Dame Laura Knight, The Bareback Rider

Dame Laura Knight, The Bareback Rider

This early 20th-century etching by English artist Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) depicts a bareback rider dressed as a ballerina atop a resting horse. A clown stands on the left and feeds the horse a treat.

Laura Knight was fascinated by the circus and produced numerous works capturing various scenes - both in the ring and behind the curtains. She became hooked during the 1920s following a visit to the Bertram Mills Circus at Olympia in West London. This impressive outfit featured internationally-renowned performers, several of which she painted.

On the surface, Knight’s circus works celebrate the audacity of this well-versed troupe while also emphasising the human traits of these travelling celebrities. But look a little deeper and there’s an interesting metaphor - one which communicates a richer narrative and sheds light on her ever-evolving world.

Consider the 1920s, when women had their first glimpse of empowerment in a male-dominated environment. Following the War, there was a heady combination of celebration, despair, and stoicism. Everyone knew that society had changed but a new landscape had yet to be designed. Women had worked tirelessly, many in munitions factories, undertaking duties predominantly associated with males, but what now?

Laura Knight was immersed in this changing world and, throughout her career, celebrated strong women. Her colourful works simultaneously capture strength and femininity - a female acrobat, muscular, determined, yet perfectly poised and elegant. A factory worker examining an aircraft component, her flawless skin radiating. In Knight’s world, women were expected to be everything. Mothers, workers, objects of desire, friends, and loyal daughters - and her best works bring this together with touches of vivid impressionistic brilliance.

Indeed, within her own life, she was only too aware of how gender brings expectation. After all, she was a female artist exhibiting at the Royal Academy, which was, for the most part, still run by males.

With her circus paintings and etchings, Knight encapsulates society in a big top. Half-witted clowns, demure ballerinas, loyal horses, and spritely acrobats. For life is a performance and the world is a circus.

In 1936, Laura Knight became the first female to be elected to the Royal Academy.

Signed in pencil, framed and glazed. Other copies of this etching are held in public collections including the V&A.

Learn more about Laura Knight in our directory.

Medium: Etching on paper
Overall size: 12½” x 18” / 32cm x 46cm
Year of creation: 1935 (issued by the Print Collectors’ Club)
Condition: Artwork presents well.
Artist’s auction highlight: £780,000 achieved for a watercolour in 2009.

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