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
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
"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
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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