Ain’t nothing like a dame … Paula Rego, recently honoured in the Queen’s birthday list.
A monarch who has never bought a work by a living artist has deigned to inflict on Paula Rego the patently ridiculous title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Since it was invented in 1917, the title has been bestowed on more than 700 actors, novelists, divas, dancers and well-connected dogsbodies. Only four painters have been so honoured.
The first was Laura Knight, damed in 1929. She enrolled at Nottingham School of Art in 1890, when she was only 13, and was still there in 1900, though she was already earning her living as an art teacher. In 1903, she married her fellow student Harold Knight; her first painting was hung at the Royal Academy in the same year. The couple joined the Group, the artists’ colony at Staithes; in 1908, they moved to Newlyn, Cornwall. Knight is sometimes called an impressionist; certainly her best work was done en plein air at Newlyn.
After the Great War, the Knights moved to London, where Harold could more easily pursue his career as a portrait painter. From then on, Laura concentrated more and more on theatrical and circus subjects, as well as fulfilling an enormous range of commercial and official commissions. In 1927, she was elected an associate of the RA. In 1932, she was president of the Society of Women Artists, and four years later, she was the first woman to be elected a member of the RA.
Knight’s artistic reputation is now in the ascendant. On 15 July last year, a watercolour, Wind and Sun, sold at Sotheby’s for £914,850. On 17 December, On the Cliffs, a truly stunning plein air painting, sold at Sotheby’s for £646,050. A woman painter who can command prices like these is likely to be taken very seriously indeed. Alas, very little of Knight’s massive body of work is of this quality.
The career of the second DBE, Ethel Walker, who had to wait for the honour until 1943, when she was 82, is the obverse of Knight’s. Walker was among the women artists whose work was shown in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale four times (in 1922, 1924, 1928 and 1930). In the smaller contingent of 25 British artists who exhibited at the Biennale in 1932, she was the only woman. People who mattered in the art world of the 1930s must have thought that she was their best woman artist. But, when three of her paintings were offered to the Tate in 1947, one by the artist herself, all three were rejected. After her death, Grace English, an adoring fan and friend for 20 years, wrote a monograph on Walker. It remains unpublished.
Walker studied at a number of art schools before going to the Slade in 1892. Along the way she fell in with Clara Christian, a still life painter; the two women lived together from about 1885. Christian owned two houses in Cheyne Walk, London. She had one of them converted into three studios, with a fourth in the back garden. Walker established herself in one of these studios, and lived and worked there for the rest of her life.
Walker also had a cottage at Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, where every summer she would make paintings of the sea that at the time were deemed utterly wonderful, particularly by Walker herself. Walker was not elected associate of the RA until 1940; she never attained full membership. This may have been because of her own confrontational behaviour. If her paintings were not hung at eye level in the RA exhibitions, she would remove paintings that were and replace them with her own.
In 1947, when 41-year-old Polish artist Marian Kratochwil arrived in London, Walker, then 86, took him under her wing. When she died four years later, she left him the contents of her studio. Kratochwil did his best to enhance the value of his inheritance, but it was many years since the art world had been impressed with Ethel Walker. He ended up giving away most of the works he inherited. Shortly before Dame Ethel died, Kratochwil made a striking pencil drawing of her, in bed, apparently unconscious. By the light of a single candle can be made out her sharpened features and gaping toothless mouth. In 1995, Kratochwil offered the Scottish National Gallery, which holds nothing by Ethel Walker herself, this horribly intrusive image of his benefactor. It was accepted.
The third painter dame is another Scot, Elizabeth Blackadder. Whether Paula Rego belongs in this company is a matter for individual judgment. I, for one, wish she had refused the fatuous DBE, content with the unadorned name she has made famous and respected throughout the art world.
20 Jun 2010