’ (op.cit Knight, p.322). The picture was originally intended to hang in the office of the new headquarters of Hoover’s business in Chicago but Hoover was so delighted with it that he decided to hang it in pride of place at home. It has remained there ever since.
When the painting was exhibited at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg it was reproduced in several newspapers which made it briefly famous across America and beyond. Knight was particularly delighted to receive a letter from Harry Backhouse of The Ranchmens Club in Calgary, Canada; ‘The spelling is exact – almost too wonderful to be actually written by a cowboy. It was, I know, quite genuine, a tribute that warms my heart whenever I think of it. I value that letter and shall always keep it.’ (op.cit Knight, p.324). The letter reads; ‘Me and Alkali Alf and Cottonwood Bill an the Cow Foreman ave just been drinkin of your ealth in ‘The Bucket of Blood.’ We’ve come to the conclusion that you be all right an if ever you be in the Great Open Spaces where men are men you must ave a glass of beer along o’ we. We be just a lot of ignorant undedicated cow-punchers an pologrooms, without book larnin, an we know nothing about eyebrow art critickism. In them circumstances you won’t feel flattered when we tell you that you done a dam good job when you painted that pitcher ‘Ballet Girl an Dressmaker.’ Alkali Alf sez that the drorin an the modelling o’ them features an them limbs is good enough for Mike Angello or Rembrandt… The Cow Foreman sez the Ballet Girl be a helluva swell-looking jane with the right kind o’ legs for topping off bronks and the face such as only grows on gals wot as quite the right sort of savvy. An the dressmaker? Yes! Wot abart er? Cottonwood Bill wot wos born in Derbysher, which is a dam good place to be born in, sez that dressmaker be a dam capable woman. You can tell she be absoloot master of er job. Cottonwood zes she be the sort of dame wot ud look after er man and bring er kids up respectable… Eres to you Laura, and we hope that this summer you’ll flabbergast the ole bloomin Royal Academy. An don’t forget we be a watchin of yer.’ (op.cit Knight, pp.224-4)
We are very grateful to Rosie Broadley of the National Portrait Gallery, London for her help with cataloguing this lot.
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