As a war artist in the Second World War, Knight travelled the country painting scenes of the (mainly female) war effort. Her 1943 portrait of Ruby Loftus, operating a high-precision machine, was widely reproduced and the painting’s subject became a ‘poster girl’ for women’s war contribution. Spira reassures me that my (lack of) familiarity with Knight’s wider oeuvre is not uncommon, and part of the reasoning for the current exhibition. In her lifetime, Knight was one of the most popular artists of the twentieth century, but her story is one that has been since overlooked.
A Panoramic View kickstarts a year-long focus on female artists at MK Gallery with gusto. Knight, who died in 1970 at the age of 92, was an artist who spent her life unshackling herself from the boundaries (often in the form of press criticism) put in place by others who sought to pin the artist down. For an artist who was a master at her own publicity (Knight wrote two autobiographies), her work generates strong reactions and opinions. Take, for example, a review of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2013 exhibition, Laura Knight: Portraits by the controversial late critic, Brian Sewell. “Though not a vain women,” he writes, “she was far too confident of her abilities and popularity” which, Sewell continues, became apparent after her death when her unsold work failed to generate much interest at auction.
Laura Knight, the mediocre artist, the middlebrow artist, the much-too-masculine artist, is the kind of criticism she batted off in life, and then, in death. Her subject matter and style of painting is wide-ranging, but for Head of Exhibitions, Fay Blanchard, herein lies the point of the exhibition. “Her refusal to cultivate a ‘signature style’ – so at odds with the tenets of modernism – in favour of engaging, genuinely with her environment, resonates in the social climate of today.” To arrive at A Panoramic View without any prior context to Knight’s work is to arrive with a fully open mind. If Knight’s paintings were shown without the accompanying wall texts and captions, you could be forgiven for mistaking this as an exhibition of different artists from the late nineteenth century to the late 1960s.
I say that, but also think such a view is a disservice to Knight. For all the styles, themes and artworks on show (some, yes, technically weaker than others), there is a clear narrative that is interwoven throughout her oeuvre. As Blanchard and Spira explain of the exhibition’s title, “A Panoramic View explores the gaze that she cast over her surroundings and the assorted characters that entered her orbit.” Knight’s is a tale of seeking out thrill and celebrating strength where it might not ordinarily be found (or even looked for). The image of Knight, the thrill seeker, is vividly apparent in the middle room of the exhibition which mainly features her interwar work, when the artist turned her focus to painting the ballet, the circus and the theatre, on-stage but primarily behind the scenes. Echoes of Knight’s appetite for the drama of life are also present in earlier scenes of the fishing community in Staithes, North Yorkshire, where Knight lived at the turn of the century as part of an artist’s colony.
In The Fishing Fleet (c. 1900), Knight foregrounds a female figure heading in the opposite direction of a group of fisherfolk, heading towards the sea. “Each day she will bid her husband good-bye, not knowing whether she will ever see him again,” Knight recalled in her first autobiography, Oil Paint and Grease Paint (1941). In reference to an artwork that is painted in muted tones and depicts the strife and toil of hard labour, perhaps ‘thrilling’ doesn’t seem an obvious connotation. But, over the course of A Panoramic View, it becomes clear that Knight imbued her work with an element of the autobiographical, locating the theatrical nature of life in places it’s not always clear.
As a young teenager in the early 1890s, Knight began studying at Nottingham School of Art. Her mother, an art teacher, nurtured her daughter’s talent, but Knight’s introduction into the art world was neither straightforward nor easy. A Panoramic View begins with three charcoal studies and a portrait from her time as a student. Knight’s technical ability to depict her subjects is both undeniable and impressive. What’s more captivating, though, is her ability to portray the sitters’ femininity. Yet as Knight would later write in her first autobiography, she was chastised by her teachers for displaying too much masculine strength, and told, instead, to nurture her “feminine side”. Herein lies the crux of Knight as an artist; her ‘strength’ came from a place of relentless determination for fresh challenges, not a desire to copy her male peers.
By her late teens, Knight’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had died (her father left the family when she was young), leaving the art student and her sister living alone and impoverished. As a female art student, Knight was banned from attending life classes and required to work from plaster models instead. A “hatred of those plaster figures stays with me to this day,” she later recalled, stating that she “never got any benefit out of their study, and through working from them so much a woodenness came into my work that took years to eradicate.” Knight was not deterred, paying for models to pose for her at her home.
But the memory of those plaster models lingered. Later on in A Panoramic View is Knight’s poster design for the Royal Academy’s 1937 Summer Exhibition, depicting a plaster female model. The figure’s face lacks any real detail, with Knight’s attention focused on the torso’s muscular abdominal which is brandished with the ‘Royal Academy’ in striking red typeface. Though Knight was the first woman to be granted full membership to the RA since the eighteenth century in 1936 (and the first woman to be on the Hanging Committee for the Summer Exhibition the following year), the annual banquet was male-only until 1967, three years before her death.
At Nottingham School of Art, the then-Laura Johnson met her future husband, Harold Knight. After living with the Staithes artist colony for a few years, they joined the Newlyn colony in Cornwall towards the late 1900s, where artists like Alfred Munnings, Elizabeth Forbes and others, lived and worked. Around this period, Knight had successfully established herself as a well-known artist in Britain, exhibiting at the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 1910 (alongside the Bloomsbury Group’s Vanessa Bell) and again in 1914. Knight’s paintings from this period are markedly different from the bleakness of the Staithes work, and further still, from her later paintings. Yet it is here, in the second room of A Panoramic View, that Knight’s positioning as an artist begins to make sense.
Her paintings of the Cornish shores are truly dazzling in the artist’s use of emeralds and turquoises, but they also capture an eeriness; a poignant turning point in Knight’s career. While her pre-war nude bathers are a joyous celebration of youth, and the human form amongst nature at its most raw, her portraits of (clothed) female figures on the rocky Cornish shores painted throughout the First World War are almost haunting in comparison. Knight would later recall that the suicide of Munning’s young wife, Florence Carter-Wood, in 1914 signalled the end of ‘joy’ in Newlyn. But from the view of the present day, with the pandemic still in sight and the climate emergency looming heavily, Knight’s mesmeric Cornish cliff views seem murkier and more uncertain than on first inspection.
As a female artist, Knight was a pioneer (along with the likes of Vanessa Bell) for future generations. But for her own generation, Knight’s career would have undoubtedly been affected by two world wars in her adult life (Harold was a conscious objector, for which he was criticised by many peers). If the artist’s style changed over the course of her life, so did that of her contemporaries’. Across Europe, the end of the First World War saw an artistic ‘return to order’ and rejection of the uncompromising, fragmented modernism of the early twentieth century. While artists like Picasso rejected cubism in favour of a new classicism, English modernists (and serving war artists) like Paul and John Nash and Christopher Nevinson began depicting idyllic scenes of the rolling hills of the English countryside as a way of coping with the horrors of the battlefield. The Knights, meanwhile, moved to London in 1919, where Laura began depicting the joie de vivre of the theatre and the circus in the 1920s.
Knight’s passion for dance and the circus was lifelong, but her exploration of this subject matter took on a central focus in the inter-war years. As the vast number of paintings in the middle room of A Panoramic View demonstrate, Knight experimented with different mediums and styles during this period. Her etchings and studies of ballet dancers dressing and applying make-up recall the new-found freedoms of the New Woman of the 1920s. Knight captures their poise and strength; in comparison to the passive plaster models of art school, her dancers are bold, defiant and in control. By contrast, Knight’s paintings of the circus are more mixed. Charivari (1929) in particular is strange and, by Knight’s own admission, ‘contrived’, but as a commission for circus enthusiast Major Atherley, its inclusion here works to emphasise the artist’s passion for subjects and styles she personally wanted to depict (Knight insisted the commissioned painting not be included in a 1965 RA retrospective of her work).
Nonetheless, as the artist Monster Chetwynd writes in her essay for the exhibition catalogue, the circus paintings feel depressing; “I find they are stark, unromantic – real, not uplifting.” With the exception of the undated painting, Ella Ardelty on the High Trapeze, Knight fails to capture a sense of her own excitement for circus life. I think the reasons for this are two-fold. In contrast to the ballet dancers, Knight’s clowns are stilted. In her depiction of the acrobat, Herbert Hanson (1930), the performer is shown in a moment of rest. Writing in her autobiography about Herbert and his brother (also an acrobat), Knight recalls the way “the muscles of their arms, backs and shoulders lump up or lie slab-like chiselled, powerful; the ivory of their skin sweats and glistens in the open daylight.” In a curious twist, the hyper masculine body of the performer is rendered by Knight as a plaster model who passively performs for her gaze.
Knight’s depressing circus scenes also seem to recall the strange mundanity of the contemporaneous New Objectivity movement in Weimar Germany. In 1925, the German art critic, Franz Roh, used the term ‘magic realism’ to describe the movement, on account of how its artists captured a sense of the surreal within scenes of everyday life. Knight’s interwar works recall the watercolour paintings of Jeanne Mammen, whose empathetic depictions of women at work and at play in the bars, circuses and clubs of the Weimar Republic stand in contrast to the hedonism and voyeurism of fellow New Objectivity artist, Otto Dix (though his 1928 triptych Metropolis bares similarities in terms of colour and composition to Knight’s circus scenes). Like Knight, Mammen and Dix depicted those on the fringes of interwar society. Unlike Knight, however, Mammen saw herself as “a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others”; as Knight recalled in both her autobiographies, Harold often reminded her that she was “a painter, not a circus performer”.
Throughout the 1930s, Knight visited the races at Epsom Downs and Ascot, where she painted a number of portraits of Gypsy women. Stylistically, these paintings lack the precision of her other portraits and, on first impression, seem romanticised. But Knight made these works in situ, painting from the back of an adapted Rolls Royce, and so she likely worked quickly and with expression. The artist prided herself on having integrated herself into the Gypsy community, though as the writer Damian la Bas notes in the exhibition catalogue, it is more likely that these women welcomed Knight’s paintings of them which “were beautiful, honest and glinting with dignity and romance.”
In the late 1920s, Laura accompanied Harold to Baltimore who had been commissioned to paint there. Whilst in Baltimore, Knight gained access to the segregated wards at the John Hopkins Memorial Hospital. Though initially facing resistance, over time, Knight gained the trust of the hospital staff and made a number of portraits of Black sitters. These works are warm and considered in comparison to pervasive racist caricatures of the time. Yet, as the exhibition wall text accompanying these portraits notes, Knight’s sensitive portraits are “sharply contrasted with the racist language of the time used to describe them in her autobiographies.” At the press view, a question is asked over what language she used, and if it was not just language now considered racist.
In the exhibition catalogue, the artist, Barbara Walker, grapples with the “impossible contradictions” of Knight’s (“tender, sensitive, indeed beautiful”) work; “It is to eternal shame of white culture that it should ever have brought into existence a slew of derogatory racial slurs. But it is also to the shame of all who perpetuated such language – and Knight was one such person.” A Panoramic View could benefit from displaying the Baltimore works alongside an interpretation by someone like Walker. As an example, the Tate Britain’s current exhibition, Hogarth in Europe, features contemporary voices throughout whose nuanced critiques of the racist, xenophobic and sexist stereotypes of Hogarth and his peers show that we can, retrospectively, grapple with complex debates about the art we inherit from its artists. Knight spent her life depicting those on the fringes of society – the poor, the circus performers, Gypsies – and the artist herself, though accepted by the establishment, was still something of an outsider. For a new audience discovering Knight’s art for the first time, it is important that a full picture of the artist is painted.
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Knight was in her sixties. Yet the war gave her career a second wind as the War Artists’ Advisory Committee purchased 17 of her war paintings. A Panoramic View positions these war pictures alongside details of Knight’s correspondence with the WAAC, haggling for higher pay on several occasions. Here is an artist at her most powerful – an established name, depicting the war effort in paintings of almost Soviet Realism quality. Earlier in the exhibition, a news reel clip from 1943 shows Dame Laura Knight and Ruby Loftus visiting the RA’s Summer Exhibition; cigarette in hand, the artist assuredly commands the attention of her audience. Other highlights from her war years are In for Repairs (1942) and Stirling Bomber Construction (1944), depicting the collective labour effort of the country’s workers at home which, poignantly, recall earlier scenes of the collaborative work effort backstage at the ballet or the theatre.
After the war, Knight leveraged her power to attend the Nuremberg trials as a war correspondent, painting senior Nazi officials from the front bench of the press box. Two sketches of the trials are on display at A Panoramic View; in the final painting, The Nuremberg Trial (1946), the courtroom descents into a hellish scene, in which fires rage amongst the destruction of the city and indistinguishable bodies pile high. Knight was extremely affected by what she saw in and around Nuremberg, and though The Nuremberg Trial could have been her “magnum opus”, it was poorly received.
The final painting of the Nuremberg trials bares compositional similarities with New Objectivity artist, George Grosz, whose paintings Pillars of Society and Eclipse of the Sun (both 1926) scathingly depict the corrupt and distracted leaders of the Weimar Republic, who are literally propped up, in Grosz’s telling, by the future suffering of the country’s youth. Grosz pre-empts the rise of the Nazis whose demise Knight grappled with twenty years later. Haunted by the horrors of Nuremberg, Knight spent much of her time in Malvern Hills after the war, turning to nature (as her contemporaries, the Nashes and Nevinson did 25 years prior) in order to ‘blot out’ what she had experienced. The ‘brilliance’ of nature returned to the fore of her work in a way not seen since her time in Cornwall.
After Knight’s Malvern paintings, A Panoramic View draws to a close with a selection of works that capture the essence of the artist’s wide-ranging career. In two paintings from 1948, The Theatre Wardrobe and The Yellow Dress, we see Knight return to earlier themes of the theatre. In both works, however, the dancer or performer is now replaced by the tailor’s dummy. For the first time, our focus is on the craftsman at work, rather than the dazzle of the performer. Knight, so carefully in control of her image and narrative, died before completing her portrait of the Indian political leader, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. To our benefit, we’re left with the clearest sense of how Knight worked as an artist. Beneath the vivid colours that capture the dignity, femininity and strength of her subject, we see the loose, free-handed brushstrokes that plot out the foundations of the final piece.