born 4th August 1877 – died 7th July 1970
Laura Knight was brought up in impoverished circumstances, her father died early in her life
(1883), learning to draw and paint at an early age from her mother.
Her mother Charlotte Johnson taught art and had to give private tuition to help provide basic housekeeping monies.
At the age of 13 Laura joined the Nottingham School of Art and was probably the youngest pupil they ever enrolled. In 1892 Laura’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1895. In the interim period Laura was awarded the Princess of Wales Scholarship an award of £20 pa for two years as she had won more awards than any other woman in Britain.
In 1897 Laura and her sister Eva first visited Staithes for a month's holiday, paid for by her Aunt West. In the following year Laura and her sister returned to Staithes with their good friend Rosie Goode to live in Staithes for 6 months.
In 1899 Laura and her sister leave Nottingham to live in Staithes, and soon met Charles Mackie.
In 1903 Laura who had met Harold Knight in her time at the Nottingham School of Art ( 1890 – 1895) married at West Leake in Nottinghamshire.
In 1904 the Knights accompanied HS Hopwood for their first visit to Laren and they went back for a second trip on their own in 1905. It is strongly believed that the Knights went back for their third and last trip to Laren for several months in 1906. However there is also some belief that the Knights went for their third trip in 1907, on the basis that the artist’s biography – Magic of a Line page 129 states that they spent Christmas in Laren in 1907 - maybe an error of dates by the artist?
It is believed that the Knights moved to Cornwall in November 1907, on the basis that the Knights last trip to Laren was in 1906. However there are some doubts on this:
The above reference in the artist’s biography in Magic of a Line, and also by inference in the artists other biography Oil Paint and Grease Paint, and
The Royal Academy in their record of exhibitions give the address of Staithes RSO for both Laura and Harold for the year 1908, and
The Royal Hibernian Academy and the Walker Art Gallery 1908 exhibitions also give Staithes as the artist’s address, and
Question - what painting of the artist with a definite date of 1908 of Cornish scenes have come to surface?
The above is further confused with Newlyn Art Gallery Spring 1908, the New English Art Club Summer 1908 exhibition and the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists 1908 exhibition all giving Newlyn as the artist’s address.
The Knights stayed in Cornwall until 1919 and during this time they developed a close friendship with both Alfred Munnings and also with Lamorna Birch and his wife “ Mouse” and spent much time in Lamorna. Several of Laura’s well known early works were painted in and around Lamorna e.g. Lamorna Birch and his daughters 1913; Spring 1916.
On moving to Cornwall Laura’s work developed and flourished; her work became much softer and yet aglow in colour and painted en plein air. As in Staithes Laura continued to paint children e.g. The Beach 1909; The Boys 1910 and Flying the Kite 1910. The Beach was a transitional work moving away from the less flamboyant painting of the Staithes period.
For some of Laura’s most delicate paintings in this period she employed the medium
of watercolour, something she had started with great effect in the early 1900’s . An
early example of watercolour and bodycolour was Cheyne Walk 1909 and another example of
this delicate painting was the gouache and watercolour Wind and Sun c1913 (Sold for £914, 850 in July 2009).
Following the move to London another new period of change started in her work, as she became increasingly absorbed in new subject matters, that were to include –the ballet – the theatre – the circus – country and rural scenes.
Although Laura attended the Diaghilev Ballet Russes before the Great War 1914 – 1918 , it was not until the 1920’s that she had obtained permission to work backstage. In the world of ballet, Laura befriended and painted many of the great ballerinas and ballet dancers of the time that included Karsavina, Lopokova, Pavlova, Spessitseva, Tchernicheva and Massine amongst others.
Work backstage at the ballet improved her drawings as it forced her to produce quick drawings that reduce a line to a minimum and equally important drawings that were accurate. If Laura’s drawings were inaccurate the famous ballet instructor Cecchetti would blame the dancer not Laura.
Also in the 1920s Laura met Bertram Mills and the Great Carmo that began Laura’s famous circus scenes.
In the early 1920’s Laura also experimented and developed other artistic techniques that included etchings, aquatint, linocuts, woodcuts and Lithographs. (During the First World War she had already produced painted jewellery, ceramics and enamel plaque work with Ella Napper).
The 1920’s were a decade of major achievements for Laura, :-
- Cementing friendships that helped her in developing new subjects of ballet/ theatre/ circus etc.
- Attending the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg USA together with French artist Lucien Simon as European jury representatives for an international exhibition in 1922
- Made an Associate of the RA in 1927, being only the second woman after Anne Surymerton,
- Made Full Member of The Royal Watercolour Society in 1928,
- Appointed a DBE 1929, being the first woman artist ever to receive this title.
Laura is not famous for her portraiture, but the wide range of portraits are perhaps not sufficiently recognised as they include the famous such as Anna Pavlova; George Bernard Shaw; Lubov Tchervichev; Paul Scofield, WH Davies, members of the Aristocracy as well
as the not so famous such as clowns, gypsies, children and other people, that include Dolly in Marsh Mallows, which was sold for £331,500 in 1999.
In the late 1920's and during the 1930’s Laura spent much time in the Malverns invariably receiving invitations to Barry Jackson’s Malvern Festivals and where as his house guest she met authors, playwrights, actors
and notabilities from all walks of life. In the same period Laura was drawing/painting boxers at Blackfriars and painting ceramics dinner sets for Arthur J. Wilkinson and Clarice Cliff ! In 1932 Dame Laura was elected President of Society of Women Artists.
In the 1930's other achievements in her life included:-
- Received her 1st
Honorary degree - St. Andrew's University LLD
- Full Member of the Royal Society of Painters, Etchers and Engravers
- Full Member of the Royal Academy, the first woman to be elected as such.
- Elected as Honorary President of Women's Artists in 1932, a post she held for 20 years.
- Wrote her 1st autobiography "Oil Paint and Grease Paint."
During the War Laura received various Commissions via the War Artists Advisory Committee e.g. In for repairs 1941, A Balloon site, Coventry 1942, Ruby Loftus 1943, Take Off 1944, factory workshops, Land Girls and many others.
Laura Knight’s fame continued after WWII, with her commission for the Nuremberg Trials 1946, being elected to serve on the Royal Academy Hanging Committee 1946 and a further
Commission for the Coronation 1952.
Laura found most of her painting subjects in London during the winter months and in the brighter months of the year they stayed in their hotel in Colwall. Laura painted many agricultural and country scenes in the Malvern area before, during and after WW II
When Barry Jackson took control of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford on Avon during 1947/48 and then the Old Vic Theatre in London, Laura again became
theatrically minded and spent many seasons with him and Scott Sunderland. Later Barry
Jackson asked Laura to do a number of records for him at The Old Vic. “ I filled many big sketch books with perhaps the best drawings I ever did of life backstage.” p.325 Magic of a Line.
After the death of her husband Harold in 1961 the number of her works declined, but she still continued painting until her last days aged nearly 93.
Laura started life in poverty, but became financially successful and developed lasting friendships who ranged from not only gypsies, circus folk, the farm and factory worker but also with those more fortunate, that included famous authors, actors, playwrights, judges at Nuremberg and aristocrats. Laura also travelled widely in the UK, Europe and America.
All this was achieved in an era, when women were still fighting to vote and in instances where women were at times not generally accepted in some masculine quarters.
All of these friends and most of her acquaintances kept in contact with this remarkable woman to the end, as demonstrated by the huge numbers who attended her Memorial service held at St James Church, Piccadilly 28th July 1970.
In her last years Laura asked me “Have I tried too many different media, too many different subjects” ? I could not give her an answer as she then went on “ I do not know, except that my inner self continues to say even today - go on, keep on trying something different”
© R. John Croft FCA - her great nephew.
Chairman – Trustees Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA
This material may be reproduced on making a donation to the Friends of Dame Laura Knight Society, PO Box 4719, Worthing, West Sussex, BN11 9JE