Laura Knight’s work is instantly recognisable yet difficult to classify. She was a portrait painter, a war artist, a chronicler of the ballet and circus. During the 1930s she enjoyed enormous popularity, partly due to her work appearing on travel posters, chocolate boxes and tea services.
Born in 1877, Knight was one of Britain’s most prolific artists, working in a range of styles and mediums. She was a trailblazer for women artists in a male-dominated world. She was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy and the first female artist to be awarded a DBE.
A major retrospective, currently showing at Penzance’s Penlee House Gallery and Museum, brings together more than 60 of her works, ranging from her earliest portrait studies to a powerful 1946 painting depicting the dock at the Nuremberg war trials.
Born in 1877, Laura Johnson grew up in Nottinghamshire. Her father abandoned the family not long after she was born and her early years were beset with financial problems. Her mother was artistic and encouraged Laura’s talents from a very young age. She began studying at the Nottingham School of Art aged just 13 and it was here that she met her future husband Harold Knight.
As a girl, Laura was frustrated at not being afforded the same opportunities as the male students. She was not allowed to paint nudes and had to develop her life drawing skills by sketching statues and clothed models. She also faced extreme hardship in her private life. Following the death of their mother, Laura and her sister lived in abject poverty, surviving for weeks on end on only porridge and water.
In 1894 she and Harold made their first trip to Staithes, the fishing village on the North Yorkshire Coast, which they were to make their home for the next few years. Laura began to develop her artistic style, painting the families of fishermen and farm labourers. She and Harold, who married in 1903, also made regular visits to Holland where they worked in the artists’ colony at Laren.
In 1907, the couple moved to Cornwall, living first in Newlyn and later Lamorna, where they became key figures in the celebrated artists’ colony that included Lamorna Birch and Alfred Munnings. Laura’s work, which had been heavily influenced by the Dutch school underwent a transformation. Instead of the dark interiors which had characterised her work in Staithes, she began painting brightly-coloured landscapes. Although the couple moved to London and eventually the Malvern Hills, they remained regular visitors to Cornwall.
The current exhibition features a number of her Cornish works, including the famous painting featuring two girls and a dog, as well as scenes from Mousehole and Sennen. It also traces the themes and subjects which fascinated her throughout her career; there are paintings of gypsies, circus performers and dancers. Also represented are travel posters, the china she decorated for Clarice Cliff and her work as an official war artist during the Second World War.
Laura Knight A Celebration runs at Penlee House until September. For more information visit the website at https://www.penleehouse.org.uk/laura-knight-a-celebration/