The Makers Series: Dame Laura Knight

From early adversity, Dame Laura Knight became one of the most versatile, innovative, and popular artists of the 20th century, and in doing so helped redefine the status and recognition for women within the British art establishment.

Born in 1877 in the Derbyshire town of Long Eaton, Laura was the youngest of three daughters born to Charles and Charlotte Johnson. She never knew her father, a publican by trade, as her parents separated a few months after her birth.

With nowhere else to go, Charlotte Johnson returned to her family home where her three daughters were raised by their grandmother and great-grandmother. Laura’s family owned a lace-making factory, but the business struggled to compete in an era of industrialisation and circumstances were far from comfortable.

Charlotte found work teaching art at a local Nottingham girls’ school as well as offering private tuition to make ends meet. She also taught Laura to draw and paint from an early age, with the hope of sending her to learn with a Paris atelier.

Tragedy struck the family in 1889 when Laura’s eldest sister Nellie died of pneumonia, aged just 15. Their fortunes took a further downturn the following year with the bankruptcy of the lace factory, leaving Charlotte relying on family kindness to avoid losing their home.

Now working part-time at the Nottingham School of Art, in 1891 Charlotte was able to secure an artisan scholarship for Laura, meaning she would pay no fees for her tuition. At 13 years and 10 months old, she was surely the youngest student in the establishment’s history.

Laura thrived at art school and quickly achieved critical acclaim, but her success was tempered with further tragedy as mother Charlotte was diagnosed with cancer in 1892 and passed away the following year. In the meantime, Laura had taken on her mother’s private students and continued their tuition, despite being only 14 at the time.

It was at Nottingham School of Art that Laura first met Harold Knight, a fellow student who at the time of her arrival was considered to be the best student at the college. The pair became close companions, although young Laura Johnson’s talents would soon far overshadow his. 

National recognition arrived for the first time in 1894 when Laura was awarded the Prince of Wales Scholarship at the South Kensington Museum (now the V & A). The prize came with an annual bursary of £20 but was still nowhere near sufficient to support the now orphaned Laura and her sister Evangeline, known affectionately as Sis.

Soon after Laura and Harold took a holiday in the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes. They were so inspired by the community and its dramatic surroundings that they returned to live there permanently in 1898, together with Sis.

The picturesque seaside village would have a powerful effect on Laura’s artistic development, particularly her figurative style, as locals were content to sit for sketches in return for pennies. By contrast, Laura herself admitted that the rugged coastline and sweeping moors often proved too challenging to do justice, with the artist burning many of her early landscapes. Consequently, very few examples of this early work survive.

The Knights married in 1903 at the rural Nottinghamshire village of West Leake, but perhaps a more significant milestone came that year when Mother and Child I, became the first of Laura’s works to be hung at the Royal Academy.

The next chapter in the artist’s development came in 1907, when the Knights moved to Cornwall, taking up residence in Newlyn, where they became influential members of the Newlyn School colony of artists, alongside Alfred Munnings and Lamorna Birch.

In Cornwall her work evolved a more Impressionist style, first evident in her work The Beach, shown at the Royal Academy in 1909, and now on display at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle. She also began experimenting with nude compositions in open air settings which was considered rather shocking for the time.

As a student, Laura like all female artists of her era, had not been permitted to paint nude models in person, instead having to work from existing drawings. Laura confounded the absurdity of the tradition by depicting herself painting her nude subject, fellow artist Ella Naper, in her ground-breaking work Self Portrait with Nude in 1913, now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

Censorship restrictions during the First World War limited Laura’s work, as coastal paintings and drawings were largely prohibited. She did however pick up a commission from the Canadian War Office for a series of paintings of physical training. In contrast, husband Harold had registered as a conscientious objector and was forced to work as a farm labourer.

At the end of the war the Knight’s relocated to St John’s Wood, London where Laura’s focus turned to ballet, a subject she had first visited after attending the Royal Opera House in 1911.  Given backstage access to Ballets Russes, Laura painted many of the leading ballet dancers of the time and was even commissioned to design the costumes for the ballet Les Roses in 1924.

Another common theme of Laura’s work was circus folk and performance, with the artist working closely with Fossets Circus in Islington and Bertam Mills Circus at Kensington Olympia throughout the 1920s. Despite the rapid, realist nature of the compositions, Knight still manages to capture the drama, exhilaration, and pathos of live performance and backstage mundanity in each work.

The decade also saw Laura’s global reputation grow with debut exhibitions in Paris and the USA, as well as a silver medal in painting at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Whilst at home she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1929.

In 1931 Laura visited the racecourses at Ascot and Epsom for the first time and found a new inspiration among the Traveller community that frequented the course. She would set her easel in the back of a vintage Rolls Royce while her subjects posed by the car door with the race day hue and cry serving as her backdrop.

Throughout the decade she would regularly return to the racecourses and to the Traveller settlement at Iver, Buckinghamshire, documenting the passion and spirit of a community and way of life that was rarely seen by outsiders.

Laura was elected to full membership of the Royal Academy in 1936, becoming only the second woman to do so after Annie Swynnerton in 1922. She later became the first woman to receive the honour of being elected Senior Royal Academician in 1953.

Arguably some of Laura’s most influential and engaging work came during World War II when she was made an official war artist, completing powerful and emotive commissions for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee which sought to achieve an artistic record of Britain throughout the conflict.

Of the 17 completed paintings perhaps the most iconic are Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring (1943) and Take Off (1944), both currently in the collections of the Imperial War Museum, London. At the end of the conflict aged 68, Laura persuaded the Advisory Committee to make her official artist of the Nuremberg war crimes trials, one of the resulting sketches can be seen here.

Dame Laura Knight continued to produce a prolific volume of work until her passing, aged 92 in 1970 and her work continues to be much admired and collected the world over. For those keen to discover more, the largest and most comprehensive collection of her oeuvre can be enjoyed here.

To view available works by Dame Laura Knight from BADA members click here.