Dame Laura Knight Exhibition 'I Paint Today' – and the woman in the painting

17 June 2024
Detail from Beulah No2 Painting

“I do remember my gran, we use to live on Mansion Lane Caravan Park (in Iver, Buckinghamshire). We lived right next to my gran almost, few caravans away - she was close by” – says Rita Smith, who is the granddaughter of Freedom (Beulah) Smith, the woman in Laura Knight’s painting above.

Laura Knight was a hugely successful artist who achieved considerable fame for her paintings in her lifetime. Knight’s portraits of Romany Gypsies are considered to be her greatest work, despite it being a brief part of her career.

In the Laura Knight – I Paint Today exhibition at Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery, which runs until the 30th of June, 2024, three of Knight’s Romany paintings feature. These are Beulah No2, Gypsies at Ascot, and A Gypsy Encampment.

Three of the paintings in the Exhibition

Knight’s paintings in this exhibition mostly focus on Beulah (Freedom Smith) and her mother-in-law Lilo Loveridge. Visting this exhibition to talk to Curator Georgie Stevens – who is Romany herself - I learnt that Knight would sit in Beulah’s wagon and paint her.

Curator Georgie Stevens and her son Ted © Dan Haworth-Salter
Curator Georgie Stevens and her son Ted

In her autobiography Knight later wrote of Beulah: “To say she was beautiful is not enough, apart from perfection of the mould she bore the mark of tragedy as well.”

“Dame Laura Knight very honestly and accurately captures the genuine expressions of her Gypsy subjects which is indicative that she spent enough time with them to get to know them,” said Georgie Stevens.

Laura Knight first came to be introduced to Gypsy life when she attended Derby Day, Newlyn, in 1933. The Gypsies at Ascot portrait in particular was painted from the back of her vintage Rolls Royce. It was here that Knight befriended and connected with a Romany community who were living on encampments and working the land in and around Iver, Buckinghamshire. From this point she went on to make daily visits to the settlements to represent their daily lives through painting. She visited every day for several months during the 1930’s and painted several portraits and scenes.

Detail from Gypsies at Ascot © Dan Haworth-Salter
Detail from Gypsies at Ascot

“The love of life and the bold colours of the Gypsy Communities are captured and the attention to the detail of expressions, the keen watchful eye on their surroundings with that almost untrusting gaze and evidence of the hardships of a Gypsy way of life captured by the lines of the face," said Georgie Stevens, "There is also a positive anticipation of what a day at the races may hold for them."

Georgie's Son Ted points to one of the paintings

Georgie Stevens finishes our interview by telling me why these portraits were still important to Gypsy and Traveller life today, “Everyone in Gypsy and Traveller communities know of Dame Laura Knight’s Gypsy work and it’s because she has so respectfully and accurately captured key characteristics of our community positively, with no judgement, stereotypes or over-romanticisation."

Detail from Gypsy Encampment © Dan Haworth-Salter
Detail from Gypsy Encampment

After visiting the exhibition I became drawn to the portrait of Beulah ( Freedom Smith) and really wanted to find out more about her and her life.

I recently made contact with Freedom Smith’s direct granddaughter Rita Smith and Great Granddaughter Sarah Jane Smith, who live in Buckinghamshire, and I was lucky enough to be able to interview her.

Collage of photos showing Annie, Rita, Freedom and Sarah - Jane
Annie, Rita, Freedom and Sarah - Jane

Talking to me via telephone Rita Smith told me the following when I asked her about Freedom Smith,

“I do remember my gran, we use to live on Mansion Lane Caravan Park (Iver, Buckinghamshire). We lived right next to my gran almost, few caravans away - she was close by.

They had five children - Hilda, Stan, Emy, Rosina and my mum Annie. My mum told me Gran use to work on a farm and for a circus as well, me mum use to say she worked hard, really hard.”

I asked Rita what she remembered about her gran. She told me,

“I remember meeting my gran. She used to bring us sweets and crisps. She made us all a necklace out of beads, all of us girls and we still have them to this day."

Finally, we talked about the pictures of Beulah (Freedom Smith).

Rita said, “If my mum (Annie Smith) was still alive she would have loved that picture of her. People that know me say that I look like my gran”.


Speaking to Great, Great Granddaughter Sarah Jane Smith by email she gave me the following words,

“Freedom was born Freda around 1913 and was thought to be one of 15 children. She married Harry Smith. They are buried at St Marys Church, Langley. Lilo Loveridge (known as Granny Smith) also featured in paintings, is also buried there.

Freedom Smith's Husband Harry Smith
Freedom Smith's Husband Harry Smith
Gravestone of Harry and Freedom Smith in St Marys Church, Langley
Gravestone of Harry and Freedom Smith in St Marys Church, Langley

By Stacey Hodgkins

(Exhibition photographs by Dan Haworth-Salter for the Travellers’ Times. Family photographs courtesy of Sarah Jane Smith. Lead photograph caption: Detail from Beulah No2)