Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) was one of the most popular and pioneering British artists of the twentieth century. Her artistic career took her from Cornwall to Baltimore, and from the circus to the Nuremberg Trials. She painted dancers at the Ballets Russes and Gypsies at Epsom races, and was acclaimed for her work as an official war artist.
Knight used portraiture to capture contemporary life and culture, and her paintings are remarkable for their diverse range of subjects and settings.
- Early years and Cornwall
Growing up in Nottingham, Laura Johnson’s precocious talent was encouraged by her mother, herself an amateur artist. Aged thirteen, Laura enrolled as a full-time student at Nottingham Art School where she met her future husband Harold Knight. The couple married in 1903 and based themselves in the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes, painting the hard-working ‘fisherfolk’. They also spent time at an artists’ colony in Laren, Holland. By 1908, the Knights had settled in Cornwall, among the community of artists that had grown up around the Newlyn Art School, founded in 1899.
Laura Knight’s experience of the Cornish landscape transformed her work. The couple discovered in Cornwall ‘surroundings such as we had never dreamed of; a carefree life of sunlit pleasure’. Knight’s confidence grew and she developed a vigorous plein air technique. With the encouragement of artist friends, who were also willing models, she was able to study the human figure in greater depth, and it was at this point that portraiture asserted itself as an important theme in her work.
- Ballet and Theatre
In 1919, Laura and Harold Knight moved to London, seeking new artistic challenges and markets for their work. For Laura, evenings spent watching the Ballets Russes during their London seasons at the Alhambra or Coliseum theatres provided "complete satisfaction for every aesthetic sense". Incorporating set and costume designs by artists including Henri Matisse, these productions helped introduce European modernism into Britain. However, unlike some artistic contemporaries, Knight sought inspiration in the more intimate experience of the dancers backstage, an approach pioneered in the nineteenth century by the French artist Edgar Degas.
Granted unique backstage access, Knight set up her easel in the cramped dressing room of prima ballerina Lydia Lopokova. Following the company’s departure from London in 1922, Knight worked backstage at the Regent Theatre painting, among others, actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as she prepared to play Juliet. Knight felt a kinship with female performers, whom she identified as "fellow workers"; women whose dedication to their art mirrored her own commitment to painting.
- Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland
Knight travelled to America in 1926, to join her husband who was working on a number of portraits for the Johns Hopkins Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. She sought permission to work in the hospital wards which, at that time, were racially segregated, making a group of drawings of black patients. Knight’s interest in this group of sitters was part of a wider fascination in Europe during the 1920s with what was called ‘Negro’ culture, stimulated by the popularity of jazz music. Although some of the patients are named by Knight, nothing further is presently known about them.
During her visit, Knight became increasingly aware of the struggle for racial equality in Maryland. One of her sitters, Pearl Johnson, a hospital secretary, took her to a civil rights lecture and a concert where Knight was the only white person present. Knight’s liberal attitude was nevertheless shaped by her time, and she continued to freely use terms such as ‘picanniny’ and ‘darky’ when naming her works. When she returned to London, she told the Evening Standard that there was ‘a whole world to explore’ in the lives of this group of sitters.
The circus was a popular national entertainment in the 1920s, and Knight visited both Fossett’s Circus at the Islington Agricultural Hall and Bertram Mills’ Circus based at Olympia. Mills invigorated the British circus tradition by presenting a polished, glamorous show with international performers that attracted a celebrity audience, including Sir Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. For Knight, the physically audacious performers in spectacular costumes were irresistible subjects.
When her painting Charivari, a depiction of multiple performers at Mills’ Circus, was exhibited at the Royal Academy it was criticised and satirised in the press. Undeterred, Knight joined Mills and his company when they embarked on a national tour in partnership with Great Carmo’s circus. Knight shared temporary lodgings with the clowns and acrobats, drawing and painting the performers at work and rest over an intense four-month period. The more reflective portraits made at this time demonstrate a deeper understanding of the life and experiences of the travelling performer.
I was as much a part of the circus as anyone in the show, used to putting up with anything, living solely in its atmosphere.
In the late 1930s, Knight made a remarkable series of portraits of English Gypsies based at Iver in Buckinghamshire. They lived in painted wagons and tents sited on a field belonging to the local farmer, for whom they did agricultural work. The artist focused on one family, the Smiths. These portraits are the result of many months spent with her sitters, an immersive approach Knight had developed when working with dancers and circus performers.
Knight was invited to Iver by Granny Smith, a matriarchal figure who became one of her favourite sitters. They had met at the Epsom Derby while Knight was painting the crowds of spectators and the Gypsies, for whom the Derby was a significant annual event. A press image of Knight using a rented ‘antique’ Rolls-Royce as a cramped studio, from which she painted numerous portraits of Gypsy women, helped define her in the public imagination as lovably eccentric.
As one of the most popular artists in Britain, it was imperative that the War Artist’s Advisory Committee, under the direction of Sir Kenneth Clark, secured Knight’s services. However, this sustained period of patronage challenged the artistic autonomy Knight had enjoyed for over forty years, and she wrangled with the committee over subject matter and remuneration. Knight succeeded in making a remarkably powerful and diverse group of paintings, which are unique records of wartime experience.
Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, depicting an outstanding Welsh munitions worker, was commissioned to encourage more women to work in factories, and was one of a series of portraits of women who had distinguished themselves through acts of bravery and skill. For these high-profile works, Knight developed a smooth and precise painting style that would reproduce well.
When the war ended, Knight suggested to the committee that she should be flown to Germany as a war correspondent, to record the trial of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, another immersive project that challenged her entire approach to portraiture.
- The Royal Academy and Patronage
When Laura Knight was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1927 and the first female full member in 1936, she fulfilled a lifelong personal ambition, and helped paved the way for greater recognition for women in the arts.
However, avant-garde artists no longer chose to exhibit at an institution which they perceived to be old-fashioned. Knight, in contrast, embraced the status for which she had fought so hard, and used the Academy’s annual summer exhibition as the main showcase for her work throughout her career. The portrait commissions she was able to secure led to financial stability, and she was freed from the anxiety which had dominated her impoverished childhood.
During her lifetime, Knight’s extraordinary achievements were well-known and she was regarded as a role-model, appearing in books aimed at career-minded young women, alongside the doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and aviator Amy Johnson. She rejected modernism, but she embraced contemporary life and culture in her work.
Her portraits provide a bold and distinctive view of life in the twentieth century.
‘I remember [my mother] saying when I was only a few years old, "You will be elected to the Royal Academy one day". | © National Portrait Gallery, London
Laura Knight | The Nuremberg Trial, 1946
Laura Knight, (4 agosto 1877-7 luglio 1970) è stata una pittrice impressionista Inglese molto nota soprattutto per i suoi soggetti legati al teatro, al circo ed al balletto.
Nel 1929, fu fatta Dame Commander dell'Ordine dell'Impero Britannico, e nel 1936 divenne la prima donna eletta alla Royal Academy.
Dopo la guerra, fu l'artista ufficiale al processo di Norimberga dei nazisti criminali di guerra. Ha continuato a dipingere fino al 1960.
Ha prodotto oltre 250 opere nella sua vita così come due autobiografie, Grease (1936) e La magia di una linea (1965).