When Team GB painted the Olympics gold

Sportsbeat
·5-min read
Former triathlete Vanessa Raw missed out on Olympic selection in 2008 but is now working with Purplebricks to encourage the nation to get behind Team GB in Tokyo
Former triathlete Vanessa Raw missed out on Olympic selection in 2008 but is now working with Purplebricks to encourage the nation to get behind Team GB in Tokyo

Laura Knight may just be the most remarkable Olympic medallist you've never heard of, writes James Toney.

A trailblazer who defied stereotypes and always challenged convention, she rose from poverty to world acclaim but never lost touch with her humble roots.

She was a living embodiment of that famous motto about 'triumph and struggle' - and just the sort of Olympic Games founder Pierre de Coubertin had in mind when he wrote it.

But Knight's Olympic moment didn't come with strokes of an oar but a brush, and there was no cheering stadium either, just the quiet stillness of her artists’ studio.

De Coubertin had long dreamed that medals would be awarded for the arts at the Games and finally got his wish in 1912, when submissions were made in the fields of architecture, literature, music, sculpture and painting.

And Knight was the first of four British artists to make the podium, with her silver medal-winning picture 'Boxeurs' recognised at the 1928 Amsterdam Games.

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One year later she was made a Dame, eight years on she became the first woman elected to full membership of the Royal Academy.

She painted chocolate boxes for Cadbury’s, designed tea sets for Clarice Cliff and during the Second World War, immortalised factory workers, especially women, to hero those working on the home front.

And she was predictably unpredictable.

“No one ever knew what she was going to do next in terms of genre, style, subject and technique,” said her biographer Dr Barbara Morden.

Knight counted George Bernard Shaw and TE Lawrence among her closest friends and, nearing 70, was appointed the official artist of the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

Her achievements in the male-dominated British art world paved the way for greater visibility and recognition for women that followed, a true pioneer in the truest Olympic spirit.

William Nicholson won Team GB's first gold at the 1928 Games for a series of graphic designs for a book written by Rudyard Kipling while Samuel Rabin, an artist, sculptor and musician by trade who taught for two decades at Goldsmiths, won wrestling bronze in the Netherlands but never managed his dream of a unique sports and arts medal double.

In total, arts medals were awarded for seven Games, with London 1948 the final time competitions in the arts were part of the official programme, the International Olympic Committee taking the decision that professional artists should not be allowed to compete alongside amateur sports people.

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When the Olympics came to the capital for the second time, Alfred Thompson, who was born deaf, became the first and only British painter to win gold, his work, a portrait of boxers at the Royal Albert Hall, selling for £73,250 at auction in 2012.

And John Copley took silver for a series of etchings at the age of 73 - making him the oldest Olympic medallist of all time, 14 years the senior of Nick Skelton, who won show jumping gold for Team GB in Rio.

Another 73 years on and art is making a comeback, with Team GB's official estate agent Purplebricks commissioning three British painters to create powerful images that depict Home Support, works of art to inspire the nation to get behind the Tokyo team.

Olympic boxing silver medallist Joe Joyce, who has a fine art degree from Middlesex University, was chosen alongside Vanessa Raw, former triathlete turned artist, and former rugby player and mouth artist Henry Fraser, to create artworks ahead of the Games.

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Their paintings will adorn Purplebricks For Sale and To Let boards countrywide and the public will also have the chance to own one of 2,020 limited edition prints.

“It was such an honour to create a special piece of art for the Olympics, which is hopefully going to inspire the athletes and show them that everyone is behind them," said Joyce, after completing his work 'Inspiring Pride'.

“I wanted my image to reflect the power of Team GB, so my final piece is of the lion, incorporated with the Union flag."

Raw, who missed Olympic selection in 2008 after a series of injuries, now specialises in large oil paintings on a canvas background and is currently honing her craft at her studio in Earlsfield.

“I always knew I wanted to be an artist, it just took a while to put the sport aside and get on with the art," said Raw.

“Sport really helped give me that persistence and endurance needed to work super hard as an artist, because there are no guarantees of making it in either area."

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Former rugby player Fraser - who was paralysed from shoulders down in an accident aged 17 - paints with his mouth and created a stunning piece, fusing the Olympic Flame and the Japanese flag on a torch adorned with the Union flag.

“I was chuffed to be approached. I'm from a very sporting family and the Olympics is a huge part of our lives," he said.

“To be part of supporting Team GB in a small way was great. Art has taken me a crazy journey and lots of mad and amazing things have happened - this being one of them."

The collective works of Joyce, Raw and Fraser will be seen nationwide from this month and they join a proud and forgotten Olympic tradition.

Purplebricks is encouraging the nation to get behind Team GB on their journey to Tokyo, with the same amazing home support as London 2012. Visit @PurplebricksUK. To enter the draw to receive one of 2,020 limited edition prints, click here.