Dame Laura Knight Portraits: Beyond The Narrative Frame

Dame Laura Knight

The National Portrait Gallery is presenting a new exhibition of the British painter Dame Laura Knight (1877 –1970). Knight was one of the most popular and pioneering British artists of the twentieth century. Her artistic career took her from Cornwall to Baltimore, and from the circus to the Nuremberg Trials. She painted dancers at the Ballets Russes and Gypsies at Epsom races, and was acclaimed for her work as an official war artist.

Born Laura Johnson, she became the youngest pupil to attend the Nottingham School of Art aged just 13. In 1903 she married the artist Harold Knight and moved to the artists’ community at Newlyn, Cornwall during 1907-8. Here the Knights found early success with their works. Laura found the light and landscape inspiring and worked en plein air in an Impressionist style. Sitters from this period include the artist Lamorna Birch and poet W.H. Davies. She also produced her important Self Portrait at this time, which includes her friend, the ceramicist and enamellist Ella Naper, posing as the model. As a student she had been denied access to nude models and in this painting Knight asserts herself as a serious professional artist committed to painting the figure.
In the 1920s Knight became famous for her backstage depictions of actors and dancers at the Ballets Russes during the Post-war London season. She also gained privileged access backstage at London’s theatres. Sitters from this period include Prima Ballerina Lydia Lopokova and the actress Dame Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies. In 1926 Laura and Harold travelled to Baltimore, USA, where Harold was invited to undertake several commissions at the John Hopkins Memorial Hospital. Laura obtained permission to work in the racially segregated hospital wards making drawings of the patients; including highly sensitive drawings of the children she met there. In the following decade she travelled for several months with Bertram Mills and Great Carmo’s touring circus painting the performers in and out of the ring.
Laura Knight was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1929, and in 1936 was the first woman to become a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts since its foundation in 1768, when founder members had included Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman (in 1965 her retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts was the first accorded to a female artist).
Knight used portraiture to capture contemporary life and culture, and her paintings are remarkable for their diverse range of subjects and settings. This exhibition of over thirty portraits will reveal Knight’s highly distinctive and vivid work, and also illustrate her success in gaining greater professional recognition for women in the arts.

Dame Laura Knight Portraits – National Portrait Gallery 11 July – 13 October 2013

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