In February, I spent a fascinating morning with the residents of a Gypsy and Traveller’s site in Buckinghamshire. The visit was part of my quest to find out more about Laura Knight’s portraits in preparation for the Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition. In the late 1930s, Knight made a remarkable series of paintings of English Gypsies, but very little is known about the individuals depicted. Given that they posed within living memory, I felt certain that the sitters would have descendents who might help us learn more about these portraits and their subjects. 

If it were not for her wonderfully vivid second autobiography The Magic of a Line (1965), my research could have stalled for want of clues. Knight gave these portraits vague titles including; ‘The Gypsy’ and ‘Old Gypsy Woman’, but her book describes the regular visits she made to the Gypsy settlement in Iver, Buckinghamshire, and her favourite sitter; the matriarchal Granny Smith. With the assistance of the local authority liaison officer, I obtained an invitation to a permanent site near Iver, where older members of the community recognised Knight’s sitters through reproductions I had sent in advance.

During my visit I heard about the Gypsy lifestyle in the 1930s, when painted wagons still prevailed, and also reminiscences of the Smith family: Lilo Smith, called ‘Granny’, Gilderoy, one of her nine sons, and the enigmatic Freedom, wife of Lilo’s son Harry, whom Knight chose to name ‘Beulah’. A happy coincidence occurred several months later when Lilo’s great-grandson contacted the Your Paintings website (a joint initiative of the Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC) to tell them that ‘The Gypsy’ shows his great-uncle Gilderoy. The painting is in the Tate collection, and they put him in touch with me.  A keen researcher of his family history, Mr Smith provided more precise dating and additional anecdotes about Knight’s sitters and her painting practice at this time. It seems that this group of portraits have never been shown together before, and I can’t wait to see the family reunited.

Old Gypsy Woman, 1938, oil on canvas, Private Collection   The Gypsy, 1939, oil on canvs, Tate: Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest, 1939   Beulah No.2, late 1930s, Ronnie and Anne Linton.  Image: courtesy of Bonhams.

Image credits (from left to right)

Old Gypsy Woman, 1938, oil on canvas, Private Collection

The Gypsy, 1939, oil on canvas, Tate: Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest, 1939

Beulah No.2, late 1930s, Ronnie and Anne Linton.  Image: courtesy of Bonhams.

All works are © reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA RWS 2013 (All Rights Reserved).  All images are credited to the lender unless otherwise stated.

Comments

Got something to say?

Rita Smith

13 December 2013, 19:20

This is my mothers family that is my mothers grandmother my mum is Rita smith the granddaughter if you like to get in touch please email us I will give you my daughters address

admin

10 October 2013, 16:19

Many thanks for your comment. The curator has sent you a personal response.

Edwina

4 October 2013, 09:40

I have just come across this website after recently visiting the Laura Knight exhibition. I am the granddaughter of Gilderoy Smith, great grand-daughter of Lilo, and great niece of Freedom Smith. Would you like to talk with me ?

admin

30 September 2013, 12:57

Thank you for your comments. Knight’s portraits made at Iver are clearly an important record of a community who still have close links to that area. I have replied directly with some contacts and further information

Jan

27 September 2013, 19:58

I was born in Iver and lived there until 1965, a lot of my family are still living there. I am intrigued to know where the gypsies lived in Iver. Wonderful exhibition andLaura knights paintings are lovely. Janambler@hotmail.co.uk

Tony

11 July 2013, 13:10

Will definately be going my Smith ancestors were gypsys from bucks so may be able to put faces to some people in my family tree :-)

admin

9 July 2013, 12:14

Laura Knight did indeed share her interest in English Gypsies with Augustus John, who painted scenes of Gypsy life over twenty years before Knight began working at Iver, although their approach to the subject was different. Knight and John had been acquainted since 1913 - introduced by Alfred Munnings (who also painted Gypsy scenes) when John visited the artists community in Cornwall, of which Knight was part. There is no doubt she would have been aware of John's Gyspy pictures and his 'Gypsy lifestyle', and she always admired his work, praising his 'true aestheticism' in her 1936 autobiography. John sustained an interest in Gypsies throughout his life, and had recently been appointed President of the Gypsy Lore Society when Knight started working at Epsom and Iver. Although I have been unable to find any direct comment from John, but he was certainly aware of Knight’s Gypsy paintings, one of which, 'Gypsy Family' (private collection), was illustrated in the Society's Journal in 1942.

David

3 July 2013, 14:15

Augustus John also shared Laura Knight's interest in Gypsies - is it known what each artist thought of the other's portrayals of Gypsies?

Last Edit: 3 July 2013, 15:06 by admin

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