Eva Crofts and Dame Laura Knight: Clarice Cliff and the Newlyn School come to Nonington.

Dame Laura Knight was never resident in Nonington but often visited Arthur Bates, her uncle, and Evangeline “Sissie” Crofts, her older sister, who both lived in Easole Street in Nonington.

Laura Knight circa 1910.
Laura Knight circa 1910.

Dame Laura was an English artist who embraced English Impressionism and became one of the most successful and popular painters in Britain. Laura and her husband, Harold Knight, were both members of the Newlyn School of Artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She has an incredibly successful career spanning many decades and Laura paved the way for other women artists to achieve more recognition and higher status in the overwhelmingly male-dominated British art establishment.

Laura Knight was created a Dame in 1929, and in 1936 she became the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy since its foundation in 1768. In 1965 a large retrospective exhibition of her work at the Royal Academy in 1965 was the first of its kind by a woman. Dame Laura was a celebrated painter of the theatre and ballet world in London, as well as being a war artist during the Second World War who was present to record the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in 1946.

Laura Knight, née Johnson, was born on 4th August, 1877, and died on 7th July, 1970.  Laura was the youngest of the three daughters of Charles and Charlotte Johnson. Charles Johnson abandoned the family shortly after Laura was borne and Charlotte Johnson taught part time at Nottingham School of Art.  After Charlotte Johnson’s death Laura and her older sister Evangeline “Eva” Agnes, always referred to by Laura as “Sissie”, were left to live alone on very little money. Laura and Sissie also lost their sister Nellie and both their grandmothers within a short period of time of loosing their mother.
Laura, although only aged fifteen and still a student herself, took over her mother’s teaching at the Nottingham School of Art. 

In the mid-1890’s Laura and Sissie lived at the Castle Rooms in Nottingham, and 1898 they removed from there to the artist’s colony at Staithes on the North Yorkshire coast. Sissie stayed there until 1901 when she moved to St. Quentin in  the north of France to keep house for Arthur Bates, her maternal uncle, who had a lace making business there. Arthur Bates encouraged Sissie to develop her artistic talents and paid for her to attend the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris.

During her time at the Nottingham School of Art  Laura met Harold Knight, then only aged seventeen but considered to be one of the school’s most promising talent’s, and married him in 1903. In 1907 the couple went to live in Newlyn in Cornwall, where they became members of the Newlyn School of Artists. They resided intermittently in Cornwall over the decades and  Harold Knight died there in 1961.

In 1908, sold Arthur Bates sold his lace making business in St. Quentin and retired to  “The Limes”, now known as “Four Limes”, in Easole Street in Nonington. Sissie was her uncle’s house-keeper companion, and with his support and encouragement she continued to design ceramics and textiles with ever increasing success.

In May of 1910 Sissie married Robart [Ro] Crofts, a Canterbury pharmacist whose family lived at “The Firs”, now “Cerne House”, a few yards along Easole Street from “The Limes”. The 1901 census records Mr. William Crofts, then aged 79, as being a retired ship owner living with his wife and unmarried daughter, both named Charlotte. Robart Crofts served as a Sergeant-Pharmacist in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Great War of 1914-1918.
Robart Croft did not get on with Laura, especially after he refused to loan money to Laura to fund a trip to America in the early 1920’s. Despite this mutual antipathy Laura Knight frequently visited her uncle at “The Limes”.

From soon after her arrival in Nonington Sissie, first as Eva Johnson and then as Eva Croft, showed that she was a talented ceramic and textile designer in her own right, designing ceramics for such companies as A.J. Wilkinson and E. Brain & Co. As Eva Croft she contributed designs to Clarice Cliff’s Bizarre Bon Jour and Krafton Bon Jour ranges in the 1930’s, both of which are still sought after and collected.

Krafton bonjour tea set c 1934
An Eva Crofts designed Clarice Cliff Krafton Bon Jour tea set c 1934

Clarice Cliff also used designs by Laura Knight after the two women  became friends after meeting on a train in 1933. Sissie was at the time probably better known for her work as a textile designer for companies such as Donald Brothers, Turnbull & Stockdale, and Warners.

Sissie looked after her uncle until his death in 1931, and after his death his estate was divided between Laura and herself. The two sisters remained close and frequently wrote to each other, although when Sissie visited Laura in Cornwall she did so on her own because of her husband’s dislike of Laura.  Sissie continued to live in Nonington until her death in 1946.

Eva Croft’s grand-son, R. John Croft, is at present compiling a Catalogue Raisonne for both Harold and Laura Knight and is seeking assistance in compiling both catalogues.