Dame Laura Knight circa 1910
4 August 1877|
Long Eaton, Derbyshire, England
|Died||7 July 1970
|Works||The Nuremberg Trial (1946)|
|Awards||Silver Medal at the 1928 Amsterdam Art Olympics|
Dame Laura Knight, DBE, RA RWS (4 August 1877 – 7 July 1970) was a British artist who worked in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint. Knight was a painter in the figurative, realist tradition who embraced English Impressionism. During her long career, Knight was among the most successful and popular painters in Britain. In 1929 she was created a Dame and in 1936 became the first women elected to the Royal Academy since its foundation in 1768. Her large retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy, in 1965, was another first for a woman. Although Knight was known for painting amidst the world of the theatre and ballet in London, and for being a war artist during the Second World War, she was also greatly interested in, and inspired by, more marginalised communities and individuals including Gypsies and circus performers. Her success in the male-dominated British art establishment paved the way for greater status and recognition for women artists.
Early life and education
Laura Johnson was born in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, the youngest of three daughters to Charles and Charlotte Johnson. Her father died not long after her birth, and Laura grew up in a family that struggled with financial problems. In 1889, she was sent to France with the intention that she would eventually study art at a Parisian atelier. After a short time in French schools, she returned to England.
Charlotte Johnson did some part-time teaching at the Nottingham School of Art and managed to get Laura Johnson enrolled as an 'artisan student' there, paying no fees, aged just thirteen. Aged fifteen, Laura Johnson took over her mother's teaching duties when Charlotte became seriously ill. Later she won a modest scholarship and the gold medal in the national student competition held by the then South Kensington Museum. She continued to give private lessons after she left the Art School as both her and her sister Evangeline Agnes, known as "Sissie", had been left to live together on very little money, after the deaths of their mother, their sister Nellie and both of their grandmothers. At school, Laura met one of the most promising students, Harold Knight, then aged 17, and determined that the best method of learning was to copy Harold's technique. They became friends, and were married in 1903.
Staithes and Laren
In 1894, Harold Knight and Laura Johnson visited Staithes, a fishing village on the Yorkshire coast, for a holiday and soon returned, accompanied by Sissie, to live and work there. In Staithes, she drew the people of the fishing village and the surrounding farms showing the hardship and poverty of their lives. She made studies, paintings and watercolours, often painting in muted, shadowy tones. Lack of money for expensive materials meant she produced few oil paintings at this time. Local children would sit for her for pennies giving her time to develop her figure painting technique. Less successful at this time were her landscape and thematic works. Although she painted on the moors, high inland from Staithes, she did not consider herself successful at resolving these studies into finished pieces. Later she recalled:
"Even though my studio was so often warmed by burning canvases and drawings I do not regret all the experimental work done and destroyed. Staithes was too big a subject for an immature student, but working there I developed a visual memory which has stood me in good stead ever since."
Laura Johnson and Harold Knight made their first trip to the Netherlands in 1904. They spent six weeks there that year and six months there in 1905. They visited the artists colony at Laren, a group of followers of the Hague School of artists who had been painting in remote rural communities since the 1850s. The Knights made a third trip to Laren in 1906 before spending that winter in Yorkshire.
In late 1907, the Knights moved to Cornwall, staying first in Newlyn, before moving to Lamorna. Here, alongside Lamorna Birch, Alfred Munnings and Aleister Crowley, they became central figures in the Newlyn artists colony. By March 1908, both had work exhibited at the Newlyn Art Gallery. By this time Harold Knight was an established professional portrait painter while Laura Knight was still developing her art. Around Newlyn, the Knights found themselves among a group of sociable and energetic artists which appears to have allowed the more vivid and dynamic aspects of her personality to come to the fore.
Laura Knight spent the summer of 1908 working on the beach at Newlyn making studies for her large painting of children in bright sunlight. The Beach was shown at the Royal Academy in 1909 and considered a great success showing Laura painting in a more Impressionist style then she had previously. About this time Knight began painting compositions of women in the open air, often on the rocks at Lamorna. Knight would sometimes use models from London who were prepared to pose naked. Although there was some resentment locally of this, the local landowner was fully supportive and allowed Knight and the other artists a free rein. Another work from this time is The Green Feather, which was painted, and reworked due to a change in the weather, outdoors in a single day and shows the model Dolly Snell in an emerald evening dress with a hat and large feather.
In 1913, Knight made a painting that was a first for a woman artist, Self Portrait with Nude, showing herself painting a nude model, the artist Ella Naper. The painting is a complex, formal composition in a studio setting. Using mirrors, Knight painted herself and the model as seen by someone entering the studio behind them both. As an art student Knight had not been permitted to directly paint nude models but, like all female art students at the time, was restricted to working from casts and copying existing drawings. Knight deeply resented this and Self Portrait with Nude is a clear challenge, and reaction, to those rules. The painting was first shown, in 1913, at the Passmore Edwards Art Gallery in Newlyn and was well received by both the local press and other artists. Although the Royal Academy rejected exhibiting the painting, it was shown at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in London, as The Model. The Daily Telegraph critic called the painting "vulger" and suggested that it "might quite appropriately have stayed in the artist's studio." Despite this reaction, Knight continued to exhibit the painting throughout her career and it continued to receive press criticism. After Knight died, the picture was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery and is now considered both a key work in the story of female self-portraiture and as symbolic of wider female emancipation.
World War I and later
During World War I, Harold Knight registered as a conscientious objector and was eventually sent to work as a farm labourer. Wartime censorship rules included restrictions on painting around the British coastline which caused problems for Laura Knight, particularly when painting Spring which was shown at the Royal Academy in 1916 but which Knight later reworked. Also in 1916, Knight was asked to paint a canvas for the Canadian War Records office on the theme of Physical Training in a Camp, and produced an open-air scene of two boxers painted at Witley, Surrey. Special permits available after 1915 allowed Knight to continue her paintings of cliff-top landscapes. Several of these were completed from studies in the Knights' first London studio after they moved to the capital in 1919. During 1920 and 1921 Laura met and painted backstage some of the most famous ballet dancers of the day from Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Subjects included Lydia Lopokova, Anna Pavlova and the dance teacher Enrico Cecchetti. Knight also painted backstage, and in the dressing rooms, at Birmingham Repertory Theatre productions.
In 1926 Harold Knight spent several months at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, USA, painting portrait commissions of surgeons. Laura joined him there and was given permission to paint at the Baltimore Children's Hospital and in the racially segregated wards of the John Hopkins Hospital. Knight remarked that, "The babies of American darkies are among the most beautiful things in the world. In fact, to the artist there is a whole world of beauty which ought to be explored in negro life in America.". Whilst in Baltimore Knight painted a nurse, Pearl Johnson, who took her to meetings and concerts of the early American civil rights movement. Knight also hired a mother and child model to pose for the composition originally known as the Madonna of the Cotton Fields. Knight took these paintings back to London with her and they feature in the Pathé newsreel produced to mark her election as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1927.
In the early 1920s, Laura Knight visited the Bertram Mills Circus at Olympia in West London. Mills' circus was a highly polished show with internationally renowned performers. Knight painted some of these performers, such as the clown Whimsical Wilson, several times. Charivari or The Grand Parade, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1929 depicts practically the entire circus cast of performers and animals. Throughout 1929 and 1930 Knight went on a tour of British towns with the combined Bertram Mills and Great Carmo's Circus. Painting within a working circus forced Knight to paint at great speed as the performers rarely had much time to pose. Knight responded by painting directly onto the canvas without any preliminary drawing. Whilst this led to some of her circus scenes appearing 'flat' her paintings of small groups of clowns, such as The Three Clowns (1930) and Old Time Clowns (1957) were much more successful. Whilst Knights' Circus Folk exhibition, at the Alpine Club in 1930, was heavily criticized in art journals, her paintings of more mundane subjects, such as domestic interiors and London streets, were highly praised. Notable works from this period include Susie and the Wash-basin (1927), Blue and Gold (1927), A Cottage Bedroom (1929) and Spring in St. John's Wood (1933).
In the mid-1930s, Knight befriended and painted groups of Gypsies at the Epsom and Ascot racecourses. Knight frequently returned to the racecourses and painted from the back of an antique Rolls-Royce car, which was large enough to accommodate her easel. Often, pairs of Gypsy women would pose at the open door of the Rolls-Royce with the race-day crowds in the background. From Epsom, Knight was invited to the Gypsy settlement at Iver. Knight visited the Iver settlement, which was normally closed to outsiders, every day for several months in the late 1930s. These visits resulted in a series of portraits of great intensity. Two women in particular sat a number of times for Knight, Lilo Smith, the subject of Old Gypsy Women (1938) and Gypsy Splendour (1939), and her daughter-in-law, Beulah. Gypsy Splendour was shown at the Royal Academy in 1939, the year Lilo Smith died.
At the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, Laura Knight won the Silver Medal in Painting with the painting Boxer (1917). In 1929, Knight was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 1936 she became the first woman since 1769 elected to the Royal Academy. From 1933, Dame Laura and her husband became regular visitors to Malvern. They found much inspiration for their work in the Malvern Hills and in the surrounding Worcestershire countryside. A blue plaque at the Mount Pleasant Hotel on Belle Vue Terrace, Great Malvern, commemorates the time they spent in the area.
World War II
During the Second World War, Knight was an official war artist, contracted by the War Artists' Advisory Committee on short-term commissions. Among the works Knight produced for these commissions were:
- Corporal J.D.M Pearson, GC, WAAF (1940) — shows the first woman to receive the Empire Gallantry Medal, Women's Auxiliary Air Force, Corporal Daphine Pearson. Although Pearson, at Knight's insistence, sat for the portrait holding a rifle, the finshed painting shows her holding a respirator, as the WAAF were not allowed to carry arms on duty.
- Corporal J.M. Robbins (1940) — Robbins was awarded the Military Medal for the courage she showed in assisting the wounded when a shelter was directly hit by a bomb during an attack on RAF Andover. WAAC had requested Knight paint Robbins as part of a group of medal-winning women but Knight refused.
- In For Repairs (1941), - showing a partly inflated barrage balloon being repaired by members of the WAAF at Wythal near Birmingham. The painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1941.
- Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner (1941) — both women were awarded the Military Medal for staying at their post, when the building they were in received a direct hit from a bomb during an air raid on RAF Biggin Hill. Although painted in Knights studio in Malvern, the painting shows the two women on duty at their airfield.
- A Balloon Site, Coventry (1942), shows a team of women hoisting a barrage balloon into position with the chimneys of industrial Coventry in the background surrounding the spire of Coventry Cathedral. WAAC commissioned the work as a propaganda tool to recruit women for Balloon Command and Knight's composition succeeds in making the work appear both heroic and glamorous.
- Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (1943) — in the autumn of 1942 the WAAC commissioned Knight to paint a portrait to bolster female recruitment to the ordnance factories as the Ministry of Supply were concerned at the level of disaffection and absenteeism among women in the factories. The resulting painting is one of the largest oil paintings in the entire WAAC collection and the largest single figure portrait it acquired throughout the war. The painting was first shown on 30 April 1943 at the Royal Academy and the next day was reproduced in eight British newspapers. The painting, along with Knight and Loftus also featured in a British Paramount News short film shown in cinemas and was reproduced in a poster version by WAAC. The success of the painting led to further industrial commissions for Knight throughout the 1940s. In 1945 she painted Switch Works at Ellison Switchgear in Birmingham. This was followed by paintings of operations at the Dow Mac concrete railway-sleeper works and at the Skefko ball bearing factory.
- Take Off (1944) — a large and complex group portrait of the four man crew of a Short Stirling bomber, deep in concentration, preparing for take off which Knight painted over several months at RAF Mildenhall. Knight lived in the WAAF Officer's Mess while on the base and the RAF gave her the use of an obsolete Stirling to work in while preparing the painting. When Knight learnt that the navigator in the picture, W.H. Escritt, had been killed in action she arranged that his family received a photograph of the painting.
In total, Knight had seventeen completed paintings, together with numerous studies, accepted by the WAAC, most of which were exhibited in the National Gallery during WWII. Throughout the war Knight also continued taking private commissions, usually for individual or family portraits. The most notable war-time example of these is the composition, Betty and William Jacklin showing a mother and child, along with their pet rabbit and the Malvern countryside in background, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1942, beside In for Repairs.
At the end of the war Knight proposed to the War Artists' Advisory Committee the Nuremberg war crimes trials as a subject. The Committee agreed and Knight went to Germany in January 1946 and spent three months observing the trials from inside the courtroom. The result was the large oil painting, The Nuremberg Trial. This painting departs from the realism of her earlier wartime paintings, in that whilst realistically depicting the Nazi war criminals sitting in the dock during their trial, the rear and side walls of the courtroom are missing to reveal a ruined city, partially in flames. Knight explained this choice of composition in a letter to the War Artists' Advisory Committee,
"In that ruined city death and destruction are ever present. They had to come into the picture, without them, it would not be the Nuremberg as it now is during the trial, when the death of millions and utter devastation are the sole topics of conversation wherever one goes - whatever one is doing"
The painting was coolly received at the subsequent Royal Academy Summer Exhibition but was greatly praised by those who had witnessed the trials.
After the war Knight returned to her previous themes of the ballet, the circus and gypsies and continued to divide her time between London and Malvern. In 1948 Knight painted backstage at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, mostly observing the work of the wardrobe department which was still working under austerity restrictions. The same year she painted a large group portrait of Princess Elizabeth and several civic dignitories, opening the new Broadgate centre in Coventry. A period of illness undermined her work on this commission and, despite Knight clearing and repainting large parts of the canvas, the finished painting was not well received. A major exhibition of over eighty works by Knight was held at the Ian Nicol Gallery in Glasgow in 1952. The following year Knight returned to the theatre, painting and producing crayon studies, backstage at the Old Vic in London during the Birmingham Repertory Theatre's production of Henry IV, Part 1 & Part 2. Throughout this period Knight continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy each year, most notably with a portrait of Jean Rhodes, a professional strong woman known as 'The Mighty Mannequin', which when shown in 1955 led to further portrait commissions for Knight. In 1956 Knight worked backstage at the Royal Opera House during performances and rehearsals by the Bolshoi Ballet. In 1961, Harold Knight died at Colwall, Herefordshire. The couple had been married some fifty-eight years. Knight's second autobiography, The Magic of a Line was published in 1965 to coincide with a major retrospective of her work at the Royal Academy. The exhibition, the first such for a woman at the Academy, contained over 250 works, and was followed during 1968 and 1969 by further retrospective exhibitions at the Upper Grosvenor Galleries. Laura Knight died on 7 July 1970, aged 92, three days before a large exhibition of her work was due to open at the Nottingham Castle Art Gallery and Museum.
- 1921: Twenty-one Drawings of the Russian Ballet
- 1923: Laura Knight: A Book of Drawings, with an introduction by Charles Marriott
- 1936: Oil Paint and Grease Paint
- 1962: A Proper Circus Omie
- 1965: The Magic of a Line
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Laura Knight.|
- Frances Spalding (1990). 20th Century Painters and Sculptors. Antique Collectors' Club. ISBN 1 85149 106 6.
- Rosie Broadley (2013). Laura Knight Portraits. National Portrait Gallery,London. ISBN 978-1-85514-463-7.
- Rachel Cooke (14 July 2013). "Laura Knight: Portraits – review". The Observer. Retrieved 14 July 2013.
- "The Official Dame Laura Website: Biography". Retrieved 15 January 2011.
- Elizabeth Knowles (2012). Laura Knight in the open air. Sansom & Co. ISBN 978-1-906593-65-0.
- "Dame Laura Knight 1877–1970". London: Tate Gallery. Retrieved 22 August 2013.
- Penlee House Gallery & Museum. "Laura Knight 1877–1970". Penlee House Gallery & Museum. Retrieved 22 August 2013.
- Penlee House Gallery & Museum. "The Newlyn School c.1880–c.1940". Penlee House Gallery & Museum. Retrieved 22 August 2013.
- Caroline Fox (1985). Painting in Newlyn 1900-1930. Newlyn Orion.
- Caroline Fox (1988). Dame Laura Knight. Oxford: Phaidon Press. ISBN 0-7148-2447-X.
- Hadley, Tessa (6 July 2013). "Laura Knight:The unashamed illustrator". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
- Kathryn Hughes (11 July 2013). "Dame Laura Knight and the nude controversy". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 23 August 2013.
- Mackrell, Judith (24 June 2008). "Laura Knight at the Theatre, Lowry, Salford". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
- New York Times, 3 November 1927, p. 23, column 5.
- New York Times, 2 November 1927
- "Dame Knight, Laura, RA (1877-1970)". Canadian War Museum.
- Rachel Aspden (12 March 2009). "War through women's eyes". New Statesman. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
- Brain Foss (2007). War paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10890-3.
- "Ruby Loftus screwing a breech-ring – Dame Laura Knight RA (1877-1970)". Canadian War Museum.
- "A Gun Girl – Ruby Loftus – Dame Laura Knight's Newport commission". Wartime Newport: The Home Front.
- Kathleen Palmer (2011). Women War Artists. Tate Publishing/Imperial War Museum. ISBN 978-1-85437-989-4.
- Dame Laura Knight official website. "Literature on Dame Laura Knight". Dame Laura Knight Official website. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
- The Spectator archive (24 August 1923). "Book Review for Laura Knight: A Book of Drawings". The Spectator. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
- Adrian Hamilton (22 July 2013). "Human touch:Laura Knight's NPG show is a timely reminder of her talent". The Independent. Retrieved 29 January 2013.
- Paintings by Laura Knight at the BBC Your Paintings site
- Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa: Dame Laura Knight
- Self Portrait with Nude
- Exhibition at Penlee House, Penzance: Dame Laura Knight RA: In the Open Air: 16 June – 8 September 2012
- Exhibition at National Portrait Gallery, London