This monumental cartoon was made by Laura Knight in preparation for her most powerful depiction of a circus, entitled Charivari, or The Grand Parade, a painting which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1929.
Knight had a life-long fascination with the culture of the professional circus. Throughout the 1920s she spent each winter at Olympia drawing the performers of Bertram Mills Circus; producing a remarkably intimate portrait of the community of performers she encountered. For Knight, the world of the circus embodied both the skill of highly trained professionals and the vulnerability of a marginalised community of largely itinerant workers. Charivari is a magnificent celebration of the world of the circus, of the individuals Knight met, observed and respected, their acts and animals, but more profoundly, the composition is a powerful rendering of the relationship between public and private experience, something at the heart of Knight’s work as a professional, female painter working in London in the 1920s.
Shortly after the First World War Laura Knight moved to London with her husband, Harold, who established himself as a portrait painter. Through Barry Jackson, a wealthy impresario, Knight sought permission to work at Diaghilev’s ballet company. Working behind the scenes, she produced a series of powerful depictions of the dancers off-stage. Knight immersed herself in the world of her subject, establishing herself as an acute observer of performers, and her images of ballet dancers often explored the liminal moment between performance and rest; showing figures dressing, stretching or waiting in the wings before dancing on stage. Scholars have found Knight’s images of dancers to represent an important inversion of the conventional male gaze, foregrounding her gender in her choice of subject-matter.
Throughout the 1920s Knight received considerable critical success. Consequently, in 1927 she was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, she was only the second female, the first having been Annie Swynnerton. Knight’s friend and supporter, Alfred Munnings, introduced her to Bertram Mills, who allowed her privileged access to his circus during its winter season at Olympia. Knight found in the disciplined world of the circus performer something analogous to her own work as a painter. Knight was enormously impressed by the community she encountered, writing in her 1936 autobiography Oil Paint and Grease Paint: ‘Circus performers are the hardest-working, the cleanest-living people I have met, with a pride in their bodies, an ideal of attainment, and an infinite capacity for endurance.’ Adding: ‘The artist’s spirit is there, from the acrobat at the top of the tent to the clown who runs into the ring to fool, the one actor who creates his own character and part.’ At Olympia Knight encountered a number of renowned performers: Willy Schumann Mills’ equestrian director, the Hungarian dwarf Zoltán Hirsch, known as Zoli, the celebrated clowns Joe Craston and the Whimsical Walker.
Knight produced a prodigious number of black chalk studies of performers, audience, animals and the architecture of Olympia. These she used to make the current cartoon. Charivari is a peculiarly claustrophobic composition; Knight has fitted over twenty identifiable circus performers and their animals into an impossibly crowded ring. The circumstances of the commission are carefully described by Knight in Oil Paint and Grease Paint:
‘During one season I received a letter from Major Evelyn Atherley, who had read in the Press of my making studies at Olympia. He came to my studio, and it was arranged I should paint a picture for him. The first thing he asked for was a portrait – Whimsical Walker, standing astride, with the Major’s Sealyham terrier ‘Blinkers’ sitting up between his legs. Then came an avalanche of requests: ‘Can you put Joe Craston in? And Mr Schumann? And the wire-walker – that man who impersonates a girl? And some horses? And all the other clowns? And Power’s elephants? And a portrait of myself?’ Then swiftly changing his mind: ‘No, I won’t be in it myself,’ etc., etc. We were both excited. I said, ‘Yes’ to everything, and went home to tell Harold I had undertaken the commission. ‘You are mad; it is not possible!’ he said. But do it I would’ It is the sort of commission that Breughel might have received, and I am going to have a shot at it!’
It is fortunate I had a mass of studies to work from; with an immense pack of them I went down to Cornwall in the spring. In the loft over the carpenter’s shop at Mousehole I set to work on my problem – to discover how to put twenty acts, all going on at the same time, in one ring, and to make it look reasonable.
I did a cartoon fifty by forty inches and brought it up to London for Major Atherley to see. He liked the idea, but would not have the skaters or the comedy horses I had included. Back I went to Cornwall again. It was now a jig-saw puzzle with some of the pieces missing. A new cartoon had to be made, everything carefully placed, even to a fraction of an inch, or some little dog or acrobat would be left out. The second cartoon met with his complete satisfaction; but late September came before I finished the picture, a complicated piece of work. The Major’s joy in it was worth the trouble I had taken.’
The present spectacular sheet, measuring 40 by 50 inches is the second cartoon described by Knight, the design that met with Atherley’s ‘complete satisfaction’. The finished painting was completed and shown at the Royal Academy in 1929, it is now in the collection of Newport Museum and Art Gallery.
Following Atherley’s own suggestion, Whimsical Walker the circus’s principal clown is in the centre of the composition. Shown in his distinctive stance, legs akimbo, with Major Atherley’s terrier Blinkers at his feet, Walker acts as the nucleus of the picture. Walker had trained with Pablo Fanque in the 1850s, toured America with Barnum & Bailey and in a celebrated career was responsible, amongst other things, for purchasing ‘Jumbo’ the elephant from the London Zoological Gardens in 1887 and taking him to America. Willy Schumann ‘resplendent in his shiny top-hat and perfectly cut morning suit’ is shown on the right, in profile, standing next to Joe Craston, a clown who appears in numerous studies by Knight. Knight was particularly fascinated by the circus animals and she includes one of Bertram Mills’ famous Liberty horses, one of the Knapstropers with their distinctive spotty markings, two elephants and several performing dogs and seals. In the foreground is the dwarf ‘Goliath’ who Knight credits with giving the picture the title Charivari: ‘when I showed him the photograph; he just christened it quite naturally, and his name for it could not be bettered.’ The finished composition is quite unlike Knight’s informal back-stage studies; it is a riotous, celebration of the thrill of the big top condensed into a single, flattened image. Knight makes no attempt to create a viable space, layering performers to create a densely worked design. This sense of horror vacui underscores Knight’s interest in performance. Knight noted: ‘I have often tried to analyse the circus appeal. It is the display of indomitable courage that one sees and admires, an admiration inherent in the human race. Gravitation is defied – the impossible is possible.’ Knight thrilled at the transformation of the individual into the performer. Rather than show the private world of the dressing room, Charivari is all about the public persona. David Peters Corbett has recently suggested that ‘Knight’s circus is the arena of the disjunction between the spectacle of performance and the objectification of the displayed body’, Charivari specifically depicts: ‘the body’s transfiguration into entertainment, divorced from the expression of interior states and given over to a public role.’ This is a fact underscored by Knight’s decision to show the acrobats and trapeze artiste as anonymous shapes, rather than individuals. In this way Charivari can be situated in a long-line of depictions of the circus from Degas to Picasso.
This cartoon is Knight’s grandest and most ambitious work on paper. Although framed by Knight as an unorthodox commission, the image represents a powerful distillation of her long engagement with the visual world of the circus and ranks as one of her masterpieces. The present cartoon remained in Knight’s possession until her death when it was included in her studio sale.
- See Rosie Broadley, Laura Knight’s Portraits, exh. cat., London (National Portrait Gallery), 2013, p.46.
- Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, New York, 1936, pp.299-300.
- Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, New York, 1936, pp.307-308.
- Whimsical Walker, From Sawdust to Windsor Castle, London, 1922, pp. 48-55.
- Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, New York, 1936, p.308.
- David Peters Corbett, The Modernity of English Art 1914-30, Manchester, 1997, p.211.