Thursday - 21 August 2014

Laura Knight casts a shadow at £140,000

25 June 2007Written by ATG Reporter

In 1914, Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) was living in Cornwall and enjoying the most fertile period of her career.

According to the Irish painter Norman Garstin she and her husband Harold were absorbed in "a riot of sunshine of opulent colour and sensuous gaiety." It was in that year that she painted two portraits of the striking local redhead Dolly Henry.

In her autobiography, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, Knight recalled coming home one day to find the sitter waiting for her in her garden: "She looked herself a sunflower amongst the sunflowers. I engaged her at once."

However, while they were working on this portrait titled Rose and Gold, the sitter told Knight that she was terrified of a jealous boyfriend, the painter John Curry who lived in Newlyn: "I know he is going to try and kill me again. He has tried to do so before," Henry told Knight, but the painter confessed, "I thought she was talking sensational nonsense".

A few weeks later she read a grim story in the daily paper: Curry had found Dolly Henry, shot her and then shot himself. Both were dead.

Curry, who attended the Slade School of Fine Art and had a wide circle of artist friends including Augustus John, Mark Gertler, Jacob Epstein and Frank Dobson, was a talented artist from Newcastle-under-Lyme who gained a reputation as one of the most promising artists of his generation but one who died too young to make his name.

He met Dolly in 1911 when she was working as a model at a Regent Street shop, and in 1912 they holidayed in Ostende with friends including Gertler, many of whom painted her, but by 1914 the relationship had disintegrated into violence and they separated.

"We all got sick of her," said Augustus John. "She was an attractive girl, or used to be when I knew her first, but she seems to have deteriorated into a deceitful little bitch."

A letter from Curry to Dolly found in his flat after the murder echoed the same sentiments: "Three months of suffering, of doubt about your return, of torture and grief, and then this crazy passion has wasted my strength and broken my will."

What the newspapers dubbed 'The Chelsea Crime' took place on October 8, 1914.

Nearly 50 years after the incident, Dolly's brother contacted Knight to ask if she had any record of his sister, and the artist showed him Rose and Gold, which she had kept and was very fond of. Knight's other more contemplative portrait of Dolly, Marsh Mallows, sold at Sotheby's in December 1999 where it fetched a premium inclusive £331,500, the record for a work by the artist.

Rose and Gold, sold from the artist's estate in July 1971, had been bought by the Lincolnshire vendor for its sheer quality. However, they suddenly became aware of its value and, in the face of insurance costs, reluctantly consigned it to the sale of Victorian and Traditionalist Pictures at Christie's on June 7.

It was estimated at £50,000-80,000, which the consigners worried was too high, but after very strong interest mostly from collectors it sold at £140,000 plus 20 per cent buyer's premium.

Christie's specialist Peter Browne said people responded to the image first and foremost, and then the provenance. "It's a strong portrait. Her gaze is very direct," he said.

By Stephanie Harris

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