My Favourite Painting: Robin Hanbury-Tenison

The explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison chooses a charmingly traditional portrait that resonates with a long-gone age — yet behind which lurks a troubled soul.

Robin Hanbury-Tenison on Girl in Boater (Portrait of Florence Carter-Wood) by Harold Knight

‘Florence Carter-Wood arrived in Cornwall to join the Newlyn School group of artists in 1910, aged 22, and everyone fell in love with her, including the local land agent, Gilbert Evans. But it was Alfred Munnings who whisked her off to London and married her. The marriage was never consummated and, on their first night, she attempted suicide by drinking cyanide.

‘Florence returned to Lamorna Cove, where, for two years, she went for long walks with Evans. When he took a posting in Nigeria shortly before the First World War, she drank the rest of the cyanide and this time died. This painting by Harold Knight, which I have, was probably painted a few days before. Geraniums are the flower of melancholy.’

Robin Hanbury-Tenison is an explorer and president of the charity Survival International. He was previously chief executive of the Countryside Alliance. He lives in Cornwall.

Charlotte Mullins comments on Girl in Boater

Jonathan Smith’s book and film Summer in February recount the tragic love triangle of Welsh officer Gilbert Evans, painter Alfred Munnings and young artist Florence Carter-Wood. Munnings and Carter-Wood were part of the Lamorna Group with husband-and-wife artists Harold and Laura Knight. They lived in Lamorna in Cornwall from 1910 and painted its turquoise seas, its rugged landscape and each other. This portrait is one of three Harold Knight painted of Florence in 1914, the year she committed suicide by drinking cyanide after a failed marriage to Munnings and the departure of Evans, her lover.

Knight’s portrait is a nuanced study of a woman lost in thought. She holds a broken geranium stem up to her face as she looks away, her eyes shaded by her large straw boater. The brick wall behind her, painted white like her scarf, compresses the space — there’s barely enough room for the plant pot and her left shoulder must be pushed up against it. Knight has transformed Carter-Wood into a melancholy Pre-Raphaelite with bowed lips and glowing hair.

Laura Knight rather eclipsed Harold during their lifetime — it was her painting The Beach, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1909, that motivated Munnings to move to Cornwall. She became a Dame in 1929 and a Royal Academician in 1936, a year before Harold. (She was the first woman RA for more than 150 years.) But, in recent years, a growing interest in Harold’s work has seen many paintings, including this one, now attributed to him.

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