All Good Things: A Look At Challenging Convention at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle

Gallery A, Challenging Convention. All rights reserved to artists. Photo credit: Colin Davison / Laing Art Gallery

Biding one's time was a frequent practice by women of yesteryear, and sorrowfully, that 'time' mostly did not come. The saying, however, came into its own in the Victorian period, a period that proffered a glimpse of liberty, planting roots of ambition and allowing females to carve a name for themselves in many areas where they did not dare to before. Major exhibition Challenging Convention at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle reveals more through four pioneering artists who went against everything patriarchal society imposed.

Over 60 works have a dedicated space and wall colour that mirrors the tones and vibrations of their being. Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Laura Knight (1877-1970), Gwen John (1876-1939) and Dod Procter (1890-1972) were born within 15 years of each other, and although their backgrounds varied, each one attended art school. First and foremost, these trailblazers had a sense of self. They thought, therefore they were, awarding themself the title of artist came before the validation of anyone else.

Gwen John's output sits on a soft, dove grey background at the Laing, indicating the quieter, calm nature of her works. Residing in Paris not only earned John respect in painting but also for upholding the courage to keep her solitary living preferences. Although her collection may not be daring in appearance, strength is present calmly and knowingly; atmospheric haze dusts her strokes.

The Little Interior, 1926 by Gwen John (1876–1939). Oil on canvas Lent by Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Bequest: Gaynor Cemlyn Jones, 2003

The Little Interior is a delicate piece where the subtle uses of grey have an anodyne effect, never permitting busy thoughts to enter one's mind space. Near the middle of the art perches a brown teapot, which acts as an unspoken invite into John's world if you are willing to respect her aura. Yes, brother Augustus was considered more popular initially, but Gwen superseded this as time went on.

On cheerful pink walls lives the representation of Vanessa Bell who feathered her nest in bohemian Bloomsbury after the death of her father with her two brothers and sister, no other than writer Virginia Woolf. Shunning conventionality, she shared two sons with art critic Clive Bell and a daughter with artist Ducan Grant whose usual love match was male.

(Pictured in centre) Interior with Duncan Grant, 1934, Vanessa Bell (1879–1961). Oil on canvas Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Birkenhead. Photo credit: Colin Davison / Laing Art Gallery. All rights reserved to the artist.

That skill of house decoration, where not much matches, but everything goes is apparent in Interior with Ducan Grant cementing the comfortableness with their what could be considered an off-beat situation, choosing their own opinion to matter most. Grant and Bell shared the country home, Charleston- and on a cosy afternoon, he reads and smokes amongst a patterned sofa and oddly beautiful green throw, and cultivated items such as a dominating ornament on the mantel, all showcasing fearless colour inventiveness in Victoria's painting.

To the most feminine representation of the quatre, Doris Shaw, or as we know her Dod Procter, occupies a backdrop of soft blue. Shaw grew up in Cornwall and studied in the cultural magnet Paris. Fond of painting females, she was content to portray ladies from truthful eyes, as in The Golden Girl, where model Eileen Mayo appears reserved, a little pensive and not looking out but down. Sensual; honest, and such clarity in the pieces.

The Golden Girl, c.1930 (oil on canvas), Procter, Dod (1892-1972) /

The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art / Bridgeman Images © The Estate of Dod Procter / Bridgeman Images

Draped fabric in the form of a scarf, gloves, and fur cuff is visible in Black and White, alluding to the feminine form through items of identity and style. There is no one present, but an ability for the viewer to paint a person in their head and furthermore where elegance was a must, now is a choice, the figure in mind may be removed far from Dod's initial idea; as an artist, I think she would very much approve.

Lastly, to an area that resonated with me considerably (and not because we share the same surname): Laura Knight glides on a sea of flame-red backing. From parent Charlotte, who delivered art lessons, a talent shone lustrously from her daughter, Laura followed in her mother's footsteps. She married artist Harrold Knight after inspecting all ways that he worked; this followed into her repertoire, earning her the title of one of life's true observers.

Bold colour choices and images permeate the fibres of the air, almost touchable. The Rehearsal encapsulates the backstage fizz of Cuadro flamenco, where the sets were designed by Picasso. Not only did Laura recreate velvety tones that strike the senses in a ferocious gust, but she also managed to present the dresses in a fluid, moving state.

The Three Clowns, 1930 (oil on canvas), Laura Knight (1877-1970) / Leicester Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester, UK © reproduced with permission of the estate of Dame Laura Knight, DBE, RA / Bridgeman Images

Seeking adventure, Knight recollected fond memories of her childhood and visits to the circus, so to be embodied in the culture, she joined the Mills and Carmo Company on their 1929 summer tour. The Three Clowns flaunts a relaxed scene of a cigarette break. Exactly as the Spanish dancers, the image is still but begets organic movement and flow. You are in the conversation. You work at the circus, colours, textures, smell and atmosphere at your fingertips.

Our gallery has prepared what our gallery does best: a thoughtfully curated show that never lacks respect or integrity, but exposes history in art that rings true even now- economic hardship, unstable work, child care affecting women- but often highlight the positives also of how far the modern world has travelled for equality. You'll find quotes from the fab four above the art to bring the message home, home to family set ups of all diverse kinds. Strong women. May we know them. May we raise them. May we be them. May we educate them at the Laing.

Runs from 17 May - 21 August 2021 (booking is recommended although not essential as you can purchase tickets on the day)

Article by Beverley Knigh