27 November 2012

Laura Knight at Worcester

Laura Knight (1877-1970) was born near Nottingham, often painted in Cornwall (SW England) and spent time in her later years at Malvern in Worcestershire. So it seems highly appropriate that this exhibition, Laura Knight in the Open Air, was staged first at Penlee House Gallery & Museum in Penzance, then at Nottingham’s Djanogly Gallery and ends at Worcester City Art Gallery.

Knight (née Johnson), although born into a family whose middle class status was slipping, had sufficient artistic talent to secure a scholarship and attend Nottingham Art School. It is difficult now to appreciate how great an achievement that in itself must have been. An indication of contemporary attitudes is the rule of the time that women art students were not allowed to work from nude models, male or female, a restriction to which her famous Self Portrait (left) of 1913 may, in part, be a reference. At the School she met her husband Harold Knight (1874-1961) and together they pursued successful careers as professional artists. In 1929 Laura became the first artist Dame Commander of the British Empire and in 1936 the first woman to be elected as a Royal Academician (RA), Harold being elected an RA the following year.

The Knights started painting in Cornwall in 1907 and returned there until the 1930s. This exhibition, on the theme of her en plein air work, includes many of Laura’s coastal views, often around Lamorna and featuring female figures (The Cornish Coast right). In retrospect it is not difficult to understand why her sunny impressionistic style was so popular in the decades after the First World War and before the Second. Her gypsy studies, mostly of colourful women, were out-of-doors rather than landscapes, and have more in common with her circus work than the theme of this show. However, the Knights began to spend time around the Malvern Hills from the early 1930s and Laura’s landscapes from the area are well-represented.

Laura Knight’s wartime commissions from 1942 to 1945 often showed women at war work in the Air Force or in factories as subjects, but her A Balloon Site, Coventry of 1943 (left) also offers a very skilful depiction of sunlight on the balloon’s surface. Her The Dock Nuremburg 1946 (below), although essentially indoors, leads the eye as though it were a landscape towards a background of ruins. (Particular defendants can be identified from the Imperial War Museum photograph. Goering is at the far end of the middle row – a far different situation from the one he was in in 1940: see a post here earlier this year which generated an unexpected number of hits from Germany).

Reading Elizabeth Knowles’ exhibition catalogue, I was left with the impression that there was more to learn about Laura Knight and her relationships with Harold and others. A forthcoming film, Summer in February, which dramatizes the Lamorna Group of artists including the Knights, may shed some light or at least generate some discussion. Also, there are plans for a Laura Knight retrospective at the Dulwich Gallery in 2015. In the meantime, I would recommend anyone interested in her work, and who has not seen this show in Penzance or Nottingham, to visit Worcester before 10 February 2013.

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