Thursday, March 21, 2013

Summer in February
Art in Lamorna ~ 1910-1914
Penlee House Gallery

Summer in February, Jonathan Smith’s novel relating the turbulent events in Lamorna on the eve of the First World War, is an absorbing read. A film of the same title is due to be released in the UK later this year. Penlee House’s latest offering is a beautifully crafted show which links the two, locating both book and film within the context of a unique artistic community whose members are pictured at work and play.

The exhibition was opened last week by Jonathan Smith, who has written the screenplay for the film adaptation. A window display at the Gallery’s entrance includes stills from the forthcoming film, together with the wedding dress worn by the actor Emily Browning.

A delicately rendered landscape in watercolour entitled ‘The Moor’ testifies to the fact that Florence Carter Wood came to Cornwall to study art. This image, a rare canvas by the aspiring painter, is the first of many visual delights which offer an intimate look into the lives of the Lamorna artists and their friends during the closing years of the Edwardian era. ‘Lamorna Cove’ below, by one of the earliest residents of the valley, Samuel ‘Lamorna’ Birch, is undated yet conveys the atmosphere of an era of innocence which was soon to disappear forever.
Samuel John Lamorna Birch (1869 – 1955)
Lamorna Cove
date unknown
Oil on canvas,
28 x 19 cm
Private Collection, image courtesy Messums
© The Artist’s Estate

The community had grown since the founding in 1899 of the Forbes School of Painting in nearby Newlyn. The active involvement of Stanhope Forbes’ wife Elizabeth made the school particularly appealing to women seeking art tuition, and Florence was one of several female students attracted by its reputation. A further incentive for Florence was the fact that her brother Joey was already studying under Stanhope Forbes. Among her fellow students she found companionship and acquired the unflattering nickname ‘Blote’.

Much of the detail of Florence’s life remains undocumented. She is best known as the subject of a number of portraits by the artists of Lamorna. A pair of oils by Harold Knight (one dated 1911) show her in profile, a fine-looking young woman in her early twenties, whose bearing is somewhat aloof. Those who knew Florence found her introverted and prone to depression. Harold was a man of few words who enjoyed working quietly in his studio, so it is likely that the two were comfortable in each other’s company. Laura Knight, while deeply committed to her art, was in many respects the opposite of her husband. She was an extrovert and loved being part of a social circle whose pursuit of pleasure included a great deal of late-night revelry, in which the flamboyant Alfred (AJ) Munnings played a conspicuous role.
Harold Knight (1874 – 1961)
Portrait of Florence
1911 Oil on canvas
74 x 61.5cm
Private Collection
© Reproduced with the permission of
the Estate of Dame Laura Knight
DBE RA 2013 All Rights Reserved.

Florence’s quiet beauty proved irresistible to Alfred, with whom she shared a love of riding. She proved ideal as a model for his equestrian paintings, most famously in ‘The Morning Ride’ on loan for this exhibition, which forms the cover image of Jonathan Smith’s novel.
Alfred Munnings (1878 – 1959)
The Morning Ride
c.1912 Oil on canvas
51.5 x 61.5 cm
Private Collection,
c/o Christie’s Images Limited (2000) © Estate of Sir Alfred Munnings. All rights reserved, DACS 2013

The narrative of Summer in February unfolds from the point of view of Captain Gilbert Evans, who kept diaries of his time in Lamorna. The highly respected and well-liked local land agent, he was torn between loyalty towards his friend Alfred Munnings and his growing love for Florence, in whom he found a kindred spirit. But his lack of confidence prevented him from declaring his feelings for her, and he was devastated when the pair announced their engagement. It was evident not only to Gilbert that Alfred and Florence had little in common. They were considered an ill-matched couple by Lamorna Birch, and by the Knights. Beneath his brash charm Munnings could be insensitive and cruel. Spending a great deal of time away in London or visiting his family roots in Suffolk, he led the life of a carefree bachelor, leaving Florence behind in Lamorna, where Gilbert could be relied upon to keep her spirits up. Gilbert and Florence were in the habit of taking walks together in the beautiful Lamorna valley or along the clifftops, and it was one of these occasions, described in his diary as taking place on a ‘summer’s day’ but dated in February, which inspired the title for the book.

The companion piece to ‘The Morning Ride’ is ‘Portrait of Florence Munnings at Sunset’ by her husband, painted soon after their marriage. Clad in a pale flowing dress, the subject sits atop a stone wall, scarcely distinguishable from her surroundings, flecked with the last rays of the dying sun. The loosely applied brushwork lends her form a remote, ethereal quality.
Alfred Munnings (1878 – 1959)
Portrait of
Florence Munnings at Sunset

1912 Oil on canvas
53 x 61 cm
Private Collection
© Estate of Sir Alfred Munnings.
All rights reserved, DACS 2013

Florence was already deeply unhappy in her marriage. During Alfred’s frequent absences she and Gilbert found solace in each other’s company. Gilbert’s background comes to life in the exhibition through photographs of him posed with fellow players in the 1st XV rugby team at school (c.1899) and later as a member of the Monmouth Militia. Displayed in a cabinet are his medals, including those awarded for service during the Boer War. Also on show are his regimental sword and his fishing rod.

Although his love affair with Florence remained a secret to all but a few, Gilbert was finding the situation intolerable. Early in 1914 he resolved to resign from his job in Lamorna, to join the colonial service in Nigeria. On the eve of his departure, he and Florence met in London. A poignant memento of this occasion was retained by Gilbert. It is the receipt for their lunch, headed ‘14.4.1914, Trocadero Restaurant, Piccadilly Circus’. Afterwards, Florence accompanied him to Paddington Station, where they parted. His diary continues the narrative: ‘I went to the train alone and very sad.’ Later, he added: ‘This was the last time I saw her alive.’

No longer able to bear her husband’s dismissive attitude towards her, Florence Munnings took her own life on 24 July 1914. A few weeks later Gilbert Evans received the news in Nigeria. In September 1914 Britain was plunged into war with Germany. The sorrow borne by Florence’s family was compounded when Joey Carter Wood was killed in battle in France the following year.

In her autobiography ‘Oil Paint and Grease Paint’ Laura Knight referred to the tragedy thus: ‘Suddenly the death of a much-loved member of our colony put an end to all joy.’

In 1920 Alfred Munnings married Violet McBride, a renowned horsewoman. In later life he wrote an autobiography in three volumes, in which there is no mention of Florence.

Gilbert Evans became the Deputy Surveyor General of Nigeria. There he met his future wife, Joan, with whom he had two sons. He retired in 1933 and returned to Lamorna, where he died in 1966.

Gilbert was not an artist, and yet the exhibition is infused with his quiet spirit. A selection of artworks given to him by his artist friends testifies to his popularity. A watercolour entitled ‘A Winter Landscape’ was a Christmas present from Joey Carter Wood in 1913. Flanked by Harold Knight’s portraits of Florence, described above, is a beautifully understated charcoal drawing on paper entitled simply ‘Florence’. The signature ‘MCF’ indicates that the artist was her fellow student Madeleine ‘Madge’ Fawkes. This gift to Gilbert from their mutual friend was discovered years after his death, carefully concealed behind a framed drawing of a fisher boy. After Florence died Alfred Munnings, in acknowledgement of his friend’s relationship with her, left ‘The Morning Ride’ with the Knights - a gift for Gilbert on his return. This must have been a bitter-sweet moment for the recipient.

Laura Knight was one of the most prominent members of the Lamorna community. Professional models and friends would pose for her in all sorts of weather conditions, as she loved nothing better than to paint ‘en plein-air’. A large canvas ‘The Flower’ depicts four female figures out of doors. One is believed to be the professional model, Dolly Snell, while the figure on the right is presumed to be Florence. Prior to the outbreak of war Knight developed a fascination for the ballet and theatre. ‘The Dancer’, a work in oil on paper, was given to Gilbert at this time.

A close friend to both the Knights was the beautiful Ella Naper. The show includes nude photographs of Ella, taken on Bodmin Moor, which were used by Harold for his numerous portraits of her. Alongside is one of the products of a joint artistic venture – Laura and Ella’s tiny, delicate ‘Dancer’ in enamel.

Ella, a ceramicist and maker of exquisite jewellery, is the subject of Laura Knight’s ‘Self & Nude’. Painted in 1913, it attracted a great deal of controversy as it was the first time a woman artist had depicted herself with a nude. The painting was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1971 and is one of their most treasured artworks. Alison Bevan, director of Penlee House Gallery, told me: ‘We have tried to borrow ‘Self & Nude’ on several previous occasions, without success, so we are absolutely delighted finally to have been able to bring it back to Cornwall. It is such a stunning painting and is particularly relevant for this show not only because it depicts two of the close friends of the story’s main protagonists (Laura Knight and Ella Naper), but its production was marked by a party, a souvenir of which appears in Gilbert Evans’s scrap book, on show as part of the exhibition.’
Laura Knight (1877 – 1970)
Self Portrait and Nude aka The Model
1913 Oil on canvas
152.4 x 127.6 cm
National Portrait Gallery
© Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2013.
All Rights Reserved.

This show provides a unique opportunity to see the iconic ‘Self & Nude’ in the context of its time and locality. It also gives film lovers a chance to gain an insight into the fascinating story of the protagonists of Summer in February. Starring Dominic Cooper and Dan Stevens, the film will be released in the UK on 14 June. The exhibition at Penlee House continues until 8 June.

© 2013 Helen Hoyle

Further reading : Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995)
A Painter Laureate ~ Lamorna Birch and his Circle by Austin Wormleighton (1995)

My new blog: Dates in Women's Art

12 comments:

  1. Lovely article. An enchanting place too. Roll on 14th June for the release! Henry Garfit, www.newlynartschool.co.uk

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    1. I must agree what a lovely article. Many years ago I visited Lamorna Cove with my dear husband David, now deceased. We had been staying in Cornwall when I read an article in the Times about Blote and where she was buried. My husband and I set out to find the graveyard and her headstone. We found the church where she lay and admired the many artists sitting on the stone walls, and in their chairs painting. I can still picture the day, beautiful sunshine and nice breeze to stave off the heat. An older gentleman noticed me reading all the headstones, and came over to ask if I was looking for Blote. He took me to her headstone, a very plain stone, nothing special. If I remember the article correctly her husband buried her in a paupers grave and did not mark the headstone. I often think of Cornwall and the beauty that exists there. I now reside in Texas having lost my husband nearly 9 years ago. I do hope the film comes here.

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  2. I have just re read this article in the light of having seen the Falmouth premiere of the film Summer in February and also the Penlee House Exhibition , I have also read the book by Jonathan Smith. Helen's article adds yet another angle to our understanding of this tragic story. I agree that the Laura knight painting Self and Nude is wonderful for us to have had in Cornwall. I managed to see it three times and would have gone more often if I could . It is a powerful reminder of how important it is to see paintings in their context whenever possible. your article has added to my understanding . thankyou Margaret Deans

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  3. Doee anyone know if this exhibition is being shown anywhere else? Unfortunately I missed it.

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    1. What a shame. I understand that it was not possible for the gallery to secure another venue where the exhibition could be shown.

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    2. I also missed it, but have just seen the film. Are there any photographs of Florence's "The Moor" and of the charcoal drawing of her by Madge Fawkes?

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  4. I suggest you contact Penlee House Gallery. I am sure they will be able to help.

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  5. You may be interested to know that there is a website about the life and times of Gilbert Evans, which also describes the events surrounding "Summer in February".

    www.gilbertevans.net

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    1. Thank you, Treve, for alerting me to the excellent Gilbert Evans website - great family photos and interesting to see that you are one of his grandsons. I am sure the website has attracted an enormous amount of interest since the release of 'Summer in February'.

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  6. gill.corbett@btinternet.comOctober 26, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    thank you for all extra information I have gleaned! After watching the dvd of film I visited Lamorna yesterday,a few miles away from my home now in cornwall. As a teenager,living just outside Penzance,each good Friday we would walk there and"gather"(&gather primroses!!).It was lovely to go back..I cannot believe I missed the exhibition at penlee..my first grandchild was born around that time& I was away,so that's my excuse! I shall continue to keep my interest up in the Cornish painters. More up to date,i was taught at school&given a love for painting by a young Michael Praed;wasnt I fortunate?!..... Gill Corbett. About to read novel of"Summer in February"!

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    1. What a shame you missed the exhibition, Gill, but the novel is a great read, and you may also like to have a look at www.gilbertevans.net which has some interesting family photos. And congratulations on the birth of your grandchild!

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  7. I saw this exhibit in May or early June of 2013. It was wonderful. I had wanted to go to Cornwall since I was 12 or so, and finally made it at 61! I'm going back in a couple months. I just watched the movie-and though it was enjoyable and had lush cinematography, I felt I learned more about these people at the exhibit. I do wonder if anyone knows if the pregnancy of Florence was documented. I couldn't find anything regarding that except in the movie. I would like to read the novel and look at the site for Gilbert Evans. I hope to see Lamorna Cove again.

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