Laura Knight: British artist (1877 - 1970) | Biography
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Laura Knight
British artist

Laura Knight

Laura Knight
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro British artist
A.K.A. Dame Knight, Miss Laura Johnson, Laura Johnson Knight, Dame Laura née...
Was Painter Autobiographer
From United Kingdom
Field Arts Literature
Gender female
Birth 4 August 1877, Long Eaton, England, United Kingdom
Death 7 July 1970, London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom (aged 92 years)
Spouse: Harold Knight
Laura Knight
The details (from wikipedia)


Dame Laura Knight, DBE RA RWS (4 August 1877 – 7 July 1970) was an English artist who worked in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint. Knight was a painter in the figurative, realist tradition who embraced English Impressionism. In her long career Knight was among the most successful and popular painters in Britain. In 1929 she was created a Dame, and in 1936 became the first woman elected to the Royal Academy since its foundation in 1768. Her large retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1965 was another first for a woman. Although Knight was known for painting amidst the world of the theatre and ballet in London, and for being a war artist during the Second World War, she was also greatly interested in, and inspired by, marginalised communities and individuals, including Gypsies and circus performers. Her success in the male-dominated British art establishment paved the way for greater status and recognition for women artists.


Early life

Laura Johnson was born in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, the youngest of the three daughters of Charles and Charlotte Johnson. Her father died not long after her birth, and Laura grew up in a family that struggled with financial problems. In 1889 she was sent to France with the intention that she would eventually study art at a Parisian atelier. After a short time in French schools, she returned to England.

Charlotte Johnson taught part-time at the Nottingham School of Art, and managed to have Laura Johnson enrolled as an 'artisan student' there, paying no fees, aged thirteen. At the age of fifteen, Laura Johnson took over her mother's teaching duties when Charlotte became seriously ill. Later she won a modest scholarship and the gold medal in the national student competition held by the then South Kensington Museum. She continued to give private lessons after she left the Art School, as both she and her sister Evangeline Agnes, known as Sissie, had been left to live together on very little money, after the deaths of their mother, their sister Nellie and both their grandmothers. At school, Laura met one of the most promising students, Harold Knight, then aged 17, and determined that the best method of learning was to copy Harold's technique. They became friends, and married in 1903.

Staithes and Laren

In 1894 Harold Knight and Laura Johnson visited Staithes, a fishing village on the Yorkshire coast, for a holiday and soon returned, accompanied by Sissie, to live and work there. In Staithes Laura Johnson drew the people of the fishing village and the surrounding farms, showing the hardship and poverty of their lives. She made studies, paintings and watercolours, often painting in muted, shadowy tones. Lack of money for expensive materials meant she produced few oil paintings at this time. Local children would sit for her, for pennies, giving her the opportunity to develop her figure painting technique. Less successful at this time were her landscape and thematic works. Although she painted on the moors, high inland from Staithes, she did not consider herself successful at resolving these studies into finished pieces. Later she recalled:

"Even though my studio was so often warmed by burning canvases and drawings I do not regret all the experimental work done and destroyed. Staithes was too big a subject for an immature student, but working there I developed a visual memory which has stood me in good stead ever since."

Laura Johnson and Harold Knight married in 1903 and made their first trip to the Netherlands in 1904. They spent six weeks there that year and six months there in 1905. They visited the artists colony at Laren, a group of followers of the Hague School of artists who had been painting in remote rural communities since the 1850s. The Knights made a third trip to Laren in 1906 before spending that winter in Yorkshire.


In late 1907 the Knights moved to Cornwall, staying first in Newlyn, before moving to Lamorna. Here, alongside Lamorna Birch, and, Alfred Munnings, they became central figures in the Newlyn artists colony. By March 1908 both had work exhibited at the Newlyn Art Gallery. By this time Harold Knight was an established professional portrait painter, while Laura Knight was still developing her art. Around Newlyn the Knights found themselves among a group of sociable and energetic artists, which appears to have allowed the more vivid and dynamic aspects of Laura's personality to come to the fore.

Laura Knight spent the summer of 1908 working on the beach at Newlyn making studies for her large painting of children in bright sunlight. The Beach was shown at the Royal Academy in 1909, and was considered a great success, showing Laura painting in a more Impressionist style than she had displayed previously. About this time Knight began painting compositions of women in the open air, in the plein-air manner, often on the rocks or cliff-tops around Lamorna. Knight would sometimes use models from London who were prepared to pose nude. Although there was some resentment locally about this, the landowner was fully supportive and allowed Knight and the other artists a free rein. In recent years examples of Knight's plein-air compositions from Cornwall have attracted high prices at auction.

Another work from this time is The Green Feather, which Knight painted, and reworked due to a change in the weather, outdoors in a single day and shows the model Dolly Snell in an emerald evening dress with a hat and large feather. Knight sent the painting to the international exhibition held at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and it was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada for £400.

Self Portrait with Nude

Self Portrait with Nude, 1913

In 1913 Knight made a painting that was a first for a woman artist, Self Portrait with Nude, showing herself painting a nude model, the artist Ella Naper. The painting is a complex, formal composition in a studio setting. Using mirrors, Knight painted herself and Naper as seen by someone entering the studio behind them both. As an art student Knight had not been permitted to directly paint nude models but, like all female art students at the time, was restricted to working from casts and copying existing drawings. Knight deeply resented this, and Self Portrait with Nude is a clear challenge, and reaction, to those rules. The painting was first shown in 1913 at the Passmore Edwards Art Gallery in Newlyn, and was well received by both the local press and other artists. Although the Royal Academy rejected the painting for exhibition, it was shown at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in London, as The Model. The Daily Telegraph critic called the painting "vulgar", and suggested that it "might quite appropriately have stayed in the artist's studio". Despite this reaction, Knight continued to exhibit the painting throughout her career, and it continued to receive press criticism. After Knight's death the picture, now known simply as Self Portrait (1913), was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery, and is now considered both a key work in the story of female self-portraiture and as symbolic of wider female emancipation. In 2015 Simon Schama described the painting as a "masterpiece" and "incomparably, her greatest work, all at once conceptually complex, heroically independent, formally ingenious and lovingly sensual."

World War One and later

With the imposition of conscription in 1916 during World War One Harold Knight registered as a conscientious objector, and was eventually required to work as a farm labourer. Wartime censorship included restrictions on painting around the British coastline, which caused problems for Laura Knight, particularly when painting Spring, which was shown at the Royal Academy in 1916 but which Knight later reworked. Also in 1916 Knight received a £300 commission to paint a canvas for the Canadian Government War Records office on the theme of Physical Training in a Camp, and produced a series of paintings of boxing matches at Witley, Surrey. Knight worked with Ella Naper, who was experienced in the technique, to produce a set of small enamel pieces featuring several ballet dancers, which were shown at the Fine Art Society in London in 1915. Special permits available after 1915 allowed Knight to continue her paintings of cliff-top landscapes. Several of these were completed from studies in the Knights' first London studio after they moved to the capital in 1919.

During 1920 and 1921 Laura met and painted backstage some of the most famous ballet dancers of the day from Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Subjects included Lydia Lopokova, Anna Pavlova and the dance teacher Enrico Cecchetti. Knight also painted backstage, and in the dressing rooms, at Birmingham Repertory Theatre productions. In the early 1920s Knight bought Sir George Clausen's printing press and began etching. She produced ninety prints between 1923 and 1925, including a railway poster advertising travel to Twickenham. In 1922 Knight made her first trip to America, where she served on the jury at the Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Pictures.

Baltimore 1926

Land Army Girl (1939) (National Archives).
Corporal J.D.M Pearson, GC, WAAF (1940) (Art. IWM ART LD 626).

In 1926 Harold Knight spent several months at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, in America, painting portrait commissions of surgeons. Laura joined him there and was given permission to paint at the Baltimore Children's Hospital and in the racially segregated wards of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Whilst in Baltimore Knight painted a nurse, Pearl Johnson, who took her to meetings and concerts of the early American civil rights movement. Knight also hired a mother and child model to pose for the composition originally known as the Madonna of the Cotton Fields. Knight took these paintings back to London with her and they feature in the Pathé newsreel produced to mark her election as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1927. Another portrait of Johnson, Irene and Pearl, shows two women against a backdrop of skyscrapers and was one of a number of portraits Knight painted in the late 1920s that appear strikingly modern. Miss Ealand, shown at the Royal Academy in 1928, depicts a woman with cropped hair wearing a jacket and holding a gun. The same year Knight's portrait of a women saxophone player was displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Circus folk

In the early 1920s Laura Knight visited the Bertram Mills Circus at Olympia in West London. Mills' circus was a highly polished show with internationally renowned performers. Knight painted some of these performers, such as the clown Whimsical Wilson, several times. Charivari or The Grand Parade, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1929, depicts practically the entire circus cast of performers and animals. Throughout 1929 and 1930 Knight went on a tour of British towns with the combined Bertram Mills and Great Carmo's Circus. Painting within a working circus forced Knight to paint at great speed, as the performers rarely had much time to pose. Knight responded by painting directly onto the canvas without any preliminary drawing. Whilst this led to some of her circus scenes appearing 'flat', her paintings of small groups of clowns, such as The Three Clowns (1930) and Old Time Clowns (1957), were much more successful. Knight's Circus Folk exhibition, at the Alpine Club in 1930, was heavily criticised in art journals, but her paintings of more mundane subjects, such as domestic interiors and London streets, were highly praised. Notable works from this period include Susie and the Wash-basin (1927), Blue and Gold (1927), A Cottage Bedroom (1929) and Spring in St. John's Wood (1933). In 1934 Knight developed a series of circus designs for the Modern Art for the Table tableware range produced by Clarice Cliff.


At the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam Laura Knight won the Silver Medal in Painting with the painting Boxer (1917), one of the series she had painted at Witley in 1916. In 1929 Knight was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in June 1931 she received an honorary degree from St. Andrews University. In 1936 she became the first woman since 1769 elected to the Royal Academy. The same year Knight published her first autobiography, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, which became a best-seller, with four hardback editions followed in 1941 by a Penguin paperback printing.

From 1933 the Knights became regular visitors to Malvern, making an annual visit to the Malvern Festival, which had been established by their friend Barry Jackson. During one such visit Knight met George Bernard Shaw and painted his portrait. A blue plaque at the Mount Pleasant Hotel on Belle Vue Terrace, Great Malvern, commemorates the time the Knights spent in the area. They found much inspiration for their work in the Malvern Hills and in the surrounding countryside and by the start of World War Two the couple were living at Colwall, Herefordshire.


In the mid-1930s Knight befriended and painted groups of Gypsies at the Epsom and Ascot racecourses. Knight frequently returned to the racecourses and painted from the back of an antique Rolls-Royce car, which was large enough to accommodate her easel. Often pairs of Gypsy women would pose at the open door of the Rolls-Royce, with the race-day crowds in the background. From Epsom Knight was invited to the Gypsy settlement at Iver, Buckinghamshire. Knight visited the Iver settlement, normally closed to outsiders, every day for several months in the late 1930s; the visits resulted in a series of portraits of great intensity. Two women, in particular, sat a number of times for Knight, Lilo Smith, the subject of Old Gypsy Women (1938) and Gypsy Splendour (1939), and her daughter-in-law, Beulah. Gypsy Splendour was shown at the Royal Academy in 1939, the year Lilo Smith died.

World War Two

A Balloon Site, Coventry (1943) (Art. IWM ART LD 2750).
Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (1943) (Art. IWM LD 2850).
Take Off (1943) (Art.IWM ART LD 3834)

In September 1939 Knight was asked to produce a recruitment poster for the Women's Land Army. Knight hired two Suffolk Punch horses and a plough from a farmer and painted them outdoors in a cherry orchard on the Averills' farm in Worcestershire. Her original design for the WLA poster was rejected for placing too much emphasis on the horses rather than the women working. A new design, with a single woman, was accepted. Knight painted her 1940 Royal Academy entry, January 1940, showing a similar scene at the same time. During the Second World War, Knight was an official war artist, contracted by the War Artists' Advisory Committee on short-term commissions. Among the works Knight produced for these commissions were:

  • Corporal J.D.M Pearson, GC, WAAF (1940) – shows the first woman to receive the Empire Gallantry Medal, Women's Auxiliary Air Force, Corporal Daphne Pearson. Although Pearson, at Knight's insistence, sat for the portrait holding a rifle, the finished painting shows her holding a respirator, as the WAAF were not allowed to carry arms on duty.
  • Corporal J.M. Robbins (1940) – Robbins was awarded the Military Medal for the courage she showed in assisting the wounded when a shelter was directly hit by a bomb during an attack on RAF Andover. WAAC had requested that Knight paint Robbins as part of a group of medal-winning women, but Knight refused.
  • In For Repairs (1941) – showing a partly inflated barrage balloon being repaired by members of the WAAF at Wythall, near Birmingham. The painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1941.
  • Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner (1941) – both women were awarded the Military Medal for staying at their post when the building they were in received a direct hit from a bomb during an air raid on RAF Biggin Hill. Although painted in Knight's studio in Malvern, the painting shows the two women on duty at their airfield.
  • A Balloon Site, Coventry (1942) – shows a team of women hoisting a barrage balloon into position with the chimneys of industrial Coventry in the background surrounding the spire of Coventry Cathedral. WAAC commissioned the work as a propaganda tool to recruit women for Balloon Command, and Knight's composition succeeds in making the work appear both heroic and glamorous.
  • Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (1943) – in the autumn of 1942 the WAAC commissioned Knight to paint a portrait to bolster female recruitment to the ordnance factories, as the Ministry of Supply were concerned at the level of disaffection and absenteeism among women in the factories. The resulting painting is one of the largest oil paintings in the entire WAAC collection, and the largest single figure portrait it acquired throughout the war. The painting was first shown on 30 April 1943 at the Royal Academy and the next day was reproduced in eight British newspapers. The painting, along with Knight and Loftus, also featured in a British Paramount News short film shown in cinemas, and was reproduced in a poster version by WAAC. The success of the painting led to further industrial commissions for Knight throughout the 1940s. In 1945 she painted Switch Works at Ellison Switchgear in Birmingham. This was followed by paintings of operations at the Dow Mac concrete railway-sleeper works and at the Skefko ball bearing factory.
  • Take Off (1944) – a large and complex group portrait of the four-man crew of a Short Stirling bomber, deep in concentration, preparing for a flight, which Knight painted over several months at RAF Mildenhall. Knight lived in the WAAF Officers' Mess while on the base, and the RAF gave her the use of an obsolete Stirling to work in while preparing the painting. When Knight learned that the navigator in the picture, Raymond Frankish Escreet, had been killed in action, she arranged that his family received a photograph of the painting.

In total, Knight had seventeen completed paintings, together with numerous studies, accepted by the WAAC, most of which were exhibited in the National Gallery during World War II. Throughout the war Knight also continued taking private commissions, usually for individual or family portraits. The most notable war-time example of these is the composition, Betty and William Jacklin showing a mother and child, along with their pet rabbit and the Malvern countryside in background, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1942, beside In for Repairs.

Nuremberg 1946

The Nuremberg Trial, 1946 (1946) (Art. IWM ART LD 5798).

In the aftermath of war Knight proposed to the War Artists' Advisory Committee the Nuremberg war crimes trials as a subject. The Committee agreed, and Knight went to Germany in January 1946 and spent three months observing the main trial from inside the courtroom. The result was the large oil painting, The Nuremberg Trial. This painting departs from the realism of her wartime paintings, in that, whilst realistically depicting the Nazi war criminals sitting in the dock, the rear and side walls of the courtroom are missing, to reveal a ruined city, partially in flames.

Knight explained this choice of composition in a letter to the War Artists' Advisory Committee:

In that ruined city death and destruction are ever present. They had to come into the picture; without them, it would not be the Nuremberg as it now is during the trial, when the death of millions and utter devastation are the sole topics of conversation wherever one goes – whatever one is doing

The painting was coolly received at the subsequent Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, but was greatly praised by those who had witnessed the trials.

Later life

After the War Knight returned to her previous themes of the ballet, the circus and Gypsies, and continued to divide her time between London and Malvern. In 1948 Knight painted backstage at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, mostly observing the work of the wardrobe department, still working under austerity restrictions. The same year she painted a large group portrait of Princess Elizabeth and several civic dignitaries opening the new Broadgate Centre in Coventry. A period of illness affected her work on this commission, and, despite Knight repainting large parts of the canvas, the finished painting was not well received. A major exhibition of over eighty works by Knight was held at the Ian Nicol Gallery in Glasgow, in 1952. The following year Knight returned to the theatre, painting and producing crayon studies, backstage at the Old Vic in London during the Birmingham Repertory Theatre's production of Henry IV, Part 1 & Part 2. Throughout this period Knight continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy each year, most notably with a portrait of Jean Rhodes, a professional strong woman known as 'The Mighty Mannequin', which when shown in 1955 led to further portrait commissions for Knight. In 1956 Knight worked backstage at the Royal Opera House during performances and rehearsals by the Bolshoi Ballet.

In 1961 Harold Knight died at Colwall; the couple had been married fifty-eight years. Knight's second autobiography, The Magic of a Line was published in 1965, to coincide with a major retrospective of her work at the Royal Academy. The exhibition, the first such for a woman at the Academy, contained over 250 works, and was followed in 1968 and 1969 by further retrospective exhibitions at the Upper Grosvenor Galleries.

Laura Knight died on 7 July 1970, aged 92, three days before a large exhibition of her work was due to open at the Nottingham Castle Art Gallery and Museum.


Knight was a member of or affiliated with the following organisations:


Exhibitions of her work held during Knight's life included:

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