[1] Dame Laura Knight RA, Study of a model relaxing in tree, pencil on wove paper, c. 1916. © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2013. All Rights Reserved. Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London

[2] Photograph of the Summer Exhibition, 1934. © Copyright protected. Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London

[3] Dame Laura Knight RA, Dawn, oil on canvas, c. 1936. © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: R.A./John Hammond

[4] Dame Laura Knight RA, Study of Sonja Henie, green and black ink over pencil on thin cream card, c. 1945. © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2013. All Rights Reserved. Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London

Artist of the Month - July 2013


Dame Laura Knight RA (1877-1970)

Even today, a female artist is considered more or less a freak, and may either be undervalued or overpraised, and by sole virtue of her rarity and her sex be of better press value. It cannot, however, be denied that a woman's ear is closed to the thunderbolts of fancy to be found on the limitless horizon of a man's imagination: from babyhood, the horizon of womankind has been confined to the four walls of a home.

Is it possible that the female is mentally incapable of the highest flight in the arts? Has she the capacity to develop inspiration with the sublime skill of a Michelangelo? Michelangelo had no baby's bottle or teapot hanging round his neck. Now that womenkind are no longer born to hold a needle in one hand and a scrubbing brush in the other, what great things may not happen?

Laura Knight, 1965

The painter Laura Knight (née Johnson) was born on 4 August 1877 at Long Eaton, Derbyshire. She was a voracious artist from a very young age, writing in her autobiography, The Magic of a Line (1965), that 'I had loved pencil and paper to be thrust through the bars of my cradle'. After her father left, Laura's mother provided for the family through teaching art in Nottingham, and early on spotted her daughter's talent. Laura trained at the Nottingham School of Art from 1890 to 1895 where she met her future husband, the painter Harold Knight RA (1874-1961). The couple married in 1903.

Having lived in the artists' colony of Staithes on the Yorkshire coast, Laura and Harold Knight later moved to Cornwall in around 1907 to 1908 where there was a larger artists' colony in Newlyn. They remained in Cornwall until 1919.

The Royal Academy's collection holds 26 sketchbooks owned by Knight, which were given to the Academy by the artist's executors. These sketchbooks reveal the artist's swift use of line and her passion for catching the fleeting moments of everyday life. A pencil drawing of a woman sitting in a tree holding a piece of fruit, from one of Knight's sketchbooks used in Cornwall in around 1916, is a more finished study than many of her other sketches, but still executed with a spare use of line [1].

Knight had begun exhibiting her work at the Royal Academy's annual Summer Exhibition in 1903. After this first submission she exhibited every year until her death in 1970, usually showing six paintings at a time. A photograph of the Summer Exhibition from 1934 shows Knight standing in front of her painting Lamorna Birch and his Daughters (University of Nottingham), with a group of Royal Academicians looking on (from left to right: Frederick William Elwell, Laura's husband Harold Knight, Mark Fisher, Sydney Lee, Sir Frank Short, Richard Jack and Sir David Young Cameron) [2]. By this point, Knight had been elected an Associate Royal Academician (in 1927), but in 1936 she became the first woman since the Foundation Members, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser in 1768, to become a full Royal Academician. She had been appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1929.

When an artist is elected a Royal Academician they deposit what is known as their 'Diploma Work' in the Royal Academy's collection. Knight gave her painting Dawn as her Diploma Work in 1936, which was exhibited in that year's Summer Exhibition [3]. Knight painted a series of nudes in this monumental style in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including The Golden Girl (1927, private collection). In Dawn, the model on the left is almost certainly the dancer Barbara Bonner, who posed for a number of Knight's paintings of backstage scenes at the ballet and was described by Knight as 'a vital and sparkling young creature'.

Knight wrote in her autobiography that 'for years and years a sketchbook and pencil were never out of my hands'. She reflected that 'I never regret having been forced through lack of funds to seek further study in movement rather than in the still model as known in an art school'; as such, she drew many subjects in movement, from boxers and ballerinas to circus performers and actors on the stage. One subject for a painting exhibited at the Summer Exhibition in 1945 as Blackpool Ice-drome was the famous Norwegian figure skater, Sonja Henie [4]. With this drawing, Knight used whatever piece of paper was to hand, which in this case was a presentation sleeve for a photograph. The explosion of lines emanating out from the figure reflects the dynamism of the skater's movement. Writing about capturing figures in movement, Knight said 'At such moments the eye and pencil need to be one to dot down a line or two … The particular incident the artist has wished to picture has lasted less than the fraction of a second, not long enough to fill a brush with paint'. Knight was keen to stress in her autobiography, however, that 'story-telling is for the writer … What matters to the painter is what he sees in one particular instant of time: he can suggest movement, but neither he nor the sculptor can portray the passage of time.'

During the Second World War, Knight had been appointed an Official War Artist, painting works including Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring (1943, Imperial War Museum, London). In 1946 she was the war correspondent at Nuremberg, depicting the Nazi war criminals on trial in a monumental painting, which is held in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. As well as producing hundreds of drawings and paintings, Knight also wrote two autobiographies, Oil Paint and Grease Paint (1936) and The Magic of a Line (1965). Knight became a Senior Royal Academician in 1953 and held a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1965. She died on 7 July 1970.

An exhibition of Laura Knight's portraits is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London (11 July - 13 October 2013). Knight also features in the film adaptation, Summer in February.