Laura Knight, 1877-1970

Laura Johnson was born in Long Eaton, just outside Nottingham, in 1877. Her early life was difficult. Brought up by her mother and grandmother – her mother supporting the family by teaching art in a local school – she faced poverty and the necessity to start to earn a living from a young age. Such an upbringing – in a small village in provincial England in the 1880s – inevitably encouraged Laura to be unusually independent. Hence, when still very young, she started to study at Nottingham School of Art in 1890. At this date, the School was, in fact, called the Nottingham Government School of Design; like so many other such art colleges, it was intended to support the local industry – in this case, the lace industry – by training students in the, ‘history, principles and practice of ornamental art’. Interestingly, possibly because the lace industry employed many women designers, the Nottingham School was reputed to be particularly supportive of young women students. Their training was not very different from that of their male colleagues and included drawing from the antique and from life (though not the nude), modelling in clay and wax, carving in wood - in other words, Laura Johnson was given a thorough training which would sustain a variety of artistic pursuits. Her initial choice was to become a teacher of art, like her mother.

It seems that Laura met Harold Knight (1874-1961) almost at the beginning of her training. The latter was a dedicated, serious student and Laura, from the start, was tremendously impressed by both the man and the artist. She certainly emulated his style, in these early days, and it is likely that she interrogated him about the techniques and ideas he gathered when, in c.1893, he won a travelling scholarship and went to Paris, to study at the Académie Julian, under J.P. Laurens and J.J. Benjamin-Constant. Interestingly – given the continuing reputation of the Académie Julian for fostering a vivid naturalism and a swift touch – both of these tutors had been trained in the academic tradition and both enjoyed working on a large scale, in the studio. Nevertheless, Paris offered, to a keen and enquiring young artist, a pattern of painting en plein air, with rich colour and bold brushstroke, that was profoundly influenced by the Impressionists and decidedly anti-academic.

Probably in 1897, Laura and her sister made the first of several visits to the village of Staithes. This was, partly, for a holiday and – no doubt – partly because Staithes was already known for the gathering clan of artists who were painting the light and life of this village on the NE coast of Yorkshire. Amongst the several painters working there from the early 1880s – that is, even before the railway arrived in Staithes, in 1883 – was Fred Jackson. Like Harold Knight, but more than a decade earlier, Jackson had studied in Paris, at the Académie Julian - at a time when the work of the Impressionists was still causing a stir. Jackson was excited by the example of fresh, outdoor colour and light; but he was much more engaged by the work of the earlier generation of painters – Millet, in particular – who had depicted the toil, and the dignity, of peasants winning a living from the soils of Barbizon (near the Fontainebleau forest). Back at home, Jackson took with him to Staithes a vision of painting in the open, in all weathers and seasons, capturing the light and depicting the daily lives of the resilient people who lived and worked there. It was in this commitment that Laura found Jackson’s example so compelling.

Staithes was where Laura Johnson declared that she had found what would sustain her future.

'Staithes … it was there that I found myself and what I might do. The life and place were what I yearned for – the freedom, the austerity, the savagery, the wilderness. I loved the cold and the northerly storms when no covering would protect you. I loved the strange race of people who lived there, whose stern almost forbidding exterior formed such contrasts to the warmth and richness of their nature.’

Staithes was an inspiration for both Laura Johnson and Harold Knight. They, with many others (including at least two women, Hannah Hoyland[1] and Isa Jobling[2]), set up the Staithes Art Club - their shows held in the Fishermen’s Institute from 1901-3 (at which time the exhibition outgrew the Institute and moved to Whitby). This, of course, was a deliberate statement about their artistic – and surely their political – philosophy. The painters wanted to show their work together - there were no artistic narcissists here. They wanted to paint everyday scenes, out of doors or in domestic interiors; in particular, they wished to convey something about the lives of ordinary people: families, children, working men and women. The pull of Staithes lay not only in its picturesqueness, but also in that it was remote, poor, dependent on the whims of the weather and tide. For artists wishing to engage with what they construed as 'real life', to paint and exhibit amongst the 'strange race' of the working folk of the region, Staithes was a magnet.

Harold and Laura Knight married in 1903 and their first studio was in Staithes. But, in about 1908, the couple moved to Newlyn, on the north coast of Cornwall, where there had been an established artists’ colony since c.1882 and where the light was brighter and the climatic conditions somewhat less brutal than at Staithes. Often working with close friends, Alfred Munnings and S.J. 'Lamorna' Birch, for the next decade, Laura Knight took advantage of being able to paint more regularly en plein air, depicting beach scenes, families and children. Her brighter colour palette reflected the new environment and her touch became somewhat looser, more buttery than before. It is clear, too, that she became not just more confident as an artist, but specifically more confident as a woman artist (perhaps too independent to stay in Staithes, with its much more communal ethic?).

By c.1910, Laura Knight’s reputation was established. She continued to show at the Royal Academy, as well as the Royal Watercolour Society and the Women’s International Art Club (the latter having been launched, in Paris, in 1899 but exhibiting, thereafter, in London). In 1910, both Laura and Harold had been selected to represent their country at the Venice Biennale[3]. Again together, in 1912, both the Knights received critical acclaim when they showed at the Leicester Galleries, in London. It was at this point that Laura Knight began to embark on subjects that were more challenging to a conventional Victorian or Edwardian critic than a woman’s art was supposed to be; it was at this point, surely, that Knight’s ebullient character was frustrated by the limited expectations of what women artists could - should - do.

In 1911, at the RA, Laura Knight showed a work, Daughters of the Sun[4]. This was a picture of a group of women dressing and sunbathing after having been in the sea. Critical response was uncertain. True, the subject of nude Bathers had caused a stir in 1910, when – at the remarkable ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’[5] exhibition, at the Grafton Gallery – no fewer than three such pictures were hung, by Cezanne, Manet and Maurice Denis. But the critical reaction was to the style and colour of the paintings, not the theme - which, of course, had a long tradition in Western art. True, too, that Laura Knight was not the only Newlyn artist to revel in images of nudes beneath the sunshine, on the beach: Henry Scott Tuke had successfully shown his large painting of nude and semi-dressed boys, Midsummer Morning, at the RA in 1908. Knight’s picture, however, was very large and had twice as many partially-draped figures as Tuke's five boys. Its scale and the date would suggest that she was making an assertive statement about the legitimacy of a woman painting nudes – female nudes – in what was, undoubtedly, a public space (the beach) and on show in a very public place (the RA). The reception of this painting can only be described as very mixed.

If – for lack of the actual picture – our reading of this image is purely speculative, this is not so about the second picture Knight exhibited at the RA in 1911, the wonderful Green Feather [6]. This apparently innocuous, life-size figure of a woman on a beach is not only delicious in colour, but also in its wit. This woman must have – literally – looked down on her spectators: she towers above us all, just as she towers above the tiny silhouette of a church in the distance. She knows she is not dressed conventionally (certainly not for the beach); in fact, she’s not even fashionable. But her gaudy gown – the emerald green startling against the complementary orange-red of the scarf – and the jaunty feather in her manly hat are suggestive of a woman who is enjoying her freedom not to conform. We are reminded that Knight celebrated the lives of gypsies, dancers and circus performers after the War. None of this appears to have been picked up at the time: but, in the context of her next – shocking – painting, of 1913, Self Portrait with Nude (also called The Model[7]), this, surely, was Laura Knight’s message.

The Self Portrait was first shown in Newlyn, where it was admired; then it went to London, though to the International Society, not the RA. Claude Phillips, of The Daily Telegraph, voiced the response of many critics. He admired the 'excellent' Mrs. Knight's brushwork. But, if only she had, 'a spark of that imaginativeness which literally burns in the work of Mrs Swynnerton[8]!'

'Somehow, woman painting woman hardly ever infuses into her work the higher charm of the 'eternal feminine'. This painting … repels, not by any special inconvenience – for it is harmless enough and with an element of sensuous attraction – but by dullness and by something dangerously near to vulgarity.’

He was right about the 'vulgarity' - for it is wonderful indeed. When hung in an exhibition, the eye of the spectator – as of the painter herself, who stands in the foreground of the painting, with her back to us, the audience – is brought up close to the bottom of the standing figure; the startling red of Knight’s jacket reflects the scarlet of the nude’s backdrop, not to mention the chilly pink of her skin. This is uncompromising, psychologically complex, challenging the whole history of the canon of the nude in art. This is a picture which helps to lend meaning to all Knight's subsequent work[9].

During the First War, Harold Knight was a conscientious objector and Laura Knight remained in Cornwall. In 1922, however, the Knights moved to London. Now, Laura Knight was given free access to Bertram Mills’ Circus, where it is clear that she revelled in the backstage chaos, the eccentricities and the drama of it all. Her subject matter expanded to include ballet and theatre performers – often women – and the lives of gypsies. It would be easy to say that she was influenced by Augustus John and his pre-War fascination for the freedom of a gypsy life. There may be something in this; but Knight’s circus performers and gypsies were real and not her family, dressed-up; her gypsies often betrayed the dirt and hardship which was part of their life. What she clearly admired was self-reliance, determination, rejection of conventional mores, especially when she found it amongst the women.

Knight explored the possibilities of many different media: she increasingly used watercolour, or etched, or drew. Time and again, her command of the medium can only be described as stunning. When etching, she sometimes worked on a large scale, often using simple, bold lines, contradicting the textured delicacy of etchers in the Whistler tradition (Seymour Haden or Mortimer Menpes, for example). She worked at a plate, sometimes burnishing it and applying aquatint. She was constantly challenging her own manual skills. Prolific and capable, she was elected an Associate of the RA in 1927; she became a Dame in 1929; and in 1936 she was elected a full member of the RA[10].

Knight became a War Artist in the Second War and it was in 1942 that she painted what has become one of her most iconic images: Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring (now in the Imperial War Museum). Intended as a piece of propaganda, this is also a vivid portrayal of a young woman feeling in control of her world.

After the War, Laura Knight continued to work. Her longevity and success has, perhaps, led to a modern tendency to dismiss Knight’s art - for artists, after all, are supposed to struggle. Bold, self-confident, certainly; but – although she did not have much time for Modernism and remained attached to the visual world – she was also experimental, never satisfied with what she had done, always wanting to push a little further, explore something new[11]. There can be no doubt that she helped to change the lot of women artists in Britain.

We quote her great-nephew - who is responsible for The Official Dame Laura Knight website - as a fitting conclusion.

‘In her last years Laura asked me, “Have I tried too many different media, too many different subjects?”. I could not give her an answer as she then went on, “I do not know, except that my inner self continues to say even today – go on, keep on trying something different”’. [12]

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013


[1] Hannah married Staithes artist Fred Mayor.

[2] Isa was married to another Staithes artist, Robert Jobling.

[3] Laura Knight actually showed at the Venice Biennale in 1910, 1914, 1922, 1924, 1928.

[4] Unfortunately, this painting is no longer extant, so one can only engage with the critical reaction to the picture, rather than the image itself.

[5] This tremendously influential exhibition had been organised by Roger Fry.

[6] Purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1912 – a sign of Laura Knight’s reputation – images of this picture can readily be found on the internet. Knight is said to have claimed that it took only a day to paint (Tuke said just the same about some of his works). Such a masculine challenge! What Knight was doing, of course, is echoing none other than James McNeill Whistler. Accused, by Ruskin, in 1877, of ‘flinging a pot of paint into the public’s face’, Whistler acknowledged the speed of execution; but emphasised, too, that his work represented, ‘the learning of a lifetime’.

[7] The picture was exhibited under this title at the International Society exhibition in 1913. It is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

[8] It is worth looking up the work of Annie Swynnerton – especially her early work – to see what The Daily Telegraph might have considered ‘imaginative’! You will be surprised.

[9] See Hana Leaper, Objects of Art: the dualities of the artist’s and model’s bodies in Laura Knight’s 1913 ‘Self Portrait’, available on www.bodiesofwork.info, for an interesting discussion of these issues.

[10] She was the first woman to be elected to the RA in over 150 years.

[11] Both her enjoyment in her work and her sense of breaking new ground is conveyed in her two volumes of autobiography: Oil Paint and Grease Paint, in 1936 and The Magic of a Line, in 1965.

[12] R. John Croft, FCA, Chairman of the Trustees of the Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA.