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In 1929, Laura Knight made history on two counts: she was the first female artist since 1768 to be accepted into the Royal Academy and she was the first woman artist to be made a Dame. Retrospectives of Laura Knight’s work are not unusual: there were at least four in 2012 alone, but the retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery is another first for Knight, being the only show so far to concentrate solely on her portrait painting.
The exhibition begins with Self Portrait, 1913, a stunning painting in oils from the NPG’s own collection. The canvas is life-size in proportions and depicts Knight in front of a canvas in the process of painting her friend and fellow artist Ella Naper as nude model. Looking fresh and vibrant to the contemporary eye, it is difficult to believe that this work was completed during the height of the suffragist movement when women were struggling for equality. It does not reveal the struggle female artists experienced to gain the same access to life models, and therefore practice at such figures, as had male artists. Nonetheless, both the clothed figure of Knight and her nude model are wonderfully executed. While the painting was well received by Knight’s friends and colleagues, it was considered shocking by others and remained in her studio until her death.
Self Portrait represents Knight’s first voyage into portrait painting. In 1908, she moved to Newlyn, Cornwall where she was surrounded by fun, artistic people who provided her with a nurturing environment. They encouraged her to move away from her usual style and explore a new bright, vivid palette, which she applied to realist portraits. Knight had reached a period in her life when she felt confident and most at ease, which shows in her work, especially portraits of women.
The NPG displays Knight’s work in chronological order, allowing us to see how her style evolved. This has the added (intended) advantage of producing a pictorial biography. In the first room along with her Self Portrait, the huge oil painting of Lamorna Birch (1869–1955), and His Daughters, 1913-34, dominates the end wall. This portrait showing Knight’s fellow artist and close friend with his two daughters, is a beautifully composed painting, executed with broad, confident, brushstrokes and resulting in a definite Impressionist style that distances the work from her earlier landscapes.
The second room shows a selection of works that Knight produced after she returned to London from Cornwall at the end of the First World War. Fascinated by theatre and the ballet, she gained permission to go backstage and sketch the performers, resulting in many works related to the subject, including portraits of the dancer Lubov Tchernicheva and the actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies. These are shown alongside the stunning Ballet Girl and Dressmaker,1930: a large oil painting commissioned for H. Earl Hoover of vacuum cleaner fame. This picture, posed for by a model, displays a more muted palette than the Cornish portrait of the Birch family and is a romantic construct. Viewers should note the nearby working sketch, showing a stern, solid dancer in contrast to the finished commission, which, though maintaining the clear vision of the sketch, depicts a pensive, sensual woman: fuller in the breast, nipples more obvious and her face smaller and softened. Knight’s delicate execution of brushwork captures the sheerness of the dancers clothing, demonstrating her adaptable technique.
The third room includes some stunning work that Knight executed on a trip to John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, along with her artist husband Harold, who was fulfilling his own commissions. Surprisingly, Laura gained entry to the racially segregated wards and made a series of sketches of the patients and staff. Two notable works are the sketch of Pearl Johnson and another of a small child. Johnson, a black nurse, took Knight along to a civil rights lecture and Knight depicts the nurse with her right hand placed on her heart as if reminding the viewer that though black, she is also an American. The other sketch, titled Piccaninny, is a beautifully rendered and sensitive sketch of the young girl lying in her hospital bed, arm behind her head staring out at the viewer.
For a brief period during the 1920s, Knight travelled and lived with a circus and she had an equal fascination with the gypsy community. This period resulted in a mixed standard of works represented in the exhibition by two circus sketches and four portraits in oils of gypsies; these provide a stark contrast to the previous, softer portraits in the collection. This change in style eases the viewer neatly into the penultimate room containing works Knight produced during her commission with the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC).
The paintings for the WAAC display a radical departure from Knight’s previous works and are the result of her lack of artistic autonomy. Knight was forced to adapt her style to paint works that were dictated by the WAAC and intended to document the war or to be used for propaganda. Depictions of women working in factories, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Beech-Ring, 1943 and Corporal J.M. Robins, 1941 are produced in a smoother, reproductive, cinematographic and poster style, a real departure from the heavier fluid brushstrokes Knight had adopted in her earlier paintings. Nonetheless, The Nuremberg Trial, 1946, painted as Knight’s commission was coming to an end, departs from the ideals of war work and collages depictions of the full horror of war into a representation of the trial itself, a nod perhaps to Knight’s pacifist beliefs.
The exhibition is worth visiting for the portrait of the Birch family and the ballet dancer alone. Viewing the portraits in a chronological order also gives the viewer a chance to experience the phases in Knight’s life and see how these influenced her painting style, thus revealing Knight as an amazingly adaptive artist.