I have just finished reading a book that my brother gave me for my birthday. Entitled 'Summer in February' it tells the true tale of a love triangle that developed amongst a group of painters who lived and worked in the tiny valley and cove of Lamorna, on the south Cornish coast during the period leading up to the First World War.
Lamorna had become so closely associated with the artist Samuel John Birch that he was known simply as 'Lamorna' Birch, and his 'en plein air' style of painting attracted more artists to the valley, namely Harold Knight and his wife Laura who moved to Lamorna in 1907 and remained until 1919. The great painter Stanhope Forbes had set up a painting school in nearby Newlyn, and a young brother and sister called Florence and Joey Carter-Wood enrolled there. The arrival of the young upstart painter Alfred Munnings in 1910 seems to have sent shockwaves around this sleepy backwater. Munnings was a wild unpredictable extrovert who quickly caught the attention of Laura Knight, as he was the very opposite of her quiet sensitive husband Harold, who only ever painted indoors. Munnings and Laura always painted outside in all weathers, making the most of the brilliant Cornish light reflected off the sea. Florence Carter-Wood was a great beauty and frequently modelled for both Alfred Munnings and Harold Knight.
Painting of Florence Carter-Wood, by Harold Knight
Harold Knight was probably in love with Florence though was far too shy (and too cautious of his wife) to act upon his feelings, but Alfred Munnings pursued her with great intensity.
(Sorry for the blurry image, can't find a better one.)
Munning's portrait of Florence sitting on his horse.
Among this artistic colony moved another young man, Gilbert Evans, who after fighting in the Boer war had come to Lamorna to work as a land manager on the Boskenna Estate. It is evident from the diaries he kept that he too fell in love with Florence, but his gentlemanly ways prevented him from revealing his true feelings towards her. Just when he thought their friendship might develop into something more, Florence announces that she has consented to be Alfred's wife, a disastrous decision that was to have dire consequences. On their wedding night in 1912 she takes a dose of cyanide, but survives. Her marriage to Alfred is hopeless right from the start, and she turns to Gilbert in her distress and they begin an affair.
I shall not reveal more as this story is coming out as a film in June, and I for one can't wait! Dan Stevens (from Downton Abbey) plays the role of Gilbert Evans, and Emily Browning plays Florence Carter-Wood.
By Dame Laura Knight
Laura Knight became one of Britain's foremost impressionist painters, and became a Dame in 1929, the first woman to receive such an honour. She was also the first woman to be elected a full member of The Royal Academy in 1930. She is most well known for her studies of life in the theatre, ballet and circus.
In 2009 an employee of Christies auction house in London noticed an anomaly in the back of one of her paintings, 'Carnavalet'. There appeared to be not one but two sets of edges of canvas showing. Upon removing the 81 nails that held the back down he was astonished to reveal a second canvas, which had remained hidden from sight for almost 100 years, the colours perfectly preserved.
The hidden painting is a portrait of a young Alfred Munnings, painted by Harold Knight just after his arrival in Lamorna in 1910.
'Sir Alfred James Munnings reading', by Harold Knight
This poses the intriguing question of why it was hidden behind 'Carnavalet'; did Harold dispose of it because of his irritation over Laura's close friendship with Munnings? And did Laura rescue the portrait and subsequently hide it so as not to anger her husband? The real reason we shall never know, but it adds a further note of intrigue to the story of the Lamorna colony of painters.
As I don't live that far from Lamorna I plan to go there soon and share some photos with you. It is some years since I have been to that secluded valley. My brother heard about the book and the film from a lady in the back of his ambulance that he was taking to hospital (he's a paramedic). Turns out she used to own the Lamorna Cove Hotel, which is haunted by the ghost of Munning's wife, Florence, but you shall have to either read the book or wait for the film to find out more!
'Summer in February' by Jonathon Smith 1995