Over the summer, I’ve been exploring the amazing British Pathé webpage. This searchable site contains digital versions of some 90,000 newsreels, dating from the early years of cinema to the 1970s.
I teach a class called “Art and Film” and was immediately curious to see what art-related material lurked in the Pathé archives. Having found that there was plenty, the germ of an idea was born. Every now and then, I’ll write about some of these fascinating Pathé gems in this blog and, I hope, shed some light on them.
I’m going to start with one of the first reels that caught my attention, a two-minute silent film showing the English painter Laura Knight (1877-1970) at work in what appears to be her studio. Called “Mrs Laura Knight–the famous Artist,” it was made in 1927 and you can see it here.
Knight on Film
In the 1920s, Knight was beginning to receive significant public recognition for her achievements, and the film acknowledges this growing acclaim. As its opening title card explains, Knight “was recently elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, [and] is only the second woman to receive such an honour since the 18th Century.”* In 1929 she was made a Dame, and she became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1936. In the same year, she published the first of her two autobiographies, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, where she vividly describes her own impressions of the Pathé film or, more precisely, her memories of being filmed. Curiously, she does not mention viewing the completed film. So she is probably offering a pointed corrective to the way she suspects she has been portrayed.
The relevant passage is from a chapter called “A Film Studio.” Here it is in full:
One of the film studios asked me if I would give them the opportunity of making a film of me painting a picture with my model. An exact copy of my studio was to be set up in the film studio. Two men consulted with me about borrowing the necessary gear. I had just completed a half-nude figure, which they were extremely anxious to bring into the film. It was decided that they would chance the propriety of including it, and a taxi was filled with various canvases and drawings.
I arrived with two models at the time appointed, four o’clock in the afternoon. The studio set was sumptuous, sunlight streamed through a large window, outside the frame, creepers twined–most picturesque. The easel was set all ready for use; it was tiny, a rococo affair made for a drawing-room and across the top of it a piece of plush was draped. The studio did not bear much resemblance to my workshop over Butler’s garage, where the view from the window only showed the tops of Seymour Hick’s chimney-pots, but I was assured it would come out all right, so we started to select the particular pictures for display. A crowd of serious-faced men discussed the advisability of the semi-nude, while I watched the red in their faces turn to bright blue in the lights, the veins of their noses looking as if they had been scrawled in ink. A slight delay was caused while one of the producers went away. He returned with a length of pink chiffon floating, which he proceeded to drape across the offending breast of my painted maiden–then I had to interfere, and we compromised by placing another canvas partly in front of her nudity.
I do not know how many feet or yards of film were used up. My models and I acted everything that was ever done in a studio that we and the producers could think of, from the doing of a drawing, to a tea-party, and the advent of a lady visitor. It was no use my protesting that I never had tea-parties in my studio, it was necessary for the tale. I was made to paint standing an inch or two from my canvas, so that the camera-man could see my profile, hand, brush, picture and the model all together. I got weary standing about, and my model very bored on her throne. In a rest, as I watched her idly rubbing her bare back, suddenly there was a violent shout behind me, “Let those damned spots alone!” Poor Eileen dropped her hand quickly, but the camera-man was not referring to her scratching, but to some limes that had been interfered with.
When we had taken off our make-up and were bidding our hosts good-bye, a man said to me, “You’ve been under the arcs five hours; you’ll have slight sunstroke after this.” (312-13)
Filming the Artist and the Observer Effect
Documentaries about artists cater to our desire to pry open the secrets of the artist’s studio and witness private and mysterious acts of creation. But there is an “observer effect” that inevitably compromises this desire. While the film-making process changes the artist’s normal activities, we viewers invariably begin to suspect that this must be occurring. In this case, we are lucky: Knight’s words help us grasp some of these slippages. Her studio is not her studio, even though it is presented as such. Her very stance at the easel–a display easel, not a work easel–has to change to satisfy the camera.
Worse still, these changes are motivated not merely by cinematic or narrative necessity, but by ideological factors–the desire to shoehorn Knight into the role of the “Lady Painter.” In her autobiography, Knight controls how she is being represented and can make the film’s fiction, its “tale” clear. She does not normally have tea parties, nor lady visitors in her studio (two scenes excluded from the final edit); she does not normally drape her easel with plush, nor her painting with pink chiffon. The view from her actual studio, she insists, is gritty and urban, not pastoral.
Limiting the range of Knight’s subjects to portraits and studies of female subjects, the film also downplays the complicated figurative works that by this time had become Knight’s trademark. You can see more of her images of the circus, the ballet, and the theatre here. A specialist in these subjects must be attuned to complicated lighting effects, and Knight’s writing certainly reveals a preoccupation with light. There’s the natural light flooding in through the studio window; the light that strikes the “serious-faced men,” rendering them grotesque; and there are those troublesome “spots” or “limes” that had been interfered with” (in other words, spotlights and limelights).
The scene culminates in another type of light effect, the ”slight sunstroke” she is told to expect after her five-hour stint before the filmmakers’ arc lights. Knight uses this gloomy prediction to forge a connection between herself and another painter, Annie Swynnerton, who, in 1922, became the very first woman elected into the Royal Academy as an Associate Member (ARA).*
Annie Swynnerton, 1931
During “A Film Studio,” Knight’s fellow ARA is very much on her mind. At the beginning of the chapter, Knight describes Swynnerton at work, “painting a big portrait out of doors in Rome,” but suffering as a consequence. Knight quotes the older painter: “I had heat stroke–it affected my eyes–they were wonderful before that!” (311-312). Now, Knight tells us, Swynnerton can “hardly see.” Less than two pages later, Knight is experiencing her own type of sunstroke, courtesy of the film studio. We are relieved to read that Knight wakes up the next day with her sight intact and nothing worse than “sore eyes and a giddy head” (314).
“Any woman reaching the heights in the fine arts”, Knight reflects, “had been almost unknown until Mrs. Swynnerton came and broke down the barriers of prejudice…” (311). Stressing hard labour, physical risk, and collective struggle, Knight’s writing amends and expands the film’s vision of what it might mean to be a female artist.
In her writing, Knight relates herself to a significant senior artist; in contrast, the filmmakers place the artist firmly in the company of her models. In the second half of this post, I’m going to look more closely at three parts of the film that show the artist interacting with a model (or her likeness) in three different ways. The model appears as a conversational partner for the artist, as a figure in a completed painting, and in the act of modeling. These sections confirm Knight’s hunch: the art of filmmaking inevitably shapes how making art is depicted on film.
Moment 1: Mentoring Mayo (1:35 to 1:40)
“Poor Eileen,” the model Knight mentions, is readily identifiable. She is Eileen Mayo (1906-1994), who posed frequently for Knight and other well-known artists of the day: Vanessa Bell, Mark Gertler, Duncan Grant, and Dod Procter. The Tate Archive holds a lock of her distinctive golden hair, which was clearly considered to be part of her appeal.
A Lock of Eileen Mayo’s hair, Tate Archive
Mayo’s presence in the film helps to explain one of the more stilted segues in the film. After an intertitle informs us that Knight likes to encourage young artists, we cut to a picture of her chatting with Mayo, who now plays the role of student, rather than model. Mayo was both–as the filmmakers seem to have realized. By 1927 she had already attended the prestigious Slade School in London and studied with Fernand Léger in Paris. She would go on to have a very successful career as a designer, illustrator, and printmaker.
Knight and Mayo (1:40ish)
Moment 2: The “Half-Nude Figure” (1:42 to 1:47)
Knight’s prose indicates that the shoot had raised some thorny questions of decorum. The half- or “semi-nude” figure creating all the consternation was, in all likelihood, the painting that creates a bridge into the “gallery” sequence at the end of the film.
Knight and Blue & Gold (1:44ish); and Knight’s Blue & Gold (1927)
Given all the problems it apparently created in the film studio, the work makes a fairly minor, though telling, appearance in the final edit. Knight’s Blue and Gold (1927)–the title alludes to Mayo’s hair–is not strategically obscured or veiled. If anything, it’s the reverse. During the shot, the artist’s gaze drifts downwards towards “the offending breast of [the] painted maiden” and the viewer is inclined to follow her lead.
Reading between the lines, one wonders whether the awkwardness in the studio was less about the finished painting, and more about the attempt to stage a dramatic recreation of its making. Why else would the model be “idly rubbing her bare back,” unless she had been posing nude? Real breasts presented more problems than painted ones and the scene, if indeed it was shot, was ultimately too troublesome to include in the completed film. A suggestive cut, which transforms Mayo back from model (and student) to painted nude, would have to serve instead.
Consecutive shots: Knight with Mayo and Knight and Blue & Gold
Moment 3: Time-Lapse Dissolve (1:04 to 1:18)
Pathé films from the twenties couldn’t rely on the breezy voiceovers that we associate with their later newsreels. In the silent era, more weight had to be placed on visual storytelling through film. A case in point: the slow dissolve that magically takes the viewer from an early to a much later stage in a work’s development. (To help continuity, Knight places her hand on the easel, holding her pose rather stiffly.) Indicating the passing of an unspecified amount of time, the transition also coincides with a change of media, from drawing to painting.
Consecutive shots: two stages of the same work?
While the simple special effect manages to create a sense of studio time and studio processes, it also causes us to question exactly what we are seeing. These doubts only increase when we compare shots of Mayo posing and the completed work, which is revealed at the very end of the film. Obvious differences emerge.
Mayo posing and the final painting
In the studio, Mayo’s hair is tied back away from forehead, while the figure in the canvas has bangs (“a fringe”). Mayo leans on a bare table, while the figure in the canvas leans on a magazine or newspaper lying on top of a table. Knight could simply be freely altering and augmenting what she sees, but the artist’s own recollections indicate another possibility.
The strictly limited amount of shooting time (some five hours); the number of different scenarios or set-ups attempted; and the fact that the film-makers wanted to introduce at least one preselected painting: all of these tend to confirm my suspicion that the time-lapse sequence actually cuts between two different works. By retroactively creating a “preliminary” sketch on a second canvas, and by restaging the scene of modeling, a simulation of a single work’s evolution could rapidly, if not entirely seamlessly, be created in the studio and in the editing room. The filmmakers may have initially wanted to recreate the genesis of Blue and Gold; they eventually settled for something more anodyne, a “Woman Leaning on a Table.”
Back in the Limelight
Though she appeared in two later Pathé newsreels, Knight chose not to revisit the topic of being filmed in The Magic of a Line (1965), her second autobiography. But whether she would like it or not, Knight is primed to appear in a new film. Some 85 years after her 1927 film debut, she has once again been found to be “necessary for [a] tale.” Summer in February, a film currently in post production and still awaiting a release date, promises to be “a true tale of love, liberty and scandal amongst the Edwardian artists’ colony in Cornwall.”
This time it will be a trained actress, Hattie Morahan, who plays the role of Laura Knight, “the famous artist.”
*The word “elected” calls for further explanation. In 1768, George III named 34 founding members of the Royal Academy. But, strictly speaking, the two women he included, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, were not elected. It was only in 1922 and 1927 that Annie Swynnerton and Laura Knight (respectively) were voted in as associate members (ARAs).