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.
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.