Reasons to be cheerful, part 2 (I’m not knitting…)

I’m not. I’m being good in preparation and training, and also because I’ve been trying to do as much work as possible before being rendered incapable of typing by surgery – the curse of the self-employed. Boo, hiss. I’m in a gap between jobs right now: just delivered one, waiting for the next to ping into my inbox.

I worked for several years at the National Gallery in London before I went back to working for myself, and I’ve been spending a shining hour finding paintings of other people knitting, and not just the usual suspects. My time in Trafalgar Square left me with an exaggerated appreciation of less well-known paintings, even to the extent of being able to walk straight past something remarkable and focus on something which definitely was not; a form of visual exhaustion, I think.

But my first choice isn’t one of those. And she’s not knitting, of course – this is Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder, from Drumanlarig Castle (there are other versions of the same theme, also in private collections). The yarn winder Jesus is holding acts as both a symbol of Mary’s domesticity and a foretelling of the crucifixion. I’ve always found this a slightly odd painting; Mary seems to be oddly flat, not really a three-dimensional representation. There’s definitely something weird about her.

This next one is a bit closer to us in time.

It’s Ivan Petrovitch Argunov’s 1768 Portrait of Countess Tolstoy, from the Museum of Russian Art in Kiev. I love the colours of the knitting (even though I’m not quite sure what it is – sock? Mitten?). I bet you need something to distract you when you’re sitting for a portrait, and it might just as well be your knitting. You don’t necessarily expect to see it included in the finished work, though.

From a countess to some ordinary women, and Welsh women at that:

William Dyce’s Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting, in the National Museum of Wales. Plus it’s a Snowdonia landscape. Not that I’m in the slightest bit biased – no, I’m not; it’s the Conwy valley and I’m miles from there. Dyce probably painted this in his London studio using sketches he did on his visit to Wales in 1860, and it’s extraordinarily detailed – reminds me a bit of some of Ruskin’s close-up drawings of rocks and plants. The women, incidentally, appear to be knitting stockings. That was a valuable way of adding to the household income, and was often the only thing that stood between some families and destitution.

This next one is a bit less serious. Well, for me it is – and it’s the first one by a female artist (hooray).

Young Woman Knitting by Berthe Morisot, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, though not, I think, on show. (Reserve collections are something I tended to bang on about – probably because the Nat Gal had everything on show. More possible for somewhere like the NG, which has a comparatively limited collection in terms of numbers, than for somewhere ginormous like the Met.) Anyway – it’s a lovely afternoon; what better way of spending it than sitting outside with your knitting?

Now for another female artist, Evelyn Dunbar. She worked as one of the official war artists in the UK during WW2, and I just love her work. In fact, she was the only woman in the group of salaried war artists, and I’m not surprised. Her wartime paintings are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, and the best known are probably her unsentimental depictions of land girls.

(I’ve got to share this one, even though it’s not knitting or a land girl – it’s her wonderful Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing – well, I think it’s wonderful –

with one woman helping another into an anti-gas suit. You can tell that Dunbar flourished as an illustrator. Ahem. Sorry about the diversion. Back to sticks and string.)

In 1940 she produced this:

It’s called A Knitting Party, and the women are evidently knitting for the troops (as I mentioned in an earlier post, even though wool was eventually quite severely rationed, you could get supplies if you were part of  a knitting group producing garments for the services).

And apart from the hats, the comfortable seating and the general lack of beer, it could be our knitting group. Well, almost. And now my inbox has pinged, and I have an exciting book on business to edit. Ah well, back to the real world.


12 thoughts on “Reasons to be cheerful, part 2 (I’m not knitting…)

  1. del

    I’ve seen that last painting before; I love paintings of people knitting (most always women), especially ones like the Welsh version, of plain and simple women — no idea why, those just appeal to me the most.

    1. kate Post author

      I’m with you – I think it’s something to do with redressing the balance (well, it probably is for me, pass me a barricade and I’ll stand on it). There are so many pictures of princesses and queens and countesses; it’s good to have other people afforded that dignity. And especially knitters!

  2. Island Threads

    Kate sorry to read of your surgery but glad something can be done, like you I can wander off and look at patterns and books when I should be doing other things, even as a child if I was sent to clean my room hour or more latter I’d be found sitting on the floor reading,
    Countess Tolstoy is probably knitting stockings, having studied history of costume I learnt that all stockings and tights were handknitted most often in wool though occasionally in silk before nylon in the 20th century, all those historical costume films with men in sleek and snug fitting tights are 20thC in real time they were baggy wool or silk,
    you made me feel like going through my patterns and starting some hand knitting, Frances

    1. kate Post author

      Well, I’m with you – housework? I spit upon it. Well, not all the time, obviously, otherwise the whole house would be covered in phlegm.

      Ahem, sorry about that. Got a bit of a cold (never go near a hospital unless you really, really have to) so it leapt to mind. Now you’ve said that, I bet she is knitting stockings – I thought it looked too long for a sock.

  3. Annie

    I’ve seen some of these before, but not all. There’s another Dunbar of nurses on a train knitting, do you know it? Countess Tolstoy … given the date and her social class I think she is probably knitting a purse, a Countess would have bought her leg ware I think. Lovely post Kate 😀

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks – and purse… interesting idea, and that might account for the colours too, which would probably be a bit garish for posh stockings (even in Russia, ho ho). I’ve got a vague memory of seeing something in a museum somewhere in what was then the Soviet Union – my goodness, years ago, maybe even before I was knitting. Wonder if I can dredge a clearer memory up?

      And I don’t know the other Dunbar – am off to IWM’s site to find it!

  4. heikeknits

    Lovely ‘knitterly’ paintings…Countess Tolstoy knitting indeed 😉

    Didn’t the boys do well, I was coming back from workshop and had to pull into a layby as it was getting to nerve-racking in the last few minutes to drive safely!

    A Dewi Sant from Ruthin


    1. kate Post author

      What a match! I had to keep flipping channels (not well enough to go to pub, nasty cold) because the excitement kept getting too much!

      Gwyl Dewi Sant hapus to you too, eat lots of daffodils…

  5. Lydia

    Dewi Sant! I love the Welsh painting most especially for the mountains in the background. My father’s 88th birthday today I have just had a chat with him on the phone about Caernarfon where he grew up. A speedy recovery for you…

    1. kate Post author

      Dewi Sant indeed – can’t believe it’s March already. What happened to January and February (perhaps least said)? I love that painting too – so glad it’s been bought for the nation now.

  6. Harriet

    Happy St David’s day! Did the sun shine over there in Welsh Wales? Catching up reading all your lovely posts. When are you having surgery? What is the condition?
    That Knitting Party doesn’t look like much fun – a gin and tonic might liven it all up!

    1. kate Post author

      Hi Harriet! Well… it started shining, and then it went gloomy – again. Very boring – and that seems to be the pattern; we get excited and then mist comes in from the sea. Couple of miles inland = lovely.

      Don’t know date for surgery yet but should be soon… massive spinning idiocy resulting in trigger fingers / thumbs on both hands, no grip, pain etc – and all my own fault. Hm, gin. I want one now, and it’s not yet 8.30 am! Gin and porridge… mmmm


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