16 August 2013

Laura Knight at the NPG

This is Laura Knight’s third appearance in a post here within a year. A touring exhibition of her landscapes, in the open air, was followed by Summer in February, a film set in Cornwall (SW England) before the First World War among the Newlyn group of artists which included Laura and her husband. Now the National Portrait Gallery in London has put on a small show of her portraits.

Almost the first painting in the exhibition is from her Cornish period, Rose and Gold (1914, above). Unexpectedly it had links to the last exhibition posted about here, A Crisis of Brilliance at Dulwich. Firstly, the painting probably shows the extent of the influence on Knight’s style of the Roger Fry Post-Impressionist exhibitions whose impact is so evident in A Crisis of Brilliance. Secondly, the sitter for Rose and Gold was the artist’s model, Dolly Henry, who was shot dead shortly after the picture was finished by her lover, John Currie. He then committed suicide. A Slade student, one of his paintings, Some Later Primitives and Madame Tiscaron (1912), is in the Dulwich show. Fans of Summer in February will probably like Lamorna Birch and His Daughters (1916, finished in 1933, below).

After Cornwall, the exhibition is grouped into areas which reflect Knight’s inter-war interests: theatre and ballet, (the concert pianist, Ethel Bartlett (1926) in the poster above) and gypsies and circuses. Another pre-war section, Baltimore, consists of paintings and drawings of black Americans made in 1927, when she and her husband worked in the USA. Between 1942 and 1945 she worked on commissions for the War Artists Advisory Committee (see A Balloon Site, Coventry (1943) in the earlier post on the landscape exhibition). I was pleased to see RUSI’s Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner (1941, left) again. The Imperial War Museum’s The Nuremburg Trial (1946) is doubling as a portrait after its outing as a landscape (again, earlier post).

The exhibition ends with a selection of Knight’s portraits, often commissioned, which demonstrate her skill as a figurative painter (perhaps not at its best in the case of George Bernard Shaw (1933)). That facility was matched by her lack of interest in modernism and possibly helps explain the lack of interest in her work after her death in 1970. It is surprising, given her fight for recognition as a woman artist – the first modern woman RA – and her enthusiasm for portraying high-achieving women, that she never seems to have been regarded as an icon by feminists. Brian Sewell, who disliked this exhibition, calls her a “Very much the “anything you can do I can do better” sort of woman”, and describes at some length how little her work was fetching shortly after her death. Although he has little time for most of the works in the show, he ends:
That I quite liked Laura Knight seriously affects my view of this exhibition. I could have put together a show of paintings — her best in all her genres — that would not have disgraced her; it would not have been truthful, for it would have eliminated all the dross, but it would have been far more entertaining for the visitor to whom she is a stranger, and it would have honoured her. This shoddy little show is a disgrace.
He also comments:
Restricted to her portraits, this [exhibition] unwittingly demonstrates the damage that can be done to a forgotten painter’s reputation when only a single branch of a lifetime’s work is plucked from obscurity like this, and I am inclined to argue that the NPG has done Laura Knight a mortal damage, that no one to whom her name and work are new will ever want to see more of it.
Perhaps because of having seen the landscapes last year as well as these portraits, I am looking forward unreservedly to the Knight retrospective that Dulwich Picture Gallery are planning for 2015. Who knows, the curator may now be seeking Mr Sewell’s advice.

Laura Knight Portraits continues at the NPG until 13 October and will subsequently tour to the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (2 November 2013 – 16 February 2014) and Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (1 March – 10 May 2014) (SW England).


Andrew Lambirth in the Spectator on 7 September took a much more sympathetic view of this exhibition than Sewell.

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