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.

The Gypsy' by Laura Knight, which is a portrait of Gilderoy Smith, is in the collection of the Tate, and we recommend you contact Tate shop if require an image of this painting.  'Gypsy Splendour', a portrait of Lilo Smith, is in the collection of the Nottingham Castle Museum and, at the time of writing, postcards were available from the museum shop.  The portraits 'Beulah' (showing Freedom Smith) and 'Granny Smith' are in private collections.

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.


Got something to say?

James Butler

09 July 2023, 14:52

I have recently bought a portrait of Houdy "Hilda Smith" Gypsy Site Iver 1932 supposedly by Laura Knight. she is a plump red faced lady probably in her 40s with a lot of presence. Id love to see a family tree and or contemporary photos of them

Suzy Davies

06 July 2023, 19:38

Fascinating article. Mr. Smith is mentioned in my fairy tale retelling of "The Snow Queen" which features a strong woman gypsy protagonist. I accredit the artist in my bibliography.

Geoff Smith..

15 June 2023, 17:48

John Hagger was related to me and I miss him dearly...We had long conversations and John was a mine of information and knowledge on our Romani folki...R.I.P My Cousin John Hagger,..Duvvel Bless...

Sarah-Jane smith

21 May 2023, 14:42

Beulah was my Nans mum she was married to Harry smith known as freedom her daughters was Annie smith my nan and Rosie and emy and Stanley she did have another daughter called Hilda she passed away at age 12. Beulah is my great granny my maternal line and I’ve been doing my dna to Trace back our ancestors beulah my know freedom is buried in langley bucks so is her other two children Hilda and Stanley my nan Annie iver I’m very proud of Nans mum beulah she was beautiful in these paintings very proud of my family we was related to lilo smith Aswell even my grandad joe smith. Thank you so much from Sarah-Jane smith and my mum Rita smith who is the granddaughter of beulah. Dear John hagger is my 3rd cousin Aswell bless him may he rest in peace lovely man help any one x

Peter Ball

28 April 2022, 23:41

When I was young, my Dad, Derek Ball, told me there was a picture of my gypsy ancestor, "the queen of the gypsy's" in Nottingham Castle. His father, Nottingham and Cranoe fruit picker, colliery worker and local prize fighter, Ernest Ball (B1883), Ernest's mother Ellen Boswell (Hucknall) . I found the painting but sadly seems like it was all wishful thinking on Dad's part. No Balls or Boswells to be seen anywhere in the comments! All very interesting though.

Andrew Michael Smith

12 February 2022, 17:22

I believe this is my family from my fathers side" my dad was mark smith' son of chummy rubin Smith," son of Gildroy Smith, i was brought up in iver buckinghamshire on a council site" we later moved into house's around berkshire" my mother is ocallaghan from limerick, she born 1957 and dad in hillingdon 1959 they married in 1977" and i was born second oldest in 1979. I have great memory of my child hood and would never change it" we luved on council payed rent electric gas etc, my dear granny tilly who was buckland married grandad chummy smith. I remember my dear granny putting cial in firepkace back in the 80s on the site' i knew bulah wenman, bucklands, loveridges ans smith and beldoms we all still luve in berks and bucks we had great football teams and great weddings and funerals id live to see some of my granny and grandads days before" i was born, during 70's 80's our familts enjoyed holidays every year but thats slowed down alit now. My mum is Irish and non travellerbut she married my dear dad who i list this year he was a great respected romany english traveller man you would ever meet, he took me swimming boxing football cinema and brought us all wonderful presebts for birthdays and xmas he was the life and soul of our family he worked very hard from the age of 7/8 where he helped hes mum and dad pea picking, and worked hard all of his life he had Mark Smith the twin of Gilbert Smith and grandsons of Gildroy Smith who son was mygrandad mydads dad chummy ruebin Smith from iver bucks. Mark Smith from 1959 had 4 children and 4 grandchildren whi still live around the berks and bucks area.


27 December 2020, 01:18

Any reference books or art appraisers who specialize in Oil paintings depicting European Gypsy families 18th and 19th Centuries that folks can recommend.

Thank you.

Terence Evershed

04 April 2020, 20:30

Was Isabella Birch related to Rupert Birch son of Jonathan Birch who was a Gypsy stable boy who did very well for himself up in Chesham. Family tradition says he wore a purple scarf and rode side saddle. Married Mary Paine of Cheltenham,

sid smith

25 January 2020, 17:56

A message for Norah Smith.
I believe James Smith (son of Aaron Smith and Isabella Birch) and Sarah Lock (daughter of Merrick Lock and Mary Lee) are the father and mother of Gildroy,
Gildroy married Eve Stevens (daughter of Emmanuel Stevens and Eve Lock), one of their sons was Josiah who married Lilo Loveridge (daughter of Henni Loveridge and Polly Biddle), Lilo is the sitter for the paintings " Fine Feathers (Gypsy Splendour)" and "Old Gypsy Woman" etc, their son Gildroy was the subject of the painting "The Gypsy".
"Beulah" depicts Freedom (Freda) Smith wife of Harry, another son of Josiah and Lilo.
James Smith and his wife Sarah (Lock) are buried in St Mary's graveyard at Langley, Berks.
Lilo was also buried there in 1939, but I have been unable to locate the grave.
My grandfather Jim was the youngest son of Josiah and Lilo.

Barbara Alway

17 August 2019, 09:25

I really love the photos and will do as you say and try to get copies, I have not made any progress on the Smith side, Cinnamenti Smith born Brentford, Middx 1851-1932 was married to John Mark Hearne born in Denham Buckinghamshire 1850- ? Cinnamenti was the daughter of Righteous Smith (Rito) wife Trinity have no dates. If anyone can help on family tree it would be great or have any pictures of these to help me. Being Smith I am having great difficulty.

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