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Copyright: Imperial War Museum, London

Laura Knight at the National Portrait Gallery

11 July 2013 Charlie Kenber

“Because she was so famous in her lifetime, she became a real trailblazer, and a real example. She was held up as a role model for women, in a way that other female artists weren’t.”

Laura Knight could be described as something of an accidental trailblazer. Not only was she in 1936 to become the first female Royal Academician since its founder members in 1768, but her 1965 retrospective at the Academy was also the first accorded to a female artist, whilst her depictions of women throughout her career also proved innovative. A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – the first in London since 1965 – aims to capture the spirit of this groundbreaking artist, through a retrospective of her portraiture.

Born in 1877, Laura began painting in her teens in the late nineteenth century, and continued right through until her death in 1970. The extraordinary periods she lived through are reflected in her work, which in itself mirrors the social and cultural developments of the time. Although not a Suffragette herself, Laura acted out their ambition, leading the way for female artists and breaking down boundaries. “She wasn’t avant-garde, she was mainstream” Rosie Broadley, the exhibition’s curator, tells us, adding that in such a male-dominated environment taking on the mainstream was actually a rather courageous thing to do. “Because she was so famous in her lifetime, she became a real trailblazer, and a real example. She was held up as a role model for women, in a way that other female artists weren’t.”

Rosie’s starting point with the exhibition was Laura Knight’s fantastic Self Portrait (1913), of which it is also the centenary. This, “the best work of the exhibition,” although well regarded by the artist’s peers, at the time proved controversial in wider circles for its depiction of the artist painting a female nude. Having trained at the government-run Nottingham School of Art from a very early age (she started at 13!) where women were banned from drawing nude models, the work represents Laura’s assertion of her commitment as a professional artist. As Rosie puts it, “this is her showing us, ‘now I can paint a figure’.” Although it remained unsold throughout her life, and widely regarded as vulgar, the painting is certainly the most outstanding of the exhibition.

Laura Knight’s subject matter, and even her style, changed dramatically over the course of her career. Rosie tells us, “one of the most fascinating things about her is her diversity … stylistically she challenged herself over and over again.” As such, the exhibition charts her transformation from emulating impressionism in her Cornish paintings, through to the much smoother style of her wartime commissions. Although reluctant to bow to heavy restrictions imposed by the War Artists Advisory Committee, Laura certainly stepped up to the challenge, capturing the individual contributions that went into the British war effort. In the most famous piece from this collection, Ruby Loftus screwing a breech-ring, Laura “has taken so much care to paint every detail of this extraordinary machine, giving the skill this woman has a lot of respect.” This “empathy with workers and particularly with working women” comes, for Rosie, from her impoverished childhood, when she genuinely knew what it was like to be starving.

Quite possibly the most powerful painting of the exhibition is Laura’s first diversion from a true realist style. The Nuremberg Trial depicts the view from the press box, but she merges the image with a mirage of the ruined city coming into the courtroom. As Laura herself wrote, “death and destruction were everywhere. They had to come into the picture.”

The presentation of such quotations from Laura’s two autobiographies indeed works effectively throughout the exhibition to tie her paintings into her personal life. Rosie’s attempt to explore the life of people she knew, and to “bring some of those characters to life” is certainly successful. Laura Knight’s portraits of gypsies and circus performers reflect the artist’s commitment to truly engage with her sitters (she spent large amounts of time with her subjects), whilst her studies of patients in the segregated John Hopkins Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, USA in 1926 sensitively depict ill mothers and children. “She had her preconceptions … but also she went some way to understand who these people were. Otherwise she wouldn’t have known about their lives and stories. She was trying to show people her diversity and the diversity of the world.”

Laura Knight Portraits then is well worth catching. Not only does it chart the wide-ranging repertoire of an important British artist, but also effectively captures something of the spirit of life in Britain during the twentieth century. The exhibition provides a much-needed reminder of the continued significance of Laura Knight’s work.

Laura Knight Portraits is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 13th October. Tickets from £5.40 to £7 and are available here.

A catalogue book featuring over 35 of Laura’s portraits has also been published to coincide with the exhibition. It costs £25 and is available here.

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