The Line on the Horizon: Kurt Jackson and Laura Knight
By Louise Wheeler
The artists Kurt Jackson (b. 1961) and Laura Knight (1877-1970) made art in different centuries and societies; however, their shared love of the sea, and their subsequent paintings, which incorporate the lines of the sea’s horizon, unite their works as the embodiment of a feeling for place.
From a privileged view, a drone camera circulates above the Cornish coastline on a brightly lit day. It captures the relenting sea, which breaks and folds in white crests upon the rocky shoreline. Into this rolling surf advances a surfer, equipped in a wetsuit, and board under arm. From the craggy coast, the artist Kurt Jackson watches his friend disappear into the blue. With him he has carried a large board, on which is his paper. As his friend begins to surf, Jackson corresponds with rapid pencil- and pen- marks on the paper. He hurriedly adds watercolour washes, combined with acrylic inks, flicking his paint and allowing it to run. There is no easel; the board is exposed to the elements of the sea, as much as Jackson himself. The artist uses the rocks as a support, before the sea itself billows in its waves, and the whole picture is nearly submerged, but Jackson moves it in time. Eventually, the tide subsumes Jackson and he is forced to retreat onto higher rocks. The sea is rushing around his feet, yet at mid-height he continues his creation. The sea is an integral part of this artist’s practice.
Kurt Jackson read zoology at Oxford University. From his childhood he had a close connection to the natural world, seen in his habit of painting from specimens and then annotating them. However, it wasn’t until taking a gap year in Africa that Jackson decided he wanted to be an artist and that, to pursue this, he wanted to be in Cornwall. He first moved to Boscastle in 1984, where he began to develop as a painter; he still lives in Cornwall, in St Just. Jackson has painted landscapes across Britain, but it is Cornwall that has been fundamental to his oeuvre. Indeed, he has produced several series from the topography of the West Cornish coast, including from Cape Cornwall and Priest Cove, to his latest exhibition Cot: A Cornish Valley at his gallery space, the Jackson Foundation in St Just. Jackson has stated that he has to have a connection to a place in order to paint it, and he has returned to the same environments repeatedly in order to continue searching for new perspectives. Jackson works within and from the landscape en plein air as the drone video footage from his website confirms, yet he also works from sketches in his studio. Jackson’s willingness to experiment has resulted in his use of multiple media, as well as the use of found objects and materials to build up the picture surface, from newspaper to sand. The process of understanding a landscape manifests in Jackson’s process of painting, and it is this process that is inherently abstract and dynamic, with Jackson using multiple brushes and media in any one moment. His process is as much a part of the work as the finished piece; for large works, Jackson works from the ground and engages such techniques as utilising the palette itself to wipe paint across the surface, as well as pouring paint directly onto the canvas. Yet, his finished paintings convey a realism that is at odds with their abstracted beginnings.
Jackson’s process suggests the rhythm of the sea, dynamic but also methodical. The lines of his seascape horizons convey a magnitude reminiscent of the sublime; frequently Jackson’s depiction of a landscape serves to remind us of the microscopic presence of humans within it; how humanity has changed the landscape, yet can never fully control it. This is a theme he has explored in accompanying trawler and fishermen on their boats; as they work against the power of the sea, Jackson draws and paints their perilously difficult task. In doing this, Jackson emphasises the interaction between humanity and landscape, ultimately showing the importance of respect deserved by both.
This aspect of man’s interaction with the sea is also depicted in the early work of Laura Knight, an artist unrelated to Jackson in terms of style, but of who nevertheless displayed an affinity for the sea, as well as for Cornwall. Her paintings of Staithes in Yorkshire, an artists’ colony in the late nineteenth century, included depictions of the fishing crews and their workers. Knight conveys the sense of dependence upon the sea for the Staithes community in The Fishing Fleet, as well as a mood of determination.
Knight had a difficult childhood, marred by poverty, the absence of her father, and the death of her sister. However, she was encouraged to paint and draw by her mother, Charlotte. An artist herself, she taught at her daughter’s school in exchange for free education. Knight’s talent enabled her to attend the Nottingham School of Art, aged just thirteen. It was there that she met fellow artist Harold Knight, who she would try to emulate in technique and style, and whom she married in 1903. Whilst living in the artists’ colony in Staithes, Knight came under the guidance of Charles Hodge Mackie (1862-1920), who helped her to develop her style by depicting what she observed and not imitating other artists. The escape to Staithes reflected the rejection of academicism in late nineteenth century art, following the influence of the French Barbizon and Dutch Hague schools. There was a shift towards depictions of rural people and life, and the creation of artistic centres within these rural communities. Knight’s focus is the reality of working people in Staithes. Yet, in 1907, the Knights moved to another influential artists’ colony, Newlyn in Cornwall. The couple would live in Cornwall for ten years, and become active within the Newlyn School, surrounded by artists such as Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947), and Alfred Munnings (1878-1959). The atmosphere of Newlyn, and the infamous Cornish light, enabled Knight’s palette to become brighter, with her work becoming more optimistic and romantic than in her work at Staithes.
In Knight’s On the Cliffs the sea is presented through the human presence of the two women on the cliff top. This presentation of figures against a backdrop of the sea’s distant horizon re-occurs in Knight’s Cornish works, suggesting a concern for a connection between humanity and the landscape. Indeed, Knight’s Cornish years were an idyllic escape for her in her life and work. However, the developments of World War I eventually forced the Knights back to London. Depictions of the British coastline were banned by the government, which limited Knight’s opportunities to paint the sea.
Both Kurt Jackson and Laura Knight at first appear to be two very different artists. Yet their shared inspiration, particularly the terrain and coastline of Cornwall, display a concern for a sense of place and human presence within an environment. Their depictions of the sea remind us of the power of nature to transcend the mundanity of life, as such their horizons invite the viewer, like the surfer, into the rhythm of the tide.
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Fry, Carolyn. ‘A Brush with the Past: An Interview with Kurt Jackson.’ Geographical 73, no.7 (July 2001): 24-26.
Jackson, Kurt. A New Genre of Landscape Painting. With essays by Mark Cocker, Helen Dunmore, Bill Hare, Howard Jacobson, Richard Mabey, Philip Marsden, Bel Mooney, William Packer, John Russell Taylor, Tim Smit and Mike Tooby. Farnham, Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2012.
Jackson, Kurt. Place. Bristol: Sansom & Co, 2014.
Jackson, Kurt and Andrew Brown. ‘A Night Full of Sardines.’ Kurt Jackson.com Filmed, 2014. Edited by Melissa Warren. Produced by Emma George. Video, 06:07, Accessed October, 18 2017. http://www.kurtjackson.com/Media-Films.html#
Jackson, Kurt and Fynn Tucker. ‘Obsession: Following the Surfer.’ Kurt Jackson.com, Filmed 2016. Video, 18:25. Accessed October, 18 2017. http://www.kurtjackson.com/Media-Films.html