For some time now, I’ve had a half-formed post just hovering there without the words having arrived… All I had to build it on were some photos from the galleries taken on my recent visit to Nottingham Castle Museum in my home city; yet I knew I had something I wanted to say, even though it hadn’t formed yet.
Then, last night, I happened upon a film I’d somehow not heard about, entitled “Summer in February”, about the group of artists that lived in a small painting community in Lamorna, Cornwall, during the early part of the twentieth century.
As I settled down to watch, it was like the threads of my unwritten post pulled together to fill the hole in my own processing. Here, in the film’s subplot, were ‘the Knights’ – Harold and Laura Knight, painters from Nottingham and, to me, the poster-art of my teenage bedroom walls.
So what has now formed as the backbone to this post is the question that, I suppose, had been hanging there all along, at the back of my mind, since my recent revisit to Nottingham’s municipal art gallery: given my upbringing, my background “How was I formed as an artist; what made the artist that is me?”
The film had me background reading Laura Knight’s life and I was reminded she wasn’t from an affluent family at all; in fact, far from it. Born in 1877 in Long Eaton (location of my first dismal summer job, in a bank, having speculatively tried to get a job at the self-same Castle Museum…), her father died soon after her birth and so her mother struggled to raise her and her two sisters whilst teaching part-time at Nottingham School of Art. Laura’s talent was obviously detected quite early as she was enrolled at the school at age 13, without fees to pay, and when her mother became seriously ill two years later, it was Laura who filled in for her lessons. She continued to offer private lessons after her mother died and met one of the school’s most promising students Harold Knight at the school, marrying him in 1903. After some time painting in Yorkshire and overseas, they set up the artist community in Cornwall that is referred to as the Newlyn School.
What really struck me in this incredibly atmospheric film, which transported me into the Newyln artist community as I had always imagined it to have been in my starry-eyed teenage way, was that it depicts Laura and Harold’s home with paintings casually hung on the wall that were the very prints and postcards that were stuck to my wall as the first thing I saw on waking from the age of about 13 until, well, my university years when they were still pinned to the corkboard hanging over my desk. Something about the light that she captured in one of her most classic paintings, “The Beach” (1909), just grabbed my attention and held it there – even at that young age fixated with light captured by a paintbrush – and I would stare at it, lying in my bed, never imagining I would become a painter too; never believing for a moment that it would be possible for me to go after such a reality.
What was I doing, at age 13 (when Laura Knight was already an ‘artisan student’ at Nottingham School of Art, developing her painting technique)? Well, I was at my local Nottingham comprehensive school where most pupils regarded the art lesson as the main opportunity of the week to mess around and throw missiles for an hour or so, where art materials were so basic that painting was done with powder-and-water paints and a fat bristle brush and, if we wanted to make this a thicker consistency, we added washing-up liquid or PVA to the powder when we mixed it but, mostly, the work done was group led and unadventurous.
Fortunately, from a very young age, I loved to draw at home; my huge caran d’ache water-soluable pencil set were my pride and joy, purchased in lieu of easter eggs one year, and my art teacher would exclaim enthusiastically at the detailed drawings I brought in for my homework assignments where I felt somewhat more let off the leash. I spent hours copying other people’s techniques or drawing from magazine pictures and the illustrations that I did for my local history project had my teacher commandeering it to use as his show piece. Whilst I couldn’t do athletics for toffee, my line drawing of somebody hurdling made the cover of the county athletics event programme and I scribbled a few pictures for the school magazine. When I ‘should’ have been nose-deep in teen mags, I was actually collecting the fortnightly ‘Great Artists’ magazine and would slip these carefully into one of the multi-volume binders and my bedroom wall was being steadily filled-in by art postcards – amongst them, Laura Knight.
How did I come across Laura Knight, still popular yet not as mainstream as some other (male) artists? Because, as soon as I was old enough to go into Nottingham on the bus, I started to frequent the Castle Museum, ambling through the long gallery on a Sunday afternoon when other kids were hanging out with boys in the local park – and so, when I went there again the other week, it struck me that so many of the paintings were like the old friends of my adolescence, remembered as clearly as if I’d last been there just yesterday (and it had been quite a while). The art gallery portion of Nottingham Castle – with this very staircase (above) – became one of my ‘happy places’ and, even after I had left and was only back there once or twice a year for visits, my insistence that I ‘had’ to visit the castle would bemuse and bewilder those who had no idea how it had come to hold such a special place in my affections – but it had.
Which then hooks in with that other great nudge I, perhaps subliminally, received around the time I went on to Sixth Form college to take my three A levels in English, History and Philosophy (having dropped the art as a ‘complete waste of time’). I became passionate about the work of that other local-born celebrity, D H Lawrence; fell in love with the colour of his language and the fact I could so relate to it all – the hardship, the hum-drum, the wanting something more than all that, the sheer “Nottingham-ness” of it all and the pull to get away to something that felt more vital, more colourful, more alive. Then – here was another point of relation – through the persona of Paul Morel in “Sons and Lovers’, he talked about visiting Nottingham Castle Museum; more, he had Paul (for all his poverty, his background…) become an aspiring artist and submit a painting into the Castle’s Open Exhibition, win first prize and sell it for 20 guineas!
At the time, I overlooked the act of ‘a seed being planted’ that reading this really was but discern that clearly now; how in creating, in my mind’s eye, a flash image of what the reality of having a painting hung up there, seen and admired would feel like – and of this being accessible ‘even to somebody ordinary, like me’ – I patched together a whole new possibility inside of myself and started cooking it, if on a very low temperature.
This is what the very best of teachers and parents do, every day, for their kids – they plant seeds of limitless possibility and remove mental bollards that suggest areas of achievement are out of bounds to them for this reason or that, or lack of membership to a particular ‘club’. I see now that my encouragement came from two places: a father who laminated and saved every picture I drew for the first few years of my life (insisting I sign them for ‘when I became famous’) and a book written by a Nottingham native who seemed to understand where I was coming from.
This realisation got me, again this morning, looking into the history of the Nottingham Castle open exhibition and I found out this. The first “Exhibition of Works in oil and Watercolour” by Local Artists took place at the Castle on 1st May (my birthday) 1879. It declared its purpose as this:
“the encouragement of local artists and [to give] hopes of advancement in the future. Such an exhibition is of great advantage to the artists themselves, as it brings them into contact with one another’s work, and thus causes an interchange of ideas, apart from bringing them to the Museum to see the works of eminent painters”.
A worthy aim – if a few more years out of reach for me – though I went to any galleries that I could get to under my own steam and immersed myself in those fortnightly magazines that laid out the whole history of art before me in those beautifully colourful pages. Even at university, when I was meant to be studying for an English degree, I would often find myself sidelined into the Art History section of the library and, by then, was making my way further afield to see exhibitions in London, Paris and beyond; but none of that encouragement or opportunity came through school nor, having given up on the art route as a realistic career option, was I likely to find myself part of an art community of which I felt myself to be a participating member…though I seemed to accidentally surround myself with artists as my cohabitees and friends.
It was to be another 20 years after ‘giving up’ art at school, at age 16, before I finally stage dived into the oils I had somehow convinced myself I wasn’t entitled to use because I hadn’t been shown how and then, finally, take part in an Open Exhibition. Yet what 1980s schooling lacked in terms of creating openings and opportunities for me I have, finally, come to terms with as I have perceived all that a ‘lack of training’ has truly gifted to me by allowing me to come at art afresh, approaching it all in my own wholly unschooled and therefore, hopefully, unique way. Everything has perfect timing when we open our eyes to the bigger picture; and so this is the most perfect time for me to be doing this – I know that to the bottom of my soul – and hold no regrets about any so-called ‘lost’ middle years knowing, as I now do from experience, that artists aren’t all made the same way.
A hundred and sixty miles away from the place of my childhood and in the midst of the very different cultural era that has been opened up by the Internet, I find it’s all very different for my daughter’s generation, although in part because that age-old parental instinct (to gain for my child what my own childhood lacked) ensured that I chose her school for its excellent art facilities; so it’s all ‘real’ oil paints and canvases, and so much more, for her – and I am so very glad and delighted to watch her enthusiasm for the unlimited playfulness of art take form; she’s already experimenting in ways that were beyond my imagining at that age.
And that other thing she will have access to, when the time comes in the syllabus, is a life model to work from – and that’s the very first thing I instinctively gained for myself when the years and lost opportunities peeled away and I realised art was my vocation; spending three hours every Friday, for three years, in a group session with a life-model in what was my baptism of fire back into art. So, very interesting to read in Laura Knight’s bio that her painting, now known as “Self Portrait” but originally as “Self Portrait with Nude” (1913) – depicting herself painting a nude model – was her jibe at an art-establishment that still insisted upon women artists working from casts or copying existing drawings rather than working from a live model. The painting was generally considered to be ‘vulgar’ by the art establishment and rejected by the Royal Academy and yet she continued to show it as a finger-in-the eye of that establishment on behalf of the female emancipation movement. Sobering to consider how what is now normal practice for 16 year-old girls working towards exams was so unthinkable or, at best, controversial just 100 years ago and its heartening to see there have been, at least, a few, markers of progress in that time – if not as many as there could have been!
Some things remain as entrenched as they ever were in the art world and, whereas I started out my painting career seeking to measure myself against all the most established benchmarks, I have more recently come to see how some of those benchmarks are no longer ones I consider valid or worthy of placing any focus or importance upon at all (like many entrenched systems of control, they are largely illusions held up by people’s terror at the consequences of not believing in them), having decided that the only benchmark I truly need to adhere to is my own one of ‘am I following my bliss in doing this?’ I have opted out of all the silly little games and glass-ceiling politics that tickle around the edges of the art scene and the first sniff of these will have me heading for the door. Would I have have had the guts to do this if I had come into art two decades earlier, twenty years greener? Probably not and, as with all things in my life, I see perfect timing has been at work like a subtle undercurrent to all that has unfolded and in ways that I am only just starting to be shown.
Ironically, a few years ago, when still trying to hurdle myself over such a benchmark (though knowing I was no good at hurdles, perhaps I should have stayed well away…) I had just dropped some work at the Royal Academy to be considered for their own grand ‘Open’, the Summer Exhibition, when I happened upon a small exhibition of work by A J Munnings, the not-all-that-likable (if genius) protagonist of last night’s film “Summer in February”. Having not been all that familiar with his work beforehand, and never (to my knowledge) having seen it close at hand, I was really taken with this small exhibition and the recollection of it added all new colour to the enjoyment of last night’s film and the coincidence (which I had never really thought about before) of his being based at Lamorna at the same time as the Knights, just before the outbreak of World War I. What was the making of these artists, you sense, was their ability to play with their art, to experiment with it and commune over it with fellow artists in a place where they had the light and scenery to stimulate them and the freedom to do as they pleased, using life models on the beaches and so on, without restrictions or rules. “Summer in February”, with its convoluted love entanglement, does a thorough job of conveying something of what this must have been like in terms of both the positives and the pitfalls.
Its this ability to slip into some sense of the ‘real, domestic’ lives of these artists that makes such films – when well executed (as this one is) – such an enjoyment to me; to see these names behind post-card paintings as real, tangible people with flaws and challenges, heartaches and frustrations – the self-same frustrations and crises of confidence that befall far less well-known artists than these have become; artists just like me. Back to those oh-so familiar paintings on Laura Knight’s wall; I look all around me and what do I see – oil paintings galore, crammed onto every surface of my home. So what makes an artist; the right schooling, a degree, a number of years’ experience under your belt, acceptance into the right exhibitions, money, fame, an intention to paint (even if you never quite get around to it, your inspiration jammed-up, too afraid and self-judgemental or saving it all for retirement – because I know a lot of artists like that)? Or is it the fact you paint like you breathe, you get up in the morning and the longing to pick up your brushes is burning to be released, the fact you live with these canvases as part of your daily reality, tripping over them, casting your eye over them (often furtively, when you’re meant to be doing other things, giving your attention to someone else…) in a way that informs your next best leap towards this place you long to go with your paints that keeps moving and evolving and thrilling you, quite aside from how anybody else reacts to your work. And knowing that the world could shut up shop and all the people disappear…but as long as you are still here and there is paint to be had, you will and must continue using it until the day the paintbrush drops out of your hand.
Here’s some of my very old friends from the Castle Museum Nottingham:
Slideshow of images of work relating to this post via ‘Your Paintings’ from the BBC:
BBC article – interesting background to the true story behind “Summer in February” and how it came to the screen
“Summer in February” is based on a novel by Jonathan Smith
So nice Helen! I enjoyed reading your process of becoming an artist and the painters who inspired you. I so much love your work but you know by now..