Dame Laura Knight is one of arts rebels, eccentrics, early feminists, an artist with the common touch and someone who achieved much but given easier economic circumstances could have achieved so much more.
Economically things could have been easier. Dame Laura’s parents parted quite early and the children were brought up with the help of a grandmother known as Big Grandma and a great-grandmother known as Little Grandma. Her mother, who was an art teacher, died of cancer at an early age and relied on her daughter to take the classes she became too ill to attend.
Her mother, who had studied at an atelier in Paris, is said to have told Laura that one day she would become a member of the Royal Academy. Dame Laura Knight became the first female member of the Royal Academy and secured her reputation as someone who could take the boys on at their own game and win and in doing so became an early feminist.
Dame Laura Knight’s slightly eccentric image was probably secured when she began turning up at Gypsy encampments in a vintage Rolls Royce which she had turned into a makeshift studio in order to paint portraits of the Gypsies. Her ability to empathise with her subject comes across in all her portraits but no more than in these paintings of the Gypsies.
Dame Laura painted members of the Gypsy Smith family many times including, Lilo Smith, the matriarch of the family, the beautiful Freedom Smith, who was deaf, had little speech and who she referred to as ‘Beulah’ and Gilderoy Smith the son of Lilo Smith. Gilderoy is the subject of ‘The Gypsy’ painted in 1939. Gilderoy with his weather lined face, deep and slightly weary expression and beautiful eyes has to run every other subject in this group at least a very close second.
Empathy with her subject is also seen in the group of paintings of coloured children at the racially segregated Johns Hopkins Hospital where she spent many months with her husband Harold while he completed his commissions. The now politically incorrect title of ‘The Piccaninny’ painted in 1927 is one of great beauty and charm. While in Baltimore she also found the models for her ‘Madonna of the Cotton Fields’ also known as ‘Mighty Like a Rose’. Whilst there she also attended civil rights meetings with Pearl and Irene Johnson who were campaigners against segregation.
Her feminism continued into her war work where she made many paintings of women in the forces or in industry. Her most famous painting is ‘Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring’. A painting that comes with the epitaph that Ruby had mastered in a very short time the ability to make a breech ring for a Bofors gun that would normally take up to nine years training.
Dame Laura’s rebel status is confirmed by ‘Self Portrait’ painted in 1913. In art school in Nottingham female students weren’t allowed to paint nude models instead they had to make do with clay or wooden models. Her ‘Self Portrait’ shows the artist at her easel painting a picture of Ella Naper who poses for Laura nude. All three appear in the painting, Laura Knight, the nude model and the painting of the nude model. Apparently it was all done with mirrors I would guess the Royal Academy wished it had never been done at all.
A favourite painting of fans and one of the lead images of the exhibition is ‘Ballet Girl and Dressmaker’ painted in 1930 for Chicago industrialist Earl Hoover. The painting shows the ballerina Barbara Bonnar sitting presumably waiting to go on while her dressmaker puts the finishing touches to the outfit the ballerina is wearing. The dressmaker appears intent and focused on making the ballerina perfect while the ballerina appears powerful and athletic even in repose. This mistress and servant relationship also appears to good effect in ‘Gwen Frangcon-Davies’ which she painted in 1924. In the ‘Ballet Girl and Dressmaker’ the painting is lit from the upper left and the ballerina also looks out of the painting to the upper left as if in anticipation of the dance to come and her time in the limelight. The painting seems to live inside and outside it’s frame.
Dame Laura Knight rebel… probably, proto-feminist… probably, eccentric… maybe, wonderful artist… definitely.
Dame Laura Knight Portraits is showing at the Laing Art Gallery until 16 February.