Laura Knight ( nee Johnson) one of the most famous and prolific female British artists started life in most impoverished circumstances, having to quickly learn how to fend for herself from an early age as together with her sister Eva ( “Sis”) she became orphaned in her late teens.
The artist led a full life:
- The first woman to be elected as a Royal Academician.
- The only woman to be given War Commissions in the Two World Wars.
In 1946, at the age of 69! She was commissioned as the only British artist to cover the Nuremberg Trials.
- The first female artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire at a time when such awards were rarely given and not so prolifically as today.
- The first husband and wife to be Royal Academicians.
- The artist became most famous in the 1920s, 1930.s and 1940.’s and then became known by the press as the grand old lady in the Art world; but kept on painting and exhibiting up to her death in her 93rd year
- The first woman to have had a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy.
- The artist exhibited every year from 1903 to her death in 1970 (67 years) at the Royal Academy except for 1918 when she was ill and1922 when she was in USA). Such exhibits at the RA totalled some 284 works plus a further176 at her retrospective exhibition. This number of works has not been exceeded by any other artist.
- From 1930 the artist exhibited over 190 works in 40 years at the Royal Watercolour Society.
- The artist exhibited over 400 works at The Leicester Galleries, Leicester Square, London
- The artist exhibited and has works permanently held in practically every major Public Gallery in the UK, and in Public Galleries overseas that include USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Europe.
- Unlike many artists, Laura Knight was famous for perhaps the greatest variety of subjects that included – Landscapes- Portraiture- War Commissions – Ballet – Theatre – Circus – Gypsies- Animals and Race horses and Seascapes.
- The artist uniquely also covered many media forms that included not only
- oil and watercolours, but also
- every form of print that included- soft etchings – aquatints – drypoint – mezzotint – linocut –woodcut – lithographs,
- Posters for London Transport, Charities, Railway companies, Public Gallery exhibitions etc.
- Theatre costume design for Stratford and London Theatre productions
- Ballet costume design
- Design for glassware and ceramics for Clarice Cliff and others
- Made and decorated jewellery and enamels with Ella Naper.
- The artist was also an author of three books, two autobiographies and one on the circus.
- The artist wrote a play for Sir Barry Jackson and privately was a poet (which has yet to be published).
- In the last five years interest in the artists works have been revived by the following major exhibitions:
- 2008 The Ballet and Theatre (80) @ The Lowry and Nottingham Castle Museum
- 2008 The Magic of a Line (20) Drawings @ The Penlee Museum, Penzance
- 2009 War commissions – Imperial War Museum, Manchester
- 2011 Prints (108) National gallery of Canada
- 2012 Landscapes (70) Penlee Museum Penzance and Worcester City Gallery
- 2013 Portraits (20) National Portrait Gallery, Newcastle and Plymouth.
- 2014 BBC Radio 4 adapted the artist's diaries on the Nuremberg Trials as a drama over 5 days in a series of 15 minutes.
Much has been written about the artist in recent years and unfortunately some writers with insufficient research have been erroneously stated certain event dates.
To assist students and collectors the following is a brief biography.
Nottingham/ Staithes/ Laren.
1877 Born 4th August 1877 at Acton Road, Long Eaton, Derbyshire. Mother left husband, a publican, just after Christmas of that year.
1879 Laura’s Mother briefly attended a Paris atelier, which helped her take up a teaching post at Brincliffe school for girls in Nottingham and take on private art pupils to bring in some extra income to bring up her family.
1883 14th August, Laura’s father died. Laura never knew her father.
1886 Laura’s elder sisters Nellie and Eva leave Brincliffe school to learn how to become Board teachers, despite Eva only being 11.
1889 Laura’s great grandmother “Little Grandma”, Charlotte Ther ( nee Broomhead) died and her eldest sister Nellie aged 15 died of pneumonia.
1890 Laura’s grandmother’s lace factory collapses and her Aunt West pays off debts and mortgages to save “Big Grandma” ( Charlotte Bates) becoming bankrupt.
1890 Enrols as the youngest art Student, barely 13 years of age and meets Harold Knight OPGP p.72
1892 Mother diagnosed with cancer and Laura has to take on her Mother’s students to try and maintain some family income.
1893 22nd September, Mother ( Charlotte Johnson nee Bates) dies of cancer.
1894 Lily Poyser aka The Yellow Lady aka erroneously Alma Poyser oil on canvas
1895 towards end of year awarded Gold medal for painting of a plaster cast from Hamo Thorneycroft’s sculpture – Teucer. In same year won the Prince of Wales scholarship at South Kensington, for winning more awards than any other female in Britain; with an award for £20 for two years
1895 Grandmother Charlotte Bates dies leaving Laura and her sister Eva (“ Sis”) as orphans
1895 Laura Johnson and her boyfriend Harold Knight leave the Nottingham Art School.
1896 Dressing Dolls aka Children dressing dolls, painted in The Castle rooms Nottingham.
1896 Harold Knight goes to Paris atelier and his brother Edgar emigrates to USA.
In the last five years Laura and her sister lived in poverty, firstly with their mother bringing in a meagre income from teaching art, then on her mothers death Laura became the main income earner together with her Uncle Arthur Peter Bates. On their Grandmother dying and their Uncle AP Bates having to move to St Quentin to assist his Aunt West the sisters now became orphans living in extreme poverty, having to support themselves with only the assistance from their uncle AP Bates of £5 per month.
1897 Harold Knight returns from Paris in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee OPGP p.69
1897 First visit to Staithes a months holiday, paid for by her great Aunt West
1898 Together with her sister go to live in Staithes for six months and in the following year on finding a vacant cottage Ebor Cottage to make Staithes a permanent move.
1901 The Knights become founder members of Staithes Art Club.
c1902 Great Aunt West dies and Eva (“Sis”) joins her Uncle Arthur Peter Bates in St Quentin.
1903 First varnishing ticket from the Royal Academy – Mother and child
1903 Laura Johnson marries Harold Knight.
1904/1905 and 1906 the Knights visit the art colony at Laren in Holland
1906 the Knights first London exhibition held at Leicester Galleries Dutch life and landscape
1907 November, the Knights leave Staithes and move to Cornwall.
There are not many works of Laura Knight surviving from her time in Staithes and even less from her early days in Nottingham. The Staithes works are very embryonic examples of her work, going through the change of that learnt at the Nottingham Art School, which gradually changed in coming into contact with fellow artists residing in Staithes and later with some influence from her visits to Holland. After this period on moving to Cornwall the artists style changed to become more the artists natural style of work, breaking away from what she had learned from her fellow artists of Staithes and Laren.
From this period the artist’s works started to become better know not just nationally but also internationally.
On moving to Cornwall the Knights started to maximise on exhibiting her works throughout the United Kingdom ie in their first year in 1908 exhibitions were held at The Royal Hibernian Academy, Newlyn Art Gallery, Royal Academy, New English Club, Walker Art Gallery Liverpool, Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.
1908 The Knights lodge with Mrs Beer at Penzer House, Newlyn
1908 Arthur Peter Bates retires, selling up his business in St Quentin and returns with Eva to retire in Nonnington, Kent.
1909 The Knights move as tenants at Trewarveneth, Paul
1909 Elected Associate of the Old Water Colour Society
1910 Attends her sister Eva’s wedding with Robart Croft, a chemist businessman in Canterbury, Kent to live in Eastry, near Nonnington Kent.
1910 Starts to visit the ballet with her model friend Dolly Snell and saw Pavlova at the Palace Theatre with Mikhail Mordkin
1911 Move to Trewarveneth, Paul on the Gotch’s moving out to their new house.
1911 Visits Diaghilev Ballet with Dolly Snell at the Royal Opera House to see Les Sylphides
1912 First exhibition to include ballet studies – Leicester Galleries, London.
1912 The Knights attend their close friend AJ Munnings first marriage to Florence Carter Wood ( “Bloat”). On the first night of the honeymoon Bloat attempts suicide in the Artillery Mansions Temperance Hotel, London.
1912 Harold become very ill having to see a Doctor in Plymouth, which was followed by Laura becoming very ill and having to spend time in a Plymouth nursing home. The whole period being described by the artist as a “hateful six month stay in Plymouth”.
1913 the Knights move to Oakhill, Lamorna Gate, St Buryann.
1914 24th July Florence Munnings committed suicide (her second attempt). Laura Knight was called and tried unsuccessfully to revive her.
Upon Colonel Poyser’s awareness of the illicit love affair between his estate manager and Munnings’ wife it is believed the Colonel arranged for his manager to take up a position in the tropics of West Africa, what must be considered as not the most convivial of postings.
For further details see Jean Goodman’s autobiography AJ The Life of Alfred Munnings p. 110 where there is record of Laura Knight’s letters that covers a part of the Florence’s impossible marriage, her instability of character, her follies and refined cruelties to Munnings. (Slightly contrary to the background and character depicted in the film Summer in February).
1914 First met Sir Barry Jackson on introduction from Alfred Munnings
1914 Artist’s first exhibition USA
1914 Dolly Henry a model of the artist, murdered by her boy friend the painter John Curry.
1915 Laura and Ella Naper jointly create enamel jewellery and plaques.
1916 Obtains a War Commission from the Canadian War Office Physical training in Witley Camp
1916 Harold as a conscientious objector is forced to do hard labour working on farms.
1917 Harold’s health never very good, deteriorates badly resulting from the previous years’ winter and the year’s cold spring weather, and is excused further forced labour.
1919 The Knights leave Cornwall to live in London, but return for the summer months to Sennen Cove and Mousehole throughout the 1920s, and in 1933 make their last summer vacation to Cornwall.
1919 Elected an Associate of the Royal Watercolour Society
1919 Elected Associate of Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours
1919 The artist’s first work exhibited in Canada
1920 Moved to live at No1 and No2 Queens Road, St Johns Wood.
1920 Introduced to Anna Pavlova by Enrico Ceechitti
1920 Paul Konody writes up the introductory Notes for Drawings of the Russian Ballet” a limited edition (350 copies).
1921 The artist supplements her income by learning to produce prints – aquatints – drypoints – linoprints etc, which she continues to do until 1943
1922 First visit to America to be a member of the jury for the International Art Exhibition, Pittsburgh USA
1922 Laura starts drawing the circus at Fossets Circus, Agricultural Hall Islington
1923 Laura Knight: A book of Drawings
1923 Artists first painting exhibited in Paris
1923 PG Konody invites the Knights to join his family for a holiday on the Italian side of the Tyrol, at Madonna di Campillio
1923/4 The Knights moved into No.9 Langford Place ( later re-numbered to No 16).
1924 Designed ballet costumes for Stanislav Idjkowski
1925 August, the Knights revisit Holland then go to Berlin, Dresden. Prague and then stayed for awhile at Prachovski Skály, much liked by Czech artists.
1926 September, Harold leaves for commissions in Baltimore USA, Laura joins him for her second visit to USA at the end of the year and both return in April of the following year.
1927 Made Associate of the Royal Academy - ARA, only second woman after Anne Surymerton
1927 Starts drawing at Bertram Mills circus
1927 Designed theatre costumes for Sir Barry Jackson
1928 Full member of Royal Watercolour Society
1928 Honorary mention in the Paris Salon
1928 June/August. Won a Silver medal at Amsterdam Olympics for Art
1929 1st March, Awarded Dame of the British Empire DBE
1929 Started attending the Malvern Festivals as a guest of their friend Sir Barry Jackson and attended each year until he stopped producing the festivals in 1937.
1929 Toured South coast with Carmos Circus
1931 Received Honorary degree LLd St. Andrews University
1931 Goes to Epsom and Ascot races for the first time and thereafter starts painting gypsies.
1931 Exhibition Art Gallery, Toronto Canada
1931 Major exhibition USA of oils watercolours and etchings
1932 Member of the Royal Society of Painters, Etchers and Engravers
1932/3 Exhibition - prints Chicago
1933 Commissioned by the Duke of Rutland to paint his wife
1933 The Knights make this their last summer vacation in Cornwall spending part of the summer in Mousehole
1933 Laura designs special designs for Cadbury's chocolate boxes and wrappers
1934 Became full member of RA – First woman full member.
1934 Designed the production of Clarice Cliff complete table service and glassware called “Circus”, initially exhibited at was called the Harrod’s exhibition when Gracie Fields purchased a 12 piece table set, then in 1935 at the Royal Academy titled British Art in Industry that then went on UK tour. In 1936 the exhibition toured then Australia where the Wirth family of the largest Australian touring circus purchased a 58 piece table set.
1936 Publication of Oil Paint and Grease Paint re- published by Penguin Books in 1943
1936 President Society of Women Artists and remained so for 35 years
1936 First woman to be elected a full member of the Royal Academy
1937 The Knights purchase their rented home at 16 Langford Place, St Johns Wood
1939 Evacuated to Colwall, Herefordshire, under Malvern Hills for rest of 2nd WW
1940 – 1946 War Advisory Commissions
1946 5th July Eva ("Sis") dies
1951 Received another Honorary degree D.Litt from Nottingham University
1953 Elected Senior Royal Academician ( first woman to receive the honour)
1953 Works backstage at The Old Vic, Shakespearean productions of Henry Vl
1960 Designed logo for the World Refugee Year
1961 3rd October husband Harold Knight dies.
1962 Publication of artist’s book on the circus - A Proper Circus Omie
1965 Retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy ( first woman so honoured)
1965 Publication of second autobiography Magic of a Line
1965 75 years of Painting exhibition Upper Grosvenor Galleries London
1970 7th July the artist died at Langford Place London
1970 11th July - Laura Knight exhibition Nottingham Castle Museum, Nottingham Festival.
1970 28th July Memorial and Thanks Giving Service, St James Piccadilly London