From our April Fine Art Sale 2014
A very touching and poignant archive of letters and cards written to the artists Charles & Ella Naper by Dame Laura Knight RA between the early 1920’s until 1969.
Containing 35 letters and notecards and 18 Christmas cards, many illustrated.
SOLD for £4,000
Dame Laura Knight was one of the most popular and beloved artists of the 20th century. She was a voracious worker, painting and exhibiting right up until her death in July 1970. She was almost 93 years old. Made a Dame of the British Empire in 1929, she was also the first woman to be elected a full member of the Royal Academy (1936).
The Knights moved to Cornwall in 1907 and quickly immersed themselves in the artistic colony that had formed in Lamorna, becoming firm friends with S.J. Lamorna Birch, A. J. Munnings, the Sedgewicks, Ernest and Dod Proctor and the Heaths, amongst others.
In 1912 the artist and jeweller, Charles and Ella Naper, arrived in the valley seeking a plot of land where they could build a home in peaceful surroundings and amongst kindred spirits. They built ‘Trewoofe,’ a beautiful home and garden, which is still cared for today by descendants of Ella’s family.
Harold and Laura Knight were living at Oakhill, just below Trewoofe and they became the Naper’s closest friends. Ella was the model for Laura’s most iconic painting ‘Self Portrait’ (The Model) which is now recognised as a central work in the history of female self-portraiture.
These years spent at Lamorna were golden, idyllic years, just before the outbreak of the First World War. Laura’s very strong attachment to Charles and Ella was formed during this time and she harks back to it in these letters in some very poignant passages:
5th June 1965 (Headed notepaper 16 Langford Place)
With shame in my heart, your dear Christmas letter lies in my hands as I write. I have forgotten why – I only remember I had to cut out sending Christmas greetings – even to those I loved. Note: In pencil on the corner Ella has written, “Dear Laura, You DID send Christmas greetings E”
You and Charlie are so often in my mind that although December 25th is nearly six months away, ever since your beautiful words gave me joy, I have intended to write and tell you how memory brings back “happy days when we bathed in the rock pools,” & you had the Hut on the cliffs.” When I read that it is still an annex of Trewoofe, I remember the many hours spent inside there in bad weather on the rocks. How wonderful were those days in and out of the sea pools.
I hope so much that all goes well with you both. I keep pretty good – a bit weak in the knees – perhaps in the brain as well – but that is not admitted. While you prune the apple trees “and keep the little stream clean & sparkling”, I still try to learn how to draw & to paint, even to write. But its grand still to be trying to do what you love – isn’t that so? Isnt it marvellous what Dor & Pog* are doing? Keeping going on going on is the thing! This is just a message of love to you both – that(s) all.
*Dorothy & Phyllis Yglesias, founders of the Mousehole Bird Hospital
During those pre-war, halcyon days, there were also times of tragedy. Alfred Munning’s first wife ‘Bloat’ committed suicide by taking cyanide and Laura was called upon to give evidence at the inquest. Straight afterwards, Charles and Ella whisked her away to Bodmin Moor where they spent an idyllic month camping in Gypsy-style huts at Dozmary pool. In one of Laura’s very last letters to Ella she reminisces about these events:
22 March 1969 (Headed notepaper 16 Langford Place) Excerpt:
“My very dear friend Ella,
This letter is just to assure you that loving thought for you has been constant in my heart, during these last few days. I know well the hardship it is to be the one left behind, and you, like myself, would choose that it should be that way.
I simply cannot tell you the vast delight your visits to me here in London gave to me. It is impossible to find words to express my joy in renewing the unbreakable tie that existed between us.
Do you remember the old car that took us all four to the moors with a bed covering the running board and how I piled into the heap after being chief witness of Bloat Munnings death, and I could do nothing but laugh and weep at the same time.
God bless and keep you dearest Ella.”
These events have since been immortalised in books and film, which makes these letters, written by one of the chief protagonists, all the more remarkable.
Many of the letters contain references to well known paintings by Knight, or her models and subjects and those of her husband Harold too. The concert pianists Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson were particular friends and are frequently mentioned. Laura’s magnificent portrait of Ethel graces the cover of Rosie Broadley’s recent book ‘Laura Knight Portraits’ which accompanies the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition.
These letters give a real sense of the artist’s extraordinary vitality, her zest for life and an unflagging enthusiasm for her work. This, from an illustrated letter written during the hanging of Laura’s major retrospective at the R.A. in 1965 when she was 88 years old:
“Dearest Ella and Charlie,
I have just come back from the R.A. where I have spending (sic) a day cataloguing and such like. The beautifully refurbished Diploma Galleries – four of them, are filled with more than 250 works, oils, watercolours, drawings and etchings by L.K. A gorgeous background that is very pleasing. What I want to tell you particularly is that both of you are there – not as large as life – but I hope twice as natural. The old ‘Spring’ picture has been yanked out of the Tate. Age has not wrinkled either the paint or yourselves. Charlie still makes ready to catch a trout or two for supper, and Ella is still in the pink of her youthful beauty. I must go to bed. I have to be back in the galleries all tomorrow.
With all my love
People rarely write letters anymore. These letters, written by one the 20th century’s most important and influential female artists, span almost half a century and document a sincere and profound love and friendship. They give a fascinating insight into the life of one of our most celebrated artists and as such, are a rare treasure.
Provenance: From the estate of Ella Naper.