Made Dame Commander (DBE) in 1929, elected Royal Academy artist 1936 (the first woman since Angelica Kauffman in 1769) and official war artist of World War II and the Nuremberg Trials.
For Dame Laura Knight reality was her greatest inspiration.
Most of the portraits are of women – ballerinas, nurses, gypsies and circus performers, mothers with their children – next to propaganda of dutiful Women’s Auxiliary Air Force members with red lips and serious eyes. Knight was fascinated with the human form and its relationship to the world.
Her portraits demonstrates how people distinguish themselves – or are distinguished – through their outward appearance, and asks you to look beyond the surface.
Self Portrait with Nude is the first painting and is vital to the exhibition. On the left Knight has her back to us, fashionably dressed and topped with a stylish hat. Her neck softly wrinkles as she turns her attention to model and fellow Cornish artist Elle Naper. Naper’s white limbs engulfed by the crimson backdrop in the same way that the heavy red Impressionist-cardigan envelops the figure of the painter.
Knight does what so many of her male counterparts have done. She places herself directly in the painting – declaring herself a woman, an artist and the subject – disrupting the male gaze.
On the surface her paintings don’t appear to achieve anything drastically different to those of her more famous male contemporaries. But her choice of subject matter, status as a female artist in the early 20th century and her soft realism that elevates her above the average.
Knight maintained her traditional, figurative style until her death in 1970. By that time she hadn’t been completely forgotten, but the avant-garde – a movement she chose not to join – overshadowed her.
Lubov Tchernicheva by Dame Laura Knight, 1921, Private Collection © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, by Dame Laura Knight, 1943, Imperial War Museum ©Imperial War Museum, London
Self Portrait by Dame Laura Knight, 1913, National Portrait Gallery, London © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
Gypsies at Ascot by Dame Laura Knight, 1933, Hereford Museum and Art Gallery © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013