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Monday, September 29, 2014

Laura Knight

Balloon Site: Coventry, 1940s, Laura Knight                    
--not exactly your typical Impressionist painting.                   
It's easy for us today to look upon Impressionism as just a bunch of pretty pictures. For the most part, they were that, and still are today. In the U.S, the east coast and the so-called "left coast" seem to be the most impressive bastions of impressionist art. In between, the painter's art flourishes but no one style retains any degree of dominance over another. Northeastern and the southwestern landscape and light seems to lend themselves to this type and style of art. Of course, money has something to do with it too. Both areas of this country are as rich in wealth as in their stunning beauty. As I've said many times before, great wealth begets great art. Having said all that, Impressionism was far more than pretty pictures. It revolutionized painting, first in France, then England, the U.S., and the rest of the world. Impressionism changed the way artists painted as well as how they looked upon painting. It would be difficult to overstate the impact these changes had on art--painting, drawing, sculpture, the cinema, perhaps even architecture.
Ruby Loftus screwing a breech ring, 1942, Laura Knight.
Very few impressionists ever painted a woman running an industrial lathe. 

Laura Knight became best
known for her wartime art.
With only a pathetic smattering of exceptions, painting was a male occupation. The British critic John Ruskin is said to have stated flatly, "Women can't paint." Ruskin died in 1900. Many artist happily attended his funeral. That's about the time that an artist named Laura Johnson set out to prove England's number one misogynist wrong. If that name doesn't stick in your mind, perhaps you might know her better by her married name, Laura Knight. If you're British, I'm sure of it.

Laura Johnson was born in Long Eaton, Derbyshire (central England) in 1877. Her father died when she was a baby. Her mother support Laura and her two sisters by teaching art part time at the Nottingham School of Art where her mother managed to get her enrolled as a student at no cost. When her mother became ill, though only fifteen at the time, Laura had progressed so far and so fast in her studies she was able to take over her mother's job even as she continued attending classes herself on a scholarship from the South Kensington Museum. She supplemented her income by giving private art instruction.

Harold Knight Self-portrait, 1923
Laura Knight by Harold Knight
After the death of her mother and one of her sisters, Laura Johnson met Harold Knight, the school's best student. She liked his style and decided the best training she could get would be to imitate him. Twelve years later, she married him in 1903, from that point on taking on his name as Laura Knight. Married couples who painted together were not unheard-of in England at the time (I've written on one or two) but they were relatively rare. Even while courting, the two, accompanied by Laura's sister, painted together while vacationing in a small fishing village on the northern coast of France. Actually, he did most of the painting, she could not afford the expensive supplies, so she spent her time drawing the local children, all too willing to pose for a few pennies.

The Beach, 1909, Laura Knight--children of Newlyn
After the two were married, Laura and Harold Knight spent time painting together in the Netherlands and in England, Yorkshire and eventually, Cornwall as part of the Newlyn artists' colony. Harold Knight became an established portrait artist while his wife's studied lagged far behind him as she continued her studies of children on the beach at Newlyn. These eventually evolved into her first major painting, The Beach (above), from 1909, which was entered into the Royal Academy competition where I received high praise for its impressionist style, far beyond anything she'd done before.

Self-portrait with Nude, 1913, Laura Knight
Harold Knight began incorporating nude models from London into his Cornwall landscapes. Laura's Self-portrait with Nude (above) from 1913 suggests she was not altogether comfortable with the idea, but apparently acquiesced. The painting represents a resentful challenge to academic tradition which did not permit women to paint directly from a nude model at that time. The painting was not well-received at the time, having been rejected for display at the Royal Academy that year. One critic describing it a "vulgar." After Laura Knight's death, the painting was purchased by Britain's National Portrait Gallery as an important work in female emancipation.

Ballet, 1936, Laura Knight
The Three Clowns, Laura Knight
During WW I, Harold Knight registered as a conscientious objector and ended up plowing fields as a farm laborer. Laura used her time to, in essence, catch up with her husband's skills in painting, turning her attention to circus performers (left), famous ballet dancers (above), and painting the rugged coast of England (below) after having first obtained special permission from the government because of wartime security restrictions. She also took up printmaking, leaving behind over ninety prints created up through the 1920s. After the war, her reputation was such that she was invited to the United States to serve on a jury at the first annual Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Pictures.

Lamorna Cove, ca.1919, (on the Cornwall coast), Laura Knight
In 1936, having won several different international competitions, Laura Knight became the first woman in over 150 years to be elected to the Royal Academy. Her husband was elected a year later, making them the first married couple to ever be so honored. Later, Laura turned her attention to painting gypsies (below), often from the back of her antique Rolls Royce. During the Second World War, Knight painted recruiting posters, not for soldiers, but for women to work in their place. Her efforts from this era can be seen at the top as she depicted exceptional female contributions to the war effort.

Watercolor Study of Gypsy Caravans, 1930, Laura Knight

The Dock, Nuremberg, 1946,
Laura Knight
After the war, Laura Knight, even at age of sixty-nine, was the only woman artist allowed to depict the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial proceedings. The War Artists' Advisory Committee, who had sent her to Germany for three months, was more than a little stunned at what they got for their money. It was a departure from her usual Impressionistic realism. She depicted the Nazi war criminals being tried in the foreground while the background opened up to the widespread destruction she found in the city. The Royal Academy was rather cool to it too, but those who attended the trials gave it high praise. Laura Knight's standing as an artist continued to grow during the later years of her life while that of her husband 1961. Unlike her husband, Laura continued having important retrospective exhibitions even well after her death in 1970 at the age of ninety-two.

Malvern Hills, 1930s, Laura Knight



  1. What an amazingly talented artist and an inspiring account of her life and works, thank you. I have just found out about her through reading Rosamunde Pilcher's book 'Coming Home'

  2. Thanks, I found her quite inspiring too.