Dame Laura Knight is one of the most celebrated artists of 20th-century Britain. With her extremely vivid paintings, alight with colour, personality, and meaning, Knight captured practically every nook and cranny of life. From Britain to the US, from the circus to the law courts of post-war Germany, Knight continues to be considered a stalwart of British art. Her efforts to promote the cause of female artists have earned her a great and worthy legacy.
Knight’s childhood was one of struggle and tragedy. Her father abandoned her mother not long after Knight’s birth, and her grandfather’s lace-making business went bankrupt. Even French relations could not save Knight from a childhood of struggle, and after a period of living in France, she returned to England.
Here, things began to look up when her mother managed to have Knight enrolled in the Nottingham School of Art. Established in the 19th century to promote the education of the arts, Knight’s mother worked part-time as an art teacher. It seems allowing Knight’s artistic ability and potential to bloom was the key to the growth of her prospects. ‘Mother’s greatest desire in life was that I should be an artist,’ Knight wrote in her autobiography.
Thanks to her mother’s efforts, Knight was on the right path to achieving this aspiration, and she clearly possessed great natural abilities. At age of 15 she began teaching herself, and when her mother sadly died, she was able to continue learning after receiving a scholarship following an art competition.
It was not only the gift of artistic education that Knight received at Nottingham School of Art. Here, she would also meet her future husband and artistic muse, Harold Knight (1874-1961). The two would eventually marry in 1903. Knight was beginning to lay down the slabs to pave the long road of the life ahead of her.
Development of Style: Staithes and Cornwall
Once they had completed their studies, Knight and future husband Harold travelled to Staithes in North Yorkshire. They would move to the area soon after, finding abundant artistic inspiration in the surrounding area.
Knight began to experiment with her artistic style, using the locals as her subjects. These works are swathed in a gloomy realism. A fleet of fishing boats stymies upon white waters in the background as Knight focuses on a group of villagers, lugging buckets filled with the fresh catch to the harbour. A female figure is the main focus, her head bowed, the weariness and the hardiness of the salt air carved into her skin with stark lines and shadows. The inclement mood of the weather transferred to the canvas. This evocation of mood would become a distinct aspect of Knight’s art.
These works are very much in the mood of the Hague School. This prominent group of artists hailed from Holland and focussed on realism in their depictions of nature with moody palettes and sombre colouring. Knight and her husband visited their colony in Laren over a period of two years, and the inspiration has clearly seeped into her early works.
This was a hard time for Knight, she often had to burn canvases and drawings for heat. However, she remarked that Staithes was where ‘I developed a visual memory.’ It was a key part in the early development of her artistic career.
Cornwall, however, was where she began to bloom, and her style was honed. The couple moved to the small village of Lamorna in 1908. It was popular with a group of artists at the time who were known as the Newlyn School, so named for the nearby fishing port and town. This group had been inspired by the French Barbizon School of the 19th century. Like the Hague School, they coveted naturalism and realism in their art. However, their palette was brighter, the mood lighter. For the glorious southern Cornish coast, such a vivid depiction suited the aspirations of the Newlyn School.
Soon enough, Knight’s style began to emulate this brighter outlook. The sea is a shimmering sheet of opalescent blues and crisp whites. It lightly brushes gentle sandy bays and beaches, and clashes dramatically with ragged rocks. The sun touches the undulating coastline, setting alight verdant clifftops which add bursts of green to the mix. Harbours and villages sit contentedly within this bonfire of glorious colour and life.
There is an impressionistic zeal in the immediacy of Knight’s works, in the ‘plein-air’ approach she took, often painting the scene in situ. Yet Knight retains her specificity, her detailed realism, too. She enhances reality through artistic style yet celebrates its truth through beautiful homage. Cornwall is ethereal yet grounded. This combination of vivid colour with detailed specificity would become Knight’s hallmark, as would a common subject throughout her art: women.
The Female Gaze
It was the belief of the grand art institutions that the nude female body was one of the greatest studies an artist could undertake. It was also their belief that a female artist would be unable to appreciate this study as much as any male. Therefore, women were banned from attending the crucial life model classes at art school, having to learn anatomy and proportions from marble sculptures.
Knight challenged this status quo by frequently including female nudes in her works. Her Cornish scenes are sometimes complemented with lounging, languid, naked bodies, much to the shock of the locals who witnessed these paintings in progress.
It was a single piece, painted in 1913, however, which has defined Knight’s revolt against the establishment. ‘Self Portrait with Nude’ depicts Knight painting the posed, naked body of friend and fellow artist Ella Naper (1886-1972). Knight is side-on, caught in a moment of study as Naper stands with her arms above her head, limbs stretched out to emphasise the curves and many undulations of her body. A bold use of red accentuates the pale beauty of her limbs, drawing the eye.
With her canny hand, Knight demonstrates both a statement against the attitudes of the Academy and her own proficient skill in depicting the female nude. Many (male) critics classed the painting as ‘vulgar,’ however it is now considered one of her greatest masterpieces and has become a statement of female revolution and promotion of the female gaze in art.
Throughout all of her works, Knight features women as the focus. From her early work in Staithes to her last works, Knight promoted the importance of focussing on female lives. She did this with her realism and savvy sense of character in order to celebrate and elevate these women within their reality, as we shall see.
The Circus and the Theatre
Whilst still living in Cornwall, Knight made many trips up to London to study and paint the mysterious and thrilling worlds of the theatre and the circus. Through the 1910s and 1920s she captured the effervescent nature of these worlds, her bright use of colour imbuing her canvases with their sense of energy and excitement. She would depict both the performances and the everyday life of these performers, reflecting on both their skill and their humanity.
For a period of time throughout 1929-1930, she travelled with the combined Bertram Mills and Great Carmo's Circus. Here the immediacy she had learnt from her ‘plein-air’ paintings came in handy as she became accustomed to capturing the performers in the fleeting moments between performance and rest.
Clowns cluster in groups, talking amongst themselves with a casualty which is amusing when coupled with their dramatic face paint, yet brings an authenticity to the scene Knight sets. In her pieces depicting performances, Knight uses great beaming blots of colour upon the performers to contrast strongly with the shadows in which she swamps the tent and the audience. They are spectacles in these pieces, yet grounded in her ‘behind the scenes’ images.
In these paintings, she focuses once again on female figures. Ballerinas are anointed with all their graceful strength in bustling tutus of taffeta. Yet they are humanised through the casual poses Knight places them in, putting on their shoes or stretching their limbs, half-dressed, signets soon to become swans. Female circus performers are captured with the same dignity and grace, sitting casually upon bare horseback.
These images of the circus, when exhibited in 1930, were adding to the great reputation Knight had laid for herself. By the 1920s, recognition for her skill as an artist was growing from national to international levels. Her images of Cornwall had been greatly received at the Royal Academy, and she frequently exhibited within its halls.
In 1928, she participated in the Olympic Games, at a time when painting was a category, winning the silver medal. In the following year, she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, one of the highest honours in the country, and something not all artists could think to achieve.
Soon after she was made president of the Society of Women Artists, and recognition of the influence she was making in art came from even the staunchest of establishments. The Royal Academy was softening its approach to female artists, and in 1936, Knight became the first female member of the Royal Academy. The Institution that had not long ago barred female artists from its halls and classes now recognised one of the most prominent artists of the time.
As a result of her renown, Knight was appointed as an official war artist (and the only female selected) during the Second World War. Her job was to document aspects of life during wartime, and, unsurprisingly, Knight focussed predominantly on the role of women in the war effort.
This was an incredibly worthy endeavour, and her works have served as documents of the hard work women undertook in these years. Her sharp realism and vivid colour have appealed to the historic record as much as they did in her time, offering a coherency of detail as well as an emotional depth. Women are engaged in the factories, in taking notes and listening to the radio as part of the Auxiliary Air Service. They pull upon hefty ropes as they raise up great, billowing, rubber barrage balloons. These they do with a seriousness and responsibility which highlights their hard work, Knight often posing them with serious, determined expressions. These works were Knight’s homage to these women. ‘No praise is too high for their staunchness,’ she would praise.
Her war work was not limited to women, and Knight also focussed on male figures such as fighter pilots. One crucial work came after the war, in 1946. Knight requested that the War Artists’ Advisory Committee send her to Nuremberg to depict the trials of the Nazi soldiers. This piece of work, ‘The Nuremberg Trial,’ marries Knight’s ability to display human authenticity alongside the horrors of war.
The criminals are depicted simply in their plain suits, yet this only enhances their cruelty and depravity, for they appear so human. One can only consider how someone can enact such evilness upon their fellow man. The background is the desolate shape of Nuremberg, all destruction and devastation. Knight felt it important to forgo a strict realism to instead represent the horror these men had caused. The piece is full of meaning and emotion and remains one of the key contemporary works of the Second World War.
Representing the Diverse
As we have seen, Knight had a keen interest in depicting people and places which might otherwise have been forgotten, or exist within subversive worlds behind the veils of masquerade and theatricality. She throws aside any prejudices and presents authentic portraits of human life.
What made her so great at this was her enthusiasm to not simply observe but to become a part of communities of people and to understand individuals.
This fervour she carried over into depictions of the Romani community. From the 1930s onwards Knight would often attend horse racing events and subsume herself into these groups of people. Painting out the back of a car, she would capture Romani women attending the event with a gravitas and celebratory zeal. She built up a strong connection with these women and was invited to spend time at their settlement in Iver, where she returned every day for months to capture the community.
When her husband, Harold, travelled to the US in the 1920s to complete a commission, Knight accompanied him. Here she painted members of the black community. She was allowed in the segregated Baltimore’s Children’s Hospital. These images have a sensitivity about them which, married with her strong realism, bring a tear to the eye for their authenticity. Knight found herself invited along to a civil rights meeting by one sitter, Pearl Johnson.
It was Knight’s open-minded and curious mind, coupled with her talented hand and discerning eye, which makes her one of the greats of the 20th century.
Knight continued to paint well into old age, exhibiting annually at the Royal Academy. A solo exhibition was held within its hallowed halls in 1965, a first for a woman artist. This was accompanied by the publication of Knight’s second autobiography (her first was published in 1936). Knight was keen to tell her story and promote the stirring of artistic endeavour in the minds and hearts of other women.
Dame Laura Knight passed away on the 7th July 1970, three days before a retrospective exhibition of her works was set to open. It was being held in Nottingham, the place where her artistic life had begun, bringing her life resoundingly full circle.
The art world had lost a stalwart, but Knight’s death by no means meant her works and her impact would be forgotten. Indeed, her efforts carved a place for women within the traditionally male artistic establishments. She challenged the status quo and did so with skill and certainty.
As president of the Society of Women Artists, she helped to shape an artistic world created and intended for women. This did not mean their exclusion from other spaces but elevated their place within the art world.
Whilst painting had been Knight’s main domain, it should also be mentioned that she was a keen engraver. In the 1920s she had purchased a printing press and produced a number of engravings. Some of these were used as posters for Transport for London. Here, she paved a way for women in another highly skilled medium.
Whilst in her time some considered her style too old-fashioned, avant-garde styles such as abstract and expressionist art were very popular, her legacy is unquestioned. Her realism was not a drawback, but majestically underlined the emotion and meaning in her works. With her strong use of colour, Knight imbibes her pieces with a vitality and liveliness. Even whilst they document the time she lived in, the humanity within them is so authentic it is recognisable to a modern audience. They are relatable, unequivocally human.
‘I paint today,’ Knight stated, and her contribution to the depiction of human life in the first half of the 20th century is incomparable. She opened doors for female artists and broke down barriers with a grace and strength not unlike those of the women in her pieces. Immersing herself in the worlds of her subjects, Knight painted with a sensitivity and enthusiasm that truly makes her a master of her craft. She seemed destined to capture her world, and she is one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century.
Numerous posthumous exhibitions of her works have been held. Today they can be viewed in galleries and museums across the country, including at the Royal Academy and the National Portrait Gallery.
Born in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, Britain.
Began studying at the Nottingham School of Art.
Travelled to Staithes, Yorkshire, Britain.
Married Harold Knight.
Travelled regularly to the Netherlands.
Became a member of the Newlyn Society of Artists.
Moved to Lamorna, Cornwall, Britain.
Exhibited enamelling work at the Fine Art Society, London.
Moved to London, Britain.
Travelled to the USA.
Elected a member of Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers.
Travelled to Baltimore, USA.
Became a member of the Royal Watercolour Society. Won a silver medal in Painting at the Summer Olympics.
Created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Travelled Britain with Bertram Mills and Great Carmo's Circus.1930
Held ‘Circus Folk’ exhibition in the Alpine Club, London.
Received an honorary degree from St. Andrews University.
Elected president of the Society of Women Artists.
Became a member of the Royal Academy. Published autobiography ‘Oil Paint and Grease Paint.’
Travelled to Germany to paint the Nuremberg Trials.
Solo exhibition held at the Ian Nicol Gallery, Glasgow.
Husband Harold Knight died.
Solo exhibition at the Royal Academy. Published second autobiography ‘The Magic of a Line.’
Died in London, Britain.