Knight, Laura (1877–1970)

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Knight, Laura (1877–1970)

Prolific English painter whose work stressed realistic portrayals of women, Gypsies, and circus performers, as well as scenes of Britain during World War II. Name variations: Dame Laura Knight. Born Laura Johnson on August 4, 1877, in the town of Long Eaton, Derbyshire, England; died in London on July 7, 1970; third daughter of Charles Johnson and Charlotte Bates Johnson (an art teacher); attended Nottingham School of Art, 1890–94; married Harold Knight, on June 3, 1903 (died 1961); no children.

Father deserted family before her birth (1877); moved with family to live with her grandmother in Nottingham (1879); settled briefly in France (1889); won Princess of Wales scholarship (1894); settled in Staithes (1895); exhibited painting Mother and Childat Royal Academy (1903); made trip to Holland (1906); settled in Newlyn (1907); moved to London and began studies of backstage life at the ballet (1919); made extended trip to the U.S. (1926); elected as associate to Royal Academy (1927); named Dame Commander of the British Empire (1929); toured with the circus (1930); made full member of Royal Academy (1936); witnessed Nuremberg War Crimes Trial (1946); retrospective exhibit of her work at Royal Academy (1965).

Paintings:

Self-Portrait (Sotheby's, London, 1892–94); Dressing the Children (Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 1906); The Beach (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1908); The Green Feather (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1911); Self Portrait with Nude (National Portrait Gallery, London, 1913); The Penzance Fair (private collection, 1916); Two Girls on the Cliff (Sotheby's, London, 1917); Susie and the Wash-basin (Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, 1929); Three Clowns (Leicester Museums and Art Gallery, 1930); A Ballet Dancer (Nottingham Castle Museum, 1932); A Gypsy (Tate Gallery, London, 1938–39); A Balloon Site, Coventry, and Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring (Imperial War Museum, London, 1943); The Dock and Nuremberg (Imperial War Museum, London, 1946); The Yellow Dress (Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery, 1948).

Etchings:

Make-up (Belgrave Gallery, London, 1925); Three Graces of the Ballet (Belgrave Gallery, London, 1926); Zebras (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1930).

Laura Knight was one of the first prominent English women artists of the 20th century. At a time when the full curriculum of art schools was reserved for men, she broke through barriers with her talent, boundless energy, and ebullient personality. In the artistic world of the early decades of the century, writes biographer Caroline Fox , "she was extremely isolated and very much a pioneer." With such circumstances around her, Knight produced a body of work that was well-drawn and often brilliantly colored.

Knight's artistic training and her own inclinations separated her from the advanced artistic techniques on the Continent such as Cubism and Futurism. She clung throughout most of her career to a technique that emphasized colorful, dramatic, but realistic portrayals of the people around her. While her interests were wide-ranging, Knight had particular success in her depiction of girls and young women. She had no interest in probing deeply into the personalities of the subjects of her paintings, nor, with the exception of her paintings during World war II, was she interested in expressing in her art the turmoil in the social and political world around her. "Her naturally extroverted personality and love of being in the limelight," as Fox has noted, "did not allow of much inner searching," while she was deeply influenced by "anxieties about money and memories of a childhood of deprivation."

Locked into an apparently passionless marriage with fellow artist Harold Knight, Laura Knight in the view of some critics put her sexual energies into her painting; many of her female nudes, for example, are vibrantly erotic. On the other hand, her works were so accessible to a broad public that some critics saw them as superficial. As one critic put it on the occasion of a major exhibition of her work in 1939, "This exhibition does not represent the apex of contemporary pictorial achievement in England." In his view, shared by others throughout her career, "Laura Knight paints jolly subjects in a fine, fresh, hefty way, but there is no intellectual stamp upon her work."

She wished to be remembered as the painter of modern life, and it is indeed the most consistent theme running through the wide range of subjects and styles she touched on in eighty years of painting.

—David Phillips

The future painter faced years of difficult circumstances in her youth and girlhood. Her father deserted her family shortly before Laura's birth in Long Eaton near the English city of Nottingham on August 4, 1877; he had married her mother because he was impressed by the fact that her family owned a lace factory. Upon learning that the factory was not profitable, Charles Johnson soon lost interest in both his marriage and the daughters he fathered. In 1877, by most accounts, he deserted the family for good, although some authors suggest it was his wife who left him. In either case, Charlotte Bates Johnson , a determined and energetic woman with a talent for art, was left alone to fend for herself and to care for the couple's three daughters. In 1879, she moved her fractured family to the Nottingham home of Laura's grandmother.

Despite her mother's efforts to care for them by teaching art in a girls' school and giving private art lessons, Laura and her sisters grew up in poverty. Nonetheless, their indefatigable mother encouraged all the girls to become interested in art, and Laura, most of all, shared Charlotte's enthusiasm. Even as a young child, according to biographer Laura Dunbar , Knight produced drawings that were "not scrawls but recognizable shapes of objects in the house," and the other members of her family recognized her remarkable talents.

In 1883, when Laura was only six, her mother received word that Charles Johnson, the husband who had left in 1877, had died. The news caused barely a ripple in the family to which he was a stranger. A more important development was the instruction in art and the painting expeditions that Charlotte provided for all three daughters, with Laura, as usual, showing the greatest interest and promise.

Knight went to study art in France in 1889 when she was only 12, but the family's ill fortune continued. Her sister Nell died, and her grandmother became sick as well, and Laura was forced to return to England. There she continued in her role as art student, beginning a productive period from 1890 to 1894 working at the Nottingham School of Art. Once again tragedy struck; in 1892, her mother became fatally ill with cancer. Thereafter, while still a student taking classes at night, Laura at the age of 16 had to claim to be an adult as she took on her mother's teaching responsibilities to help support the family.

The young woman's artistic ambitions were partially blocked by the educational conventions of the time. Women were not permitted to participate in the life-drawing classes open to male students, and she came to believe that her technique suffered for years thereafter as a result. On the other hand, she found a close friend and artistic confidant in Harold Knight, a talented fellow student at the art school. She received another boost to her ambitions when in 1894 she won the Princess of Wales scholarship, giving her a modest sum for two years. This allowed her to leave the school and to strike out on her own.

From the mid-1890s to 1918, the painter worked in two very different coastal towns. In 1895, she settled in Staithes, a small fishing village on the Yorkshire coast north of Whitby, where there was a small colony of artists. Laura supported herself by giving lessons to visiting students and through a small subsidy from her family. She concentrated on painting the seafarers and other villagers of Staithes along with views of the sea. A depressing feature of life at Staithes was the constant danger the weather posed to the village's fishing vessels, and she found the steady loss of life, with dead bodies and wrecked boats washed upon the shore, emotionally draining.

In these years, Laura Johnson remained the close companion of Harold Knight, and, in 1903, after seven years of working together at Staithes, they were married. That same year, her painting received its greatest recognition to date. A work she had done at Staithes, Mother and Child, was accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy, the first time she had received this distinction. That piece of encouragement was soon augmented by the news that the painting had quickly been sold for £20. When Harold earned the princely sum of £100 for one of his paintings in 1906, the couple took the money and spent it on an extended stay to study the masterworks in Holland and to paint scenes of the countryside there.

In 1907, the Knights moved to the fishing town and artists' colony of Newlyn in Cornwall. Newlyn was a more active art center than Staithes, and its painters worked under the strong influence of the Impressionist school in France. Moreover, the area in Cornwall where it was located offered a pleasant climate. As Fox notes, "It was during the ten years spent in Cornwall (1907–18) that Laura's style reached maturity." Unlike Staithes, Newlyn offered an active social life based upon its lively gathering of artists, and Laura plunged into these activities with great enthusiasm. Harold, whose shy personality stood in marked contrast to that of his wife, held back from the spirited parties and other gatherings that typified these group activities. "Both the Knights were now well established," writes Dunbar, "sending pictures up to the Leicester Galleries [in London] and also selling them in Penzance [near Newlyn]."

During these years at Newlyn, Laura Knight's work took on some of the characteristics that were to mark her entire mature career. She adopted a palette of extremely bright colors, and she concentrated on painting individuals, often in a physical background marked by great beauty. Thus her picture of 1908 entitled The Beach featured a number of young girls playing on the sand, and The Boys, completed in 1910, showed male youngsters in a similar setting. Spectacular scenery became increasingly prominent in her paintings as she became more interested in the coast of Cornwall; On the Cliff and Two Girls on the Cliff, both finished around 1917, show two women on promontories above the ocean. Hiring female models from London who were willing to pose in the nude, Knight shocked the locals by painting these women as they modeled in public on the beaches and the adjoining rocks.

Both her professional and commercial reputations grew. The Beach and The Boys, as well as a third work entitled Flying a Kite, were also exhibited at the Royal Academy, and she found customers willing to pay handsomely for her work. A lush painting of a woman, finished in 1911 and named after the most prominent article of her clothing, The Green Feather, went to the National Gallery of Canada for £400.

The war years from 1914 to 1918 transformed Knight's life in a number of ways. Harold became a conscientious objector, and he was forced to work as an agricultural laborer in Cornwall. Laura found her favorite painting locales along the coast barred to her by military restrictions, and she and Harold moved to an inland town. She acted to evade the wartime measures by sneaking off and hiding in bushes near the sea long enough to make the sketches she needed; then she rushed home to do the corresponding painting. Despite her involvement in such escapades and her resentment at the restrictions on her movement, she accepted a generous commission from the Canadian government to paint a large picture of Canadian troops in their training camp in Surrey.

From 1919 onward, the Knights lived in London. Laura increasingly tried to look the part of the flamboyant woman artist; she ignored the fashion of the time to wear her blonde hair thickly coiled atop her head, and she favored brightly colored dresses and peasant blouses. In time, she would adopt a broad-brimmed straw hat and cloak as her personal emblems.

Knight's work continued to focus on individuals in interesting settings, now in locales like the backstage of the ballet and the dressing rooms of its dancers. Her longstanding interest in dance impelled her to ask permission to paint the dance world behind the scenes. As she came to know leading ballerinas like Lydia Lopokova , Laura Knight gained increased access to dressing rooms as well as permission to draw dancers in various informal poses. She now overcame, by a combination of innate skill and extensive practice, her earlier deficiencies in sketching the human body. Her friendship with the theatrical magnate Sir Barry Jackson gave her comparable access to the world behind the scenes of the legitimate stage.

An increasingly prominent member of the art world, Knight received an invitation from America's Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh to visit the United States in 1922. The trip proved stimulating, and she was encouraged to accompany her husband for a second and longer trip across the Atlantic in 1926 when Harold received a commission to do paintings in Baltimore. She immersed herself in painting new subjects, such as members of the black population in the segregated wards of a city hospital.

During the 1920s, Knight gained some notable honors, while Harold's income as a portrait painter and her own sales gave the couple an increasing measure of financial stability. But her spreading fame put his own success in the shadows, and, according to Dunbar, there were further strains on the marriage due to his occasional strong attraction to other women. Writes Fox, "He inevitably found it difficult to cope with her success," even though she told family members that he was by far a greater artist than she. Knight gave frequent radio and newspaper interviews, and in 1927 found her career adorned when she was named an associate of the Royal Academy, only the second woman to receive such recognition in the 20th century. Harold received the same honor in 1928. But once again his wife outshone him: in 1929, she was named Dame Commander of the British Empire. Harold was apparently unwilling to escort her to the ceremony, and she was accompanied by Barry Jackson.

Meanwhile, her interests and enthusiasm flowed into studies of the circus. In 1930, she even joined one circus company as it toured central England. Her pictures of circus performers backstage, including her memorable Three Clowns from 1930, show Knight capturing the exotic energy of the circus troupe and the personalities of its performers. She also demonstrated her versatility with a continuing flow of powerful pictures of women and young girls. These ranged from intimate views of women, such as the nude Blue and Gold of 1927 and the partially dressed figure in A Cottage Bedroom done around 1929, to the striking portrayal of a young girl gazing confidently at the viewer in Susie and the Wash-basin from 1929. In Fox's view, these years of the late 1920s "coincided with the peak of her [artistic] achievements." Thereafter, according to Fox, the development of Knight's talent slowed.

In any case, her desire to extend her range of subjects into new areas continued during the decade of the 1930s. Friends suggested that the horse races might be another interesting locale, but on her visits to centers like Epsom she became acquainted with the Gypsies (Roma) who were a part of the race-track scene. She then visited Gypsy camps, persuaded members to pose for her, and produced such colorful works as Romanies at Epsom and Gaudy Beggars, both completed around 1938.

An important event in Knight's career in the 1930s was election to full membership in the Royal Academy in 1935. As usual, her husband lagged behind, receiving the honor in 1937. She took pride in the fact that she was only the second woman to receive this distinction, worked hard in helping to administer the Academy, and became uncomfortably involved in quarrels when the Academy offended the artistic community. She was estranged for a time from an old acquaintance, Augustus John, for example, when he protested against the Academy's decision not to accept a modern painting by Wyndham Lewis. That same year, an injury to her foot forced her into an extended convalescence; she used the time to write her autobiography, published the next year as Oil Paint and Grease Paint. It received mixed reviews, some critics finding the book too reticent to reveal anything about her inner struggles as an artist. The reviewer for the Manchester Guardian, however, was enthusiastic, advising, "he will be a dull reader who does not feel … that he has not only followed the varying fortunes of a remarkable artist but has also watched the development and unfolding of a great personality."

Laura Knight's greatest moment of popular esteem came during the years of World War II. Commissioned by the government's War Artists' Advisory Commission, she became a familiar sight at Britain's factories and military bases. Although she was in her 60s when the war broke out, she proved able to work in daunting physical conditions. Many of her most popular war subjects were portraits of women in the armed forces and pictures of factory workers and air crews doing their jobs. The clarity and color of her style was perfectly matched to the public's wartime tastes. Her morale-boosting work benefited from her ability to capture the precise detail of military and industrial equipment. At the same time, a less attractive feature of her work as an artist came forth: her concern about the level of her earnings. Fearful as always of sinking back into the poverty that had dogged her childhood and early years as a painter, she insisted on being paid a fee not too distant from the high commissions that she had enjoyed before the war.

Her work was worth the price for the government's War Office. She painted women crews taking care of the barrage balloons that helped protect crucial areas of the British Isles against air attack. What became her most famous wartime painting showed a talented young woman factory worker, Ruby Loftus , using her newly acquired machinist's skill to perform a crucial operation at the Royal Ordnance Factory. Since Ruby Loftus could not be spared from her work, Knight did the portrait in the dangerous setting of the factory. During one sitting, a loose wheel fell from an overhead conveyor belt down on the artist and her work; she instinctively threw herself forward to protect her painting, and the wheel missed her by a few inches.

Knight herself took the initiative in requesting an assignment to paint the war crimes trials at Nuremberg after the cessation of hostilities. She wrote to the Secretary of the War Artists' Advisory Committee that it would be "a pity for such an event to go unrecorded, and I feel that artistically it should prove exciting." Dispatched to Nuremberg, she lived in the shattered German city for three months in early 1946. Although Knight was deeply depressed by her surroundings, nonetheless she produced a striking picture that consisted mainly of the German defendants in the dock. At the work's top and left side, however, she pulled down the walls of the courtroom to show the physical devastation and the heaped corpses that she considered the essence of the German reality.

The aging artist continued to work steadily in the postwar years. She turned much of her energy to painting landscape scenes drawn from her country home in Worcestershire. Concerned as always about her earnings, she was disappointed to find that her works were out of style and no longer able to command top prices from buyers. Her health began to fail, and disease hindered her ability to hold a palette and brush. She found herself alone to face the problems of advancing age when Harold Knight died in 1961.

In 1965, she published a second autobiographical volume, The Magic of a Line. That same year, the Royal Academy gathered 250 of her paintings to honor her with an important retrospective exhibition of her works. The paintings, drawn from all the periods of her six decades of artistic production, constituted the largest assembly of her paintings ever achieved. But she approached the showing with trepidation, fearing that her work would received a hostile reception from the critics of the 1960s. In some cases this was true, and she had to read new accusations that her work was superficial and vulgar.

Five years later, the Castle Museum in Nottingham, her childhood home, planned another gathering of her work, but it was one that Laura Knight did not live to attend. She died at age 93 in London, July 7, 1970, the day preceding the exhibit's opening.

sources:

Dunbar, Janet. Laura Knight. London: Collins, 1971.

Fox, Caroline. Dame Laura Knight. Oxford: Phaidon, 1988.

Grimes, Teresa, Judith Collins, and Oriana Baddeley. Five Women Painters. Oxford: Lennard, 1989.

Knight, Dame Laura. The Magic of a Line. London: William Kimber, 1965.

——. Oil Paint and Grease Paint. London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1936.

suggested reading:

Cole, Margaret. Women of Today, 1938 (reprint, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1968).

Foot, M.R.D. Art and War: Twentieth Century Warfare as Depicted by War Artists. London: Headline, 1990.

Harries, Meirion and Susie. The War Artists. London: Michael Joseph, 1983.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California