Dame Laura Knight D.B.E., R.A., R.W.S.



Artist's Biography & Works For Sale

One of the most popular and successful of twentieth century English artists, Dame Laura Knight had a long and varied career, producing a diverse range of work. She painted backstage at the ballet, theatre and circus; she painted gypsies and circus performers; she painted black hospital staff in segregated 1920s America. She liked to spend time with her subjects, watching them work, getting to know them in their worlds, and she is known for her colourful and sympathetic portrayals of unconventional or marginalised individuals, and especially for her depictions of women. Her early Cornish pictures (chiefly landscapes with figures) are now increasingly sought after, and she also created a very highly regarded body of work for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in the Second World War. Significantly, she was the first woman in history to be elected a Royal Academician and also the first woman to be given a retrospective at the Royal Academy. 

Laura Knight (née Johnson) was born in Long Eaton, Derbyshire. She had two older sisters and grew up in a household of women, with her mother (Charlotte) and her two grandmothers. Her childhood, in very impoverished circumstances, was fraught with difficulties and unhappiness. She never knew her father, as her mother had left him soon after baby Laura was born, and their financial woes were compounded by the failure of the family lace-making business.

For Laura, the saving grace was mother's passion for art. Charlotte Johnson had always dreamed of being a professional artist herself, and was now supporting her family with her job as an art teacher, and by taking on private pupils too. Recognising her daughter's precocious talent, she enrolled Laura as a student at the Nottingham School of Art at the age of just 13. Sadly, Charlotte became terminally ill just a couple of years later – and before she was 18, Laura had lost her mother, both her grandmothers, and her sister Nellie too. She and her surviving sister Evangeline Agnes (known as 'Sis') were left to fend for themselves with just a small amount of financial support from an uncle. They shared lodgings together and Laura began to give art lessons to bring in some money.

It was while studying at Nottingham School of Art that Laura met Harold Knight (1874-1961). He was the star pupil and she was determined to learn as much as she could from him. A friendship blossomed, which turned into a romance, and they married in 1903.

One of the first places that was important to Laura Knight was the Yorkshire seaside town of Staithes. Having holidayed there in 1897 and 1898, she, Harold and Sis found a cottage and settled there from 1899 to 1907. In 1904, 1905 and 1906, the Knights made trips to the Netherlands, to the artists' colony at Laren near Hilversum. Then in 1907, they moved to Cornwall.

First they lived in lodgings in Newlyn, then they settled in Lamorna, where they became key figures in the artists’ colony there. Laura was in her element (“All the gaiety I had missed in youth came suddenly,” she wrote) and she was working alongside some of the most exciting artists of the day, including Lamorna Birch (1869-1955), Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947), Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959 and Dod Procter (1890-1972). Living “a carefree life of sunlit pleasure”, as she put it, she specialised in painting landscapes with figures – and eyebrows were certainly raised among the local population when she painted nude models outdoors! Her work began to be exhibited more widely both nationally and internationally during this period and she described it as one of the happiest times of her life. The Knights moved to London in 1919, but would continue to make summer visits to Cornwall until the 1930s.

Laura Knight had attended art school in an era when female students were not permitted to work with life models (but were, instead, restricted to working with plaster casts). In 1913 she produced an extraordinary painting that has often been interpreted as a bold celebration of her new-found freedom from such constraints. In Self Portrait with Nude (now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London) she depicts herself in the process of painting her nude model, the artist Ella Naper (1886-1972). It caused something of a controversy at the time, with critics describing it as “vulgar” and “regrettable”, but in the words of the NPG website, it was truly a “bravura statement”. It’s a complex composition that can be enjoyed and analysed on many different levels.

During the 1920s, Laura Knight began to make work inspired by the worlds of ballet and the theatre. She depicted actors and dancers in their dressing rooms and in the wings, preparing to go on stage – in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Edgar Degas (1834-1917). She painted some very famous names, including ballerinas Lydia Lopokova (1892-1981) and Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) of the Ballets Russes, the touring company founded by impressario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929). She also became entranced by the circus, producing a series of lively and colourful depictions of performances in the ring, as well as behind-the-scenes cameos – often quite poignant – of the performers themselves. She even went on tour with the circus run by Bertram W. Mills (1873-1938) and ‘The Great Carmo’ (aka Harry Cameron, 1881-1944), sharing lodgings with the clowns, acrobats and other members of the troupe. The circus, theatre and ballet were to be recurring themes throughout Knight’s career. She designed costumes, and also a range of china (Clarice Cliff’s Circus), as well as producing numerous paintings, including backstage scenes at London's Old Vic and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (now the Royal Shakespeare Theatre) in Stratford-upon-Avon.

In 1922 she made her first trip to America, to be on the jury for the Pittsburgh International Art Exhibition. Another important American trip was to take place in 1926, when Harold Knight was commissioned to paint portraits of surgeons at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Laura accompanied him, and obtained permission to paint portraits of the black employees and patients in the racially segregated wards, learning from them first-hand about the struggle for racial equality.

Back home in London, she acquired a printing press from the artist George Clausen (1852-1944), and between 1923 and 1925 she created nearly one hundred prints, including railway posters and a London Transport advertisement for tram services.

In the 1930s, while painting the Derby Day crowds at Epsom racecourse, Knight met and befriended a group of Gypsies. She was invited by them to visit the Gypsy settlement at Iver, Buckinghamshire, and over the next few months, immersing herself in Gypsy culture, she produced a remarkable series of portraits.

Another significant body of work was produced during (and just after) World War Two, beginning with the recruitment poster that Knight designed in 1939 for the Women's Land Army, featuring a pair of specially hired Suffolk Punch horses. Knight was, by this time, one of the most popular artists in Britain and the War Artists' Advisory Committee (set up and chaired by Kenneth Clark (1903-1983)) was keen to employ her. Working on various short-term contracts, she produced a number of visually arresting images – including A Balloon Site, Coventry (showing women hoisting a barrage balloon into position), Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (a very large painting showing a female worker at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Newport) and Take Off (showing the four-man crew in the cockpit of a bomber). This latter picture was painted while Knight was staying for several months at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, and she was given the use of an obsolete aeroplane especially for the purpose. In 1946, approaching the age of 70, Knight went to Germany to spend several months observing the Nuremberg Trials. She produced a spectacular painting (now in the collection of the Imperial War Museums) that cleverly sets a realistic depiction of the courtroom itself against a powerful backdrop of wartime devastation and destruction.

Knight’s work continued to be widely exhibited during her lifetime. She achieved great popularity and her output was prolific. A number of important milestones in her long career are noteworthy in the wider context of women's art history too. In 1927 she became only the second woman (after Annie Swynnerton (1844-1933)) to be made an Associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1936 she became the first woman to be made a full member since its foundation in 1768. (Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and Mary Moser (1744-1819) were among the Royal Academy's founder members, but as they were not elected to their positions, Knight legitimately be described as the first woman in history to be elected as a full member.) In 1953 she became the first female Senior Royal Academician, and in 1965 she was given a Royal Academy retrospective, the first time such an honour had been conferred on a woman. In 1929 Knight was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), and in 1932 she was elected President of the Society of Women Artists, a position she was to hold until 1967.

Laura Knight died in 1970, just three days before a major exhibition of her work opened at Nottingham Castle Art Gallery and Museum. She published two volumes of autobiography, Oil Paint and Grease Paint in 1936 and Magic of a Line in 1965.

Her work can be found in numerous public collections in the UK, including Amgueddfa Cymru / National Museum Wales, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Bolton Library and Museum Services, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Cartwright Hall Art Gallery (Bradford), Ferens Art Gallery (Kingston-upon-Hull), Gallery Oldham, Gracefield Arts Centre (Dumfries), Grundy Art Gallery (Blackpool), Harris Museum and Art Gallery (Preston), Herbert Art Gallery and Museum (Coventry), Imperial War Museums, Lady Lever Art Gallery (Port Sunlight), Laing Art Gallery (Newcastle-upon-Tyne), Manchester Art Gallery, McLean Museum and Art Gallery (Greenock), National Portrait Gallery (London), New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Leicester), Newnham College (Cambridge), Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Penlee House (Penzance), Perth and Kinross Council, The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (Stoke-on-Trent), Royal Academy of Arts, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum (Bournemouth), St Thomas’s Hospital (London), Suffolk Punch Heavy Horse Museum (Woodbridge), Tate, Touchstones Rochdale, University of Nottingham, Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool), Worcester City Museums, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. Her work is also in the permanent collections of other museums and galleries around Europe, and in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA.