Laura Knight

 

Dame Laura Knight DBE RA RWS RE RWA PSWA NSA (1877-1972) Exh. RA 283

Public Collections include Tate Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy, Government Art Collection, RE, Birmingham, Blackburn, Blackpool, Bolton, Bradford, Bristol, Cardiff, Doncaster, Harrogate, Hereford, Hull, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Newport, Nottingham, Nottingham University, Oldham, Oxford (Ashmolean), Penzance, Port Sunlight, Preston, Rochdale, Sheffield, York (National Railway Museum) and, abroad, Adelaide, Auckland, Brisbane, Dunedin, Perth, Sydney, Wellington, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pietermaritzberg and Ottawa.


Born in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, Laura Johnson was brought up in Nottingham, along with her two sisters, by her mother, Charlotte, as her father had left home before she was born. Her mother taught art and encouraged Laura's talent. She spent a year attending an art school near Paris and then, in 1890, went to Nottingham School of Art, where she met Harold Knight. In 1895, she joined Harold Knight in Staithes on the Yorkshire coast, revelling in "the freedom, the austerity, the savagery, the wildness". In 1903, the Knights married and, for three consecutive years between 1905-1907, they visited Holland, where they were much taken with the work of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frank Hals. In 1907, they decided to move to Cornwall and soon made friends with some of the younger artists studying under Stanhope Forbes - particularly, Dod Shaw and her future husband, Ernest Procter and Charles Simpson. Laura wrote, "We had never known the joys of youth before. We danced, played games and lived half the night as well as working hard all day." Alfred Munnings was often the instigator of the entertainment and their vivacious personalities and total commitment to their art ensured mutual attraction and admiration. The carefree and convivial life in Newlyn affected her art. "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 any old thing that one saw." In 1910, her two RA exhibits Flying a Kite and Boys were bought by George Clausen for South African Public Galleries.

In 1912, the Knights moved into the first home of their own, Oakhill, near Lamorna, and the local landowner, Colonel Paynter, converted a hut on the cliffs near Lamorna as a studio. He also did not object to Laura painting London models in the nude out of doors - a practice which raised a few eyebrows amongst the locals. She also completed a number of large landscapes en plein air, one of which Spring, painted and exhibited at the RA in 1916 and featuring Charles and Ella Naper, was eventually bought by the Chantrey Bequest in 1935. Ella Naper also posed nude in her famous work Myself and Model (1913), now owned by the National Portrait Gallery. Her Cornish watercolours, whose delicacy contrast notably with her broad brushwork in oils, are also considered some of the best of her career.

War-time brought the idyllic life to an end and Harold Knight's pacificism was not popular. The suicide of Munnings' first wife, Florence, who was a friend and model, was also a shock. Sketching restrictions meant outdoor work was difficult and, in 1918, the Knights decided to move to London, which remained their permanent base for the rest of their lives, although they did retain studios in Lamorna for a few years. Laura then started on the depictions of ballets, circuses and gypsies for which she is well-known but many consider her Cornish work to be her best in terms of quality.

(Abridged extract from David Tovey, Creating A Splash : The St Ives Society of Artists (1927-1952), Wilson Books, 2004)

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