Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review: Laura Knight Portraits

Yesterday I went to see Laura Knight Portraits - the first major exhibition ever dedicated to portraits by Dame Laura Knight at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It opened to the public today and runs until 13th October 2013.

Dame Laura Knight - War Artist
(left to right) The Dock at Nuremberg, charcoal study of the British prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe
Ruby Loftus screwing a breech ring and Switch Works© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
The exhibition includes over 40 paintings and drawings and is ordered in a chronological sequence across her artistic career.  I'm going to include photographs taken in the exhibition in this review - but will also refer you to specific paintings on the Laura Knight section of the BBC Your Paintings website where you can see much bigger reproductions online.  So click the links if you'd like a better look and they'll open in a new window!

It's also a perspective on life in her chosen corners of Britain in the first half of the 20th century.

I was interested in Dame Laura Knight before this exhibition. However having seen the exhibition and listened to the Curator's Introduction to her story of these paintings within the context of her life I'm now a lot more interested.

About Laura Knight

Dame Laura Knight (1877 - 1970) was the first woman artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire, in 1929 in her mid 50s.  She was also only the second woman artist (after Anne Surymerton) to be admitted as a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1936 having been admitted as an Associate Member in 1927.  It has to be said that this was an era when the avant garde artists were not queuing up to become members!  It was said at the time that the RA needed Laura Knight as much as Laura Knight needed the RA!

Her art education involved her enrolment at the Nottingham School of Art at the age of 13 (in 1890). She was probably the youngest pupil they ever enrolled.  She was a student there until 1895 when her other died and Laura had to start earning - by taking on her mother's pupils.

Key themes of her work

Self Portrait 1913
oil on canvas
© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
This portrait was exhibited a number of times
but remained in her studio until her death.
It was well received by Newlyn friends
but was criticised as vulgar by others in London.
It was bought by the NPG after her death in 1970 

These include:

  • a late starter - she didn't really start painting portraits until she was in her 30s and had been an established painter for some time.  
  • she's particularly excellent at painting groups of people, particularly people at work - I wish there were more who could pull this off today!
  • an absolute respect for the working man and woman - probably nurtured by her very impoverished early life in Nottingham.  Her mother was an artist and had to work extremely hard to be able to care for her children Laura's father died in 1883 when Laura would have been 6.  It's very evident that she was a hard worker and respected hard work in others.  
  • an interest in 
    • emancipated women dedicated to their art.  Her own self-portrait - painted in 1913 at age 29 is an absolute stunner - it's one of my favourite paintings in the NPG permanent collection.  However its importance relates to the fact that in Cornwall she was finally able to paint from the nude having been limited to plaster casts while attending a government art school.
    • people on the periphery of society e.g. gypsies and clowns
    • people "behind the scenes" e.g. actresses and ballet dancers and their dressers as well as WAAF officers and lathe operators
    • costume and uniform - dressing up to play the part
  • her paintings are "of their time" which means they went out of fashion and are now old enough to be more highly regarded again
  • an immersive approach to her work - choosing a subject and then being around the subject for weeks or month, drawing constantly and setting up her easel to paint from life in odd places - eg actresses dressing rooms.  She's the only artist I know who routinely painted from inside a Rolls Royce!! (there are photographs of this in the show!)
  • an ability to work in a range of media and styles - artwork in the show is mostly oil on canvas but also include studies. She obviously loves working in charcoal for drawings and combines it with goauche and watercolour to work up colour studies.  I noted that often the face is finally modelled while the rest of the painting could vary from an impressionistic approach to realism
  • an ability to work fast and paint from observation. Some of her portraits of the gypsies are very impressive in this respect
  • a strong sense of graphic design in terms of her use of composition and colour.  To me she looks like somebody who enjoyed a bold use of colour even when real life was maybe a tad more muted and neutral
  • an artist who was constantly challenging herself to try something new all her life.
I came away thinking of her rather as an outsider observer.  That's not to say she paints outsider art so much as she's somebody who's got the keen eye of an independent observer who's not swayed by who a person is.  She's in society but not of society - or at least that's how it came across to me.  She paints life from life within the context in which it is lived.  In a way it's almost reportage art.

Although elevated in status in later life, this was a profound contrast to her early life when at times she was literally starving.  Her interest in people who would normally have been ignored by other artists also suggests she was somebody who was certainly no conventional commission-based portrait painter.  

I was left wondering if what we are seeing in the show are the portraits which Knights maybe painted for herself rather than those which she painted to get paid.  Are these the paintings which generated the commissions?


She and her husband spent time in Cornwall and it's here that she developed a vigorous plein air technique for painting landscapes. She got to know the distinguished landscape painter Lamorna Birch (of the Newlyn School).  There's an absolutely stunning painting in the exhibition of Lamorna Birch with his two daughters.  It's a big "come and look at me" painting painted in an Impressionist style.  It's also a portrait which both reflects the landscape which so inspired Birch (his name comes from Lamorna in Cornwall which he 'adopted' as his name) and also the more relaxed and informal lifestyle of artists in Cornwall.

Lamorna Birch and his daughters
oil on canvas
© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
She also painted some pretty impressive landscapes while in Cornwall - and I came away with a book about Laura Knight in the Open Air which you can buy in the NPG shop - which includes landscapes as well as her portraits.  Here's an example  (not in the exhibition) Autumn Sunlight, Sennen Cove, Cornwall which my friend Vivien will enjoy!

Theatre and Dance (1920s)

There are some lovely paintings of dancers and actresses painted in repose.  She started to frequent draw and paint performers after she and her husband moved to London in 1919.  She obtained permission to work backstage at the Ballet Russe and befriended a number of the ballerinas.  Drawing dancers improved her drawing ability because of the need to be able to capture movement and to draw a subject who doesn't stand still!  She then became famous for her backstage depictions of actors and dancers at the Ballets Russes during the Post-war London season. 

Interestingly in one of the paintings the ballet dancer (below) is actually a professional model. I liked the fact that Knight paid as much attention to the dresser as she did to the putative ballerina.  

Ballet Girl and Dressmaker (1930)
oil on canvas
Collection of Miriam U Hoover and the late H. Earl Hoover
© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago Exhibition of European Paintings in 1931
(page 30 of the catalogue)

Black patients and nursing staff at Johns Hopkins

In the 1930s her husband was commissioned to do a number of portraits of doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  She accompanied him on the trip and spent her time drawing nursing staff and patients in the racially segregated hospital.

Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Portraits of a black nurse and black child patients
© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
Her drawings and paintings of young black children and the black nurse Pearl Johnson are tremendously impressive.  They're some of the best portraits of black children I've ever seen - with a couple done very simply in charcoal with a watercolour wash and gouache.  My friend Adebanji Alade says she is an inspiration to him and I can well see why. He's going to love these drawings and paintings!

Circuses, Clowns and Gypsies (1930s)

The second room is given over her drawings and paintings of people on the periphery of society and those apt to wear interesting costumes.  In the 1930s she travelled for several months with Bertram Mills and Great Carmo’s touring circus painting the performers in and out of the ring. I'd previously seen some of her circus drawings which are in the archives of the RA and knew that she was fascinated with yet another aspect of fantasy land. 

She also spent several years drawing and painting painting Gypsies at the Epsom Races.  As a result of the people she met there she was invited to a Gypsy settlement in Iver, Buckinghamshire. Over a period of months she visited every day and painted a number of portraits of one family.

To me these paintings reinforced a notion of a woman who was very much interested in the costumes that made people look different

War Art (1940s)

I found this to be the most impressive room. Dame Laura Knight was one of the war artists in World War II and produced paintings for the for the War Artists Advisory Board.

In this room we have several impressive and important paintings - of RAF men inside a bomber, portraits of WAAF officers who had demonstrated heroism under fire, portraits of people working at their machines in the munitions factories and a drawing and painting of the Nuremberg trial.

Wartime Newport: The Home Front - A Gun Girl tells the story of how Dame Laura Knight came to paint Ruby Loftus and her war work (see top). It also includes a photo of the two women together
She suggested to the Board that she cover the Nuremberg Trials and so, in her late 60s, she was duly appointed as a war correspondent.  She then produced The Dock at Nuremberg the astonishing and impressive painting seen below - based on a drawing, drawn from life while sat peering through a window in the Press Box.  the figures of Goering and Hess were instantly recognisable despite being side profiles.  The painting morphs at the top into a picture of the devastation to be seen outside the Court.  It was the only time that Knight departed from realism.

Charcoal drawing done at Nuremberg and The Dock at Nuremberg
© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
This is the view from a small window in the Press Box.
She painted it when in her late 60s.

Women at war: The female British artists who were written out of history is an interesting article I came across in The independent which comments on the fate of women war artists

Take Off
oil on canvas
© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013

George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1970) by Dame Laura Knight
George Bernard Shaw (1933)
oil on canvas
© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013

Later life - Celebrity Portraits & Commissions

The most conventional - and in some ways the most ordinary - portraits are in the last room.

Yet, it's apparent that Knight enjoys painting people who are "a bit different".  The portrait of George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1970) makes him feel very real to me.  Apparently she asked him to sit for her when they were both guests at a festival in Malvern but had to work alongside another artist who was sculpting him at the same time in clay!

Shaw commented that Knight had made him appear a sincere man "when all my life I have been an actor".

If you visit be sure to watch the video film which shows her painting and visiting the RA Summer Exhibition in 1943 with Ruby Loftus when her painting won the accolade of Painting of the Year

More information

Laura Knight Portraits

  • National Portrait Gallery, London - 11 July - 13 October 2013
  • Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle - 2 Nov 2013-16 Feb 2014
  • Plymouth Art Gallery - 1 March-10 May 2014
Supported by the Laura Knight Portraits Exhibition Supporters Group

NOTE:  Below you'll find a link to the website I made about Dame Laura Knight a while back after I saw a small exhibition of her work at the RA.  This contains links to more information about her and where you can see her artwork. Dame Laura Knight’s works are held in major UK public collections including Nottingham Castle Museum, Museum of London, Imperial War Museum, North and Imperial War Museum, London, National Portrait Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate Gallery.
About Dame Laura Knight - British Artist  Laura Knight (1877-1970) was the first woman artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire. She was an Impressionist Painter who was also renowned for her drawing and graphical art skills. She was the first woman to be honoured with a retrospective Exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1965. She was also the official war artist at the Nuremburg Trials after World War 2.

Other reviews


  1. A wonderful report -- thank you. I've loved Laura Knight for a long time, but your post has really fleshed her out, besides making me so eager to see the show.

  2. Thanks for this extensive review. Her 1913 self portrait has been one of my favourite paintings since the moment I saw a postcard of it, and your thoughtful write-up has really put it in context. What a challenge for a teenager to step suddenly into her mother's footsteps - what a hard worker she must have been.

  3. Your post on Knight is so interesting, you did a great job of introducing her and her work to those of us that never heard of her before!!

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  5. Just now catching up on some reading I find this post on Laura Knight. Thank you! Thank you! You have done so much for "uncovering" the women whom history has tried to bury. Boys and girls, men and women need to know the accomplishments and scope of all our artists...that is what a well rounded and complex society looks like.

  6. Just now catching up on some reading I find this post on Laura Knight. Thank you! Thank you! You have done so much for "uncovering" the women whom history has tried to bury. Boys and girls, men and women need to know the accomplishments and scope of all our artists...that is what a well rounded and complex society looks like.

  7. Thank you so much for this great post! I wish I could go to London to see the show, but you gave a great outline of it for those who can't get there.

  8. Hi all, I have an original sketch of Dame Laura Knight that i am looking to sell for my boss, it is a shame that he has to sell it because of its rich history and the sketch is of a soldier (1917 i believe) that was related to my boss and Dame Knight was a friend of the family. The soldier Died not long after the Sketch and it was passed down to him through generations. If any of you know of someone who would buy it please let me know, we would rather it go to good appreciative people. Thank you


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