The Artist

Picture courtesy of St Dunstan's

Letter to The Times

5th May 1987

"May I add a few words to your comprehensive obituary of Esmond Knight?  His first love was indeed the theatre, but the second was painting. This started in a small way when he was almost blind and working at Stratford; a fellow actor suggested he take up drawing.

Most of his paintings were done from memory, and the impression one derives from them is a sense of his experience in the theatre and knowledge of history.  In particular his pictures of scenes from the medieval wars between France and England and successfully capture the excitement of the conflict. Among his wide ranging works two are outstanding; his "Self-portrait" and the "Last impression of HMS Hood viewed from HMS Prince of Wales."

Roland Hardless

It's not entirely surprising that Esmond Knight should have taken up painting as a pastime - the surprising element was that he didn't do it sooner.  There were artists on both maternal and paternal sides of the family, most notably his great-uncle John Buxton Knight (1843-1908), a gifted if somewhat volatile landscape painter whose work hangs in the Tate Gallery, London. Esmond was also a collector of traditional art in a modest way and owned originals by Jan Breughel, John Sell Cotman and David Cox.

In 1948 he joined the  Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon for a season, along with an impressive line up of fellow actors including Robert Helpmann, Claire Bloom, Paul Scofield, Alfie Bass and William Squire, and it was here that he was encouraged to start drawing and painting by his friend and colleague Douglas Wilmer. He used watercolour at first but soon moved on to oils which he found easier, although he continued to use watercolour occasionally, especially for designing his own Christmas cards. His first notable work was a self-portrait as Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew, waiting in the wings to make his entry at Stratford.

'Actors preparing for King John at Stratford' - an original painting by Esmond Knight. Scenes
depicting  actors in the wings or rehearsing became a recurrent theme in Esmond's art.
Picture courtesy of Nigel Martin
For the rest of his life, wherever he lived Esmond always had a small room converted into a studio, with a larger studio in the attic of Nora's Ark, his country cottage in Buckinghamshire, where he could bury himself away between acting commitments. Bearing in mind his limited sight he was remarkably prolific and regularly exhibited his work, notably at the Chelsea Arts Club. He was also very generous in giving away his paintings, as a letter from Laurence Olivier, dated 2nd January 1969 indicates:

Dearest Esmond

Thank you so infinitely much for the lovely painting and so lovely Christmas wishes.

It was so dearly kind of you to think of us.  Best wishes for 1969 to you and darling Norah.

I’ll be able to give an exhibition of ‘Knights’ soon.

Always yours



p A painting by Esmond which was reproduced on Christmas cards in 1967 to help raise money for Moorfields Eye Hospital, London.

Unlike most artists Esmond was unable to make preparatory sketches and relied entirely on his visual memory for his subjects. When painting a landscape he always started with the sky, deciding how high up on the canvas or board the eye line was going to be and using memory to define how light changes as distance increases. "It might be a picture in which the horizon is very, very low. This gives a wonderful feeling of space. Then, if you want to show more, you simply put the horizon up. Then, of course, the stuff in the foreground comes right up to you in perspective."

Mixing colours in oil - complex enough for perfectly sighted painters - created particular problems.  On his palette colours were laid out in a suitably naval order - red (port) to the left and green (starboard) to the right, with other colours in between and black in the middle.  When his already limited sight began to deteriorate in the late 1960s, he relied more and more on others, especially his wife Nora, to identify the shades of colours for him. To give some idea of the problem, Esmond described it thus: "Imagine your left eye is blindfolded. Now close your right eye and open it very gently until the first glimmer of light comes through - that's roughly how much I can see."

"Oil painting is wonderful, particularly if you are painting on board. You make several boss shots

and you simply get a rag soaked in turpentine and wash it out and start again, or paint over

 what you have done and by mistake get a marvellous effect!"  Esmond Knight

Esmond also experimented with other art forms. In the 1950s he was a member of the Chelsea Pottery and Clay Club run by David Rawnsley, an art director who had worked on Powell and Pressburger films in the 1940s. Amongst his numerous achievements, Rawnsley was responsible for building (mostly out of wood and canvas) the impressive replica U-boat seen during the early scenes of 49th Parallel. He also constructed the remarkable aerial model of Stuttgart used in the bombing sequence in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.

On the back of this 1970 painting Esmond wrote: "This is supposed to be old Howe going
back to the 'Charlotte' in full mutiny!" He had played Lord Howe in Spithead at the
Greenwich Theatre the year before, so this is presumably a veiled self-portrait.

Of David Rawnsley, Michael Powell wrote: " ...the sort of young man that you wanted to be shipwrecked with on a desert island ... tall, broad-shouldered, good-looking, considerate of others - in fact, too good to be true."

At Rawnsley's club Esmond tried his hand at three dimensional art including sculpting in clay. His work there was recorded for posterity in December 1953 by a Pathe News camera team who visited the club and filmed Esmond busy sculpting a finely detailed dragon. He could be seen seated at a bench surrounded by other keen amateurs, including a vicar and a court photographer, all working under the guiding eye of David Rawnsley himself. The narrator of the film was Eamon Andrews who four years later would be surprising Esmond with his big red book as the presenter of This Is Your Life.

"I can't read nowadays, so painting is the only thing I can do when I'm not acting." Esmond in 1970

In May 1973 Esmond had an exhibition of his paintings at the New Town Gallery in Uckfield, East Sussex, which had recently been taken over by Roland Hardless, an admirer of both Esmond's work and Esmond as a person. This was the first exhibition in the new gallery and about seventy paintings were hung. It was a considerable achievement for Esmond - the culmination of two years work, and this at a time when the sight in his good eye was fading. Many people, including friends and colleagues from the theatre, came to see the paintings, and to buy. After three weeks there were only a few left and financially it was a great success for both Esmond and Roland Hardless. 

Esmond had specifically asked his family not to organise a memorial service for him when he died. So instead, Nora arranged a posthumous showing of his work that opened on 23rd February 1988 at the Saga Art Gallery in Elystan Street, Chelsea, just across the road from their flat in Cranmer Court. The exhibition consisting of 25 studies of archers at the battle of Agincourt that reflected both his appearance in the film Henry V and the one-man show he had devised, written and performed triumphantly towards the end of his remarkable career.

An original sketch from a personalised Christmas card sent in 1963


(signed and dated Christmas 1969)

A Merchant of Venice
(signed and dated 1964)
EK painting owned by JH
The Navy's Lion-hearts, The Undismay'd
(signed but not dated)

The following inscription is etched into the back of the frame:
"This picture was said to have been painted by Esmond Knight actor and naval officer
who was at the Battle of the River Plate
(sic) where he lost an eye. The picture was
given to me, Tim Mee Power, by my sister-in-law, Katherine Blake, an actress
of some note. This was corroborated by my half-brother, Charles Jarrott, film director."

This probably dates the picture to circa 1969 when Esmond was working with
Katherine Blake on
Anne of the Thousand Days. The film was directed by Charles Jarrott.
Blake and Jarrott were married at that time.

Wild fowling 
Wild Fowling in the Thames Estuary
(signed and dated February 1969)