Laura Knight was still in her teens when she first flouted convention. Banned from drawing nudes at art school because she was a woman, she hired a private model to pose for her at home. Later she became one of the first British female artists to paint the nude in nature: her pink-skinned bathers settle on pale rocks beside waters dashed with deep purples and emerald greens. “An ebullient vitality made me want to paint the whole world and say how glorious it was to be young and strong,” she wrote. That vitality endured for the length of her career.
The largest exhibition of Knight’s work since 1965 is currently on show at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. Bringing together more than 160 paintings, graphic works and designs, it seeks to celebrate the contemporary relevance of her diverse subjects, styles and techniques. It whisks us from her training at Nottingham Art School (at 13, Knight was the youngest student to ever enrol) to her time in north Yorkshire and Cornwall. There are ballet, theatre and circus scenes, portraits of traveller communities and women war workers. Her canvases are in turn realist, impressionist, colourist, surrealist. The way she adapted her style to fit each circumstance might have been seen as a weakness – “The English are particularly sceptical of versatility,” wrote one critic in 1913 – but today it’s refreshing.
At art school she met fellow artist, the portrait painter Harold Knight, and at the beginning of the 20th century they married and moved to the fishing village of Staithes in north Yorkshire. From an early age, Knight had rejected history and myth painting in favour of everyday life, and here she joined an artists’ colony preoccupied with capturing the local community. She painted fisherfolk in a muted palette, “bleached by weather and sea-water”, and their resilient wives. Regular visits to the Netherlands explain the Dutch influence on her watercolours of women knitting, peeling potatoes, plucking geese. As Knight remarked, “There was beauty in very simple things if one had eyes to see it.”
Knight first encountered success while she was living in Staithes – she sold paintings in London and her work was accepted into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – and when she and Harold moved to the seaside town of Newlyn in Cornwall the triumphs continued. Painting outside, she traded the rustic naturalism of her earlier works for a sunny impressionist style better suited to the Cornish coast. One of her most striking series shows modern women sitting or standing on cliff edges, with their backs to the viewer, looking out to sea. Exhibitions followed, along with rave reviews: “Quite irrespective of sex, she must be accounted already one of the foremost artists of the day.”
Yet male scrutiny was unremitting and often ungenerous. In her student days Knight had been accused of having “too heavy a hand for a woman”, and later her figures were mocked for being “too ponderously commonplace”. When she produced her famous self-portrait with a nude female model in 1913 – a radical statement of a woman’s right to the same artistic education as a man – she was criticised for failing to infuse her work with “the higher charm of the ‘eternal feminine’”. Even when she and Harold moved to London in 1919, and she travelled and exhibited widely, she was doing so within a patriarchal system. It’s worth mentioning that Knight was in her forties by the time women in Britain achieved partial suffrage.
Outsider status no doubt motivated Knight and contributed to her desire to document the hard work and perseverance of others. The drawings and paintings she made backstage at the ballet in London from 1910 show dancers limbering up and preparing in their dressing rooms, while her portraits of circus performers depict serious individuals working hard to earn a living. Stylistically, both groups afforded her the opportunity to paint at speed and to dial up the drama with a vibrant palette and theatrical lighting.
Whether fisherfolk, ballet dancers or clowns, Knight’s portraits are attentive and real. In 1926, Harold was called upon to do some work in Baltimore, and Knight accompanied him. In the city’s racially segregated hospital wards, she sensitively depicted Black nurses and patients, exploring their lives and giving them a voice. Painting Black skin was a technical challenge for Knight, and she rose to it with a nuanced mix of terracottas, blues and browns. But though she empathised with her subjects, her autobiographies include racial slurs and stereotypes.
During the Second World War, Knight painted propagandist portraits and scenes that highlighted women’s contributions to the war effort. She received commissions from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, among them Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring (1943). Knight focuses on Loftus’s concentration as she competently works a lathe in an armaments factory; she’s in the spotlight, surrounded by the gleaming tools of her trade. The portrait was voted picture of the year at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1943 and reproduced as a poster to boost morale in factories.
And so, how did Knight go from being one of the best-known British artists of the 20th century to overlooked? It might have been her changeable approach to painting, or the fact that realism fell out of fashion. It also might have been quite simply that, as she wrote in 1965, “Even today, a female artist is considered more or less a freak.” Either way, Knight continued to paint people from all walks of life, and to experiment with subjects and styles. She campaigned for professional recognition of women artists and was made a dame. She became a Royal Academician in 1936 and was the first woman to have a solo show at the gallery, in 1965. She painted celebrations of youth, womankind, work and freedom that remain as relevant now as they were then. And no wonder – as she herself once said, “I paint Today.”
Laura Knight: A Panoramic View is at MK Gallery until 20th February
Words by Chloë Ashby, an author and arts journalist. Her first novel, Wet Paint, will be published by Trapeze in April 2022.
Images courtesy of MK Gallery.
Homepage image: Laura Knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring, 1943, Oil on canvas, IWM, Photo courtesy IWM © Crown Copyright. IWM. All Rights Reserved.
Image 1: Laura Knight, A Balloon Site, Coventry, 1943, Oil on canvas, IWM, Photo courtesy IWM © Crown Copyright. IWM. All Rights Reserved.
Image 2: Laura Knight, The Cornish Coast, 1917. Oil on canvas, On loan from and photo courtesy Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Image 3: Laura Knight, The Dressing Room at Drury Lane (1922) Photo © The Atkinson, Lord Street, Southport, © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Image 4: Laura Knight, Chloe, 1926, Oil on canvas, Private Collection. Photo courtesy Christie’s Images Limited © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights Reserved.