Dame Laura Knight: the artist who declared, ‘I paint today’

Over the course of a long and adventurous career, the flamboyant Briton became a household name — as well as, in 1929, the first female artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire

‘I was not, as most people think, born in a circus,’ wrote Laura Knight (1877-1970) in her 1936 autobiography, Oil Paint and Grease Paint. The artist’s eye was so acute in capturing the transitory rhythms of circus life, it seemed impossible that it wasn’t hardwired into her DNA.

In fact, the painter grew up in the textile manufacturing city of Nottingham, some 120 miles north-west of London, the youngest child of a middle-class family rapidly deteriorating into penury. Soon after Laura’s birth in 1877, her father, Charles Johnson, walked out, leaving her mother Charlotte to bring up three daughters on a part-time art teacher’s salary.

In any account of Dame Laura Knight’s illustrious life — in her two autobiographies, various biographies and the catalogues published to accompany her many exhibitions — there is more than the usual tension around the things left unsaid. There is no mention of why her father abandoned the family, and little of the tragic early deaths of her mother and her older sibling Nellie, leaving Laura and her sister Eva to fend for themselves.

Dame Laura Knight pictured at the Grosvenor Galleries, London, in 1967. The works are by her husband, the painter Harold Knight. Photo John Hodder  Daily Mail  Shutterstock. Artwork © Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All rights reserved 2022  Bridgeman Images

Dame Laura Knight pictured at the Grosvenor Galleries, London, in 1967. The works are by her husband, the painter Harold Knight. Photo: John Hodder / Daily Mail / Shutterstock. Artwork: © Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All rights reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images

What is demonstrably clear is that Knight was, as her biographer Alice Strickland recently said, ‘a woman of firsts’. She was the first female artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire, in 1929; the first female artist since the 18th century to be elected as a Royal Academician, in 1936; and the first to have a solo show at the Royal Academy — although she was forced to wait until her nineties before she was allowed to attend the academy dinners. Her success was down to hard work and observation. ‘I paint today,’ she famously said, revealing a hunger for the curiosities of life.

By all accounts, Knight was a forthright woman, gutsy and cheerfully optimistic — how else could she have made her way in a patriarchal art world?

‘I’ve always thought that Knight was a force of nature,’ says Sarah Reynolds, head of sale in the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art department at Christie’s in London. ‘I don’t know if she would have defined herself as a feminist, but I think she was, fundamentally. Her pictures are often of women working, and she took herself to places that would not have been socially acceptable at the time, such as the races and the circus.’

Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S. (1877-1970), Gypsies at Home. Oil on canvas. 30 x 38 in (76.2 x 96.5 cm). Sold for £68,750 on 14 December 2016 at Christie’s in London. Artwork © Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All rights reserved 2022  Bridgeman Images

Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S. (1877-1970), Gypsies at Home. Oil on canvas. 30 x 38 in (76.2 x 96.5 cm). Sold for £68,750 on 14 December 2016 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All rights reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images

The precariousness of Knight’s childhood was something the artist perpetuated later in life, as though instability were familiar and comforting. She found a kinship in travelling communities and circus folk, and married the painter Harold Knight, who, like her, preferred the freedom of rented rooms and passing acquaintances to settling down. The couple embarked upon an itinerant life in England and Holland until they eventually fetched up in Stanhope Forbes’s colony of artists in Cornwall in 1907.

The bohemian world of Newlyn’s tight-knit artistic community suited Knight’s flamboyance, and she took a vicarious enjoyment in the bad behaviour of others, particularly in the antics of her great friend Alfred Munnings, whom she first met when he was walking on the cliffs with a ‘bevy of young ladies’.

Knight brought models down from London to pose for her semi-naked on the beach at Lamorna. She was good at painting strong, sensual women at ease with themselves, and her impressionistic scenes came to represent that carefree time of sunlit pleasures before the outbreak of the First World War.

‘She painted women as they are, not how men wanted them to be’ — specialist and head of sale Sarah Reynolds

‘I doubt if anybody or anything can ever lessen the magic possessed by that leg of land — Cornwall — which, kicking free of the ordinary, with its granite boot defies the Atlantic Ocean,’ she wrote.

In 1914 everything changed. Laura’s friend, the artist Florence Carter-Wood — wife of Munnings — committed suicide. ‘Laura and Harold were very close to Florence and deeply affected by her death,’ says Reynolds.

Then Laura’s model, Dolly Henry, was murdered by the painter John Currie, and Harold could never forgive himself for revealing Dolly’s whereabouts to Currie (she had gone into hiding in London). With the war came the slow disintegration of the fishing community as the young men went off to fight. ‘Lamorna was no longer the Happy Valley,’ wrote Knight.

Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S. (1877-1970), Rose and Gold. Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 in (60.9 x 50.8 cm). Sold for £168,000 on 7 June 2007 at Christie’s in London. Artwork © Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All rights reserved 2022  Bridgeman Images

Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S. (1877-1970), Rose and Gold. Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 in (60.9 x 50.8 cm). Sold for £168,000 on 7 June 2007 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All rights reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images

Artists were banned from Cornwall’s beaches, but, indomitable as always, Knight demanded access and was eventually granted a permit to paint. It prompted an extraordinary series of coastal reveries. The works depict solitary women looking out across the calm blue expanse of the ocean towards France. ‘There are no men in these paintings because they are all fighting and dying in the trenches. They are deeply psychological works,’ says Reynolds.

Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S (1877-1970), At the Edge of the Cliff, 1917. Oil on canvas. 23 x 28 in (58.4 x 71.1 cm). Estimate £350,000-450,000. Offered in British and European Art Part I on 13 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S (1877-1970), At the Edge of the Cliff, 1917. Oil on canvas. 23 x 28 in (58.4 x 71.1 cm). Estimate: £350,000-450,000. Offered in British and European Art: Part I on 13 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

One of these works, At the Edge of the Cliff, above, is being offered in British and European Art: Part 1 on 13 December. 

The painting features Marjorie Taylor, who often modelled for Knight. According to the artist’s 1936 autobiography, the head of physical training for Britain’s colonial forces, Colonel Henry Mayes, was so taken with Taylor’s physique in another work by Knight that he asked if he might train her, and make her an example of feminine perfection. Knight wrote that Taylor ‘had done me many a good turn in posing her loveliness for me. That I should be able to put her in the way of so stupendous a career was overwhelming.’

Mayes was one of many to be impressed by Knight’s 1917 exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in London. ‘Its success was pivotal for her,’ says Reynolds. ‘It really helped establish her reputation.’

The Knights moved to London, where Laura found a new subject: backstage life at the theatre and the ballet, capturing the calm professionalism of the players in that excitable atmosphere.

Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S (1877-1970), Theatre prop basket. Oil on canvas. 30 x 25 in (76.2 x 63.5 cm). Estimate £30,000-50,000. Offered in British and European Art Online on 1-15 December 2022 at Christie’s Online

Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S (1877-1970), Theatre prop basket. Oil on canvas. 30 x 25 in (76.2 x 63.5 cm). Estimate: £30,000-50,000. Offered in British and European Art: Online on 1-15 December 2022 at Christie’s Online

In 1926 the couple travelled to the United States, where Harold had been commissioned to paint portraits of the surgeons at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Laura chose to depict the patients and nurses of the segregated wing for African Americans. On their return to London, Laura joined a circus troupe on their travels around England, capturing life on the road.

By the mid-1920s she was a household name, and she put this success to good use, championing other female painters and breaking new ground for women artists. During the Second World War, she took on commissions for the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), painting factory girls, switchboard operators and other women at war.

In 1946 she petitioned the WAAC to allow her to observe the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The resulting painting, below, now in London’s Imperial War Museum, depicts the pale, grey heads of the defendants, bowed in concentration, as the courtroom dissolves into a scene of boundless devastation.

Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S. (1877-1970), The Nuremberg Trial, 1946. Oil on canvas. 183 cm x 152 cm. © Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM ART LD 5798)

Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S. (1877-1970), The Nuremberg Trial, 1946. Oil on canvas. 183 cm x 152 cm. © Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM ART LD 5798)

Knight became a Dame in 1929, but it took another seven years for her to be accepted into the Royal Academy. Was it her popularity with the public that made the art establishment suspicious?

‘She was hard to define,’ says Reynolds. ‘Certainly that was one of the criticisms levelled at her at the time. She tried so many different styles and subjects that no one could pigeonhole her. The beautiful early charcoal portraits she made as a teenager are as good as those by Sargent. She had that firm grounding in academia, and she took it where she pleased. I think that independence unsettled the academy.’

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For an artist who was so famous that her name once appeared as a crossword clue, it is surprising that she is not better known today. 

‘She was painting at a time when exciting things were happening in Abstraction,’ says Reynolds. ‘I think she has been seen as a bit traditional.’ Until recently, her prices reflected this, but there has been a reassessment of her legacy, particularly by feminist writers.

‘She painted women as they are, not how men wanted them to be,’ observes Reynolds. ‘She represented their inner life, and their personality, and they revealed more of themselves to her in return.’