Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Laura Knight's People

Largely because her work was untouched by any European avant-gardes, or maybe because she was the first woman elected to full membership of the Royal Academy in modern times, but at a time when the RA approached a nadir of esteem, Laura Knight has generally been patronisingly dismissed by critics, in rather similar terms to those used to sideline L.S.Lowry and other unrepentantly figurative artists.  In recent years  Knight's forceful drawing and muscular compositions have received some critical revaluation, the latest example being a selection of portraiture at the NPG, starting with the well-known Self-Portrait of the artist in black hat and long red cardi painting the back view of a female nude, colourfully subverting the hackneyed motif of ‘artist and [sexually available] model’ of age-old familiarity, and also brilliantly referencing the shapely bum of Velasquez's 'Rokeby Venus', and the here explicit act of painting. Knight depicts herself, because otherwise the view of a model imaged in a mirror would implicitly be by a male artist - neatly self-assertive, as she seems to have been temperamentally.

As she put it: 'An ebullient vitality made me want to paint the whole world, and say how glorious it was to be young and strong and able to splash with paint on canvas.'   Perhaps as a result, Knight’s vigorous brushwork verges on bravura, clumsiness the occasional price of direct attack. One sometimes wishes she had followed a more Expressionist mode, but in fact her rendering of women and men at work - in factory, backstage, in aircraft - benefit from their manifest realism. 

Highlights of the exhibition include sitters from two marginalised communities – those of Travellers, whom Knight called Gipsies, and African-Americans, whom she called Negroes or ‘darkies’. 

Tate N05330 © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA RWS

First encountering Romany travellers at race meetings, Knight set up a mobile studio in the back of a spacious vintage Rolls Royce (!)  and got to know the family of matriarch Lilo Smith.   Of Lilo's son Gilderoy, she  later wrote: 'one wet day, at Iver, Bucks, in the camp there near the railway, [he] posed for me in a little lean-to tent - just a corner in shelter, crowded by a big double bed where an old gipsy and his wife slept. I painted it in 3 or 4 hours'.
The curator's account is here 
Knight's African-American sitters – female – were portrayed with greater suavity.


© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA
Accompanying her husband Harold, commissioned to paint leading [male] medics at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the late 1920s, Knight sought out the shadow side of that divided city, finding sitters among the nurses – apparently to her surprise. 'The babies of American darkies are among the most beautiful things in the world,' she wrote. ‘In fact, to the artist there is a whole world of beauty which ought to be explored in negro life in America.'
One of the most stunning results is a portrait of Pearl Johnson, a long-serving hospital nurse and campaigner against segregation, who took Knight to lectures and concerts devoted to this  phase of the Civil Rights movement.   It would be good to know more about Johnson. 
© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA RWS
Of course, Gypsy and Black models frequently feature in early C20 British paintings, but seldom as named portrait sitters.

And a postscript, from Knight's later phase as a conventional portraitist, a little-known depiction of Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, ambassador to the USSR, USA and UK, Nehru's sister and Indira Gandhi's aunt, a portrait  probably unfinished owing to the sitter's travels, and now in the RA Collection.




  1. Very interesting observation. I've always thought that Knight was unfairly chastised for her "old fashioned" style when her paintings, particularly the portraits, portrayed scenes and faces of modern life. I actually came across her letters from her time in America at the Tate archive last year while I was doing some research for my PhD and it was so interesting to read her thoughts about the African Americans she was encountering. She certainly always seemed interested in seeking out subjects that were new to her and capturing the faces of people outside or on the margins of the cultural landscape - whether it was women, Gypsies or African Americans.

    Can I just add that it is great to discover that you have a blog! Throughout my doctoral research (about the professionalisation of female artistic practice, undertaken at the University of Queensland) I have read many of your books and am actually currently studying your biography of Jane and May Morris. The posts are fascinating and I look forward to checking back in regularly!

    1. thanks Maria
      I will share your comment on Knight if I may with the curator of the NPG exhibition

    2. Of course, it's so good to see Knight's work receive the exhibition recognition that it deserves.