Laura Knight: A Panoramic View, edited by Fay Blanchard and Anthony Spira
Philip Wilson Publishers/Bloomsbury Publishing/MK Gallery, 2022
This well-illustrated book has been published in conjunction with a comprehensive exhibition at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. It is a fitting tribute to a popular artist whose accomplishments are already well-documented, but whose work is often underrated due to the tendency to pigeonhole her as an ‘outstanding female artist’. The gender issue cannot be avoided, for Knight’s list of honours include being the first woman to be elected as a full member of the Royal Academy (although she was not invited to the annual dinner until 1967), the first woman to sit on the RA hanging committee for the summer exhibition, and the first artist to be made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. It is perhaps inevitable that these and other worthy decorations and achievements are often the focus of attention, rather than the art which was the reason for them. However, the lavish illustrations in this volume enable us to fully appreciate Knight’s abilities rather than her Establishment credentials.
The book has been arranged chronologically, which helps this process. Knight’s talent was recognised when she was a young girl, and she won several national prizes, her early work clearly showing a prodigious talent. As her confidence grew, her paintings and watercolours displayed a mastery of colour and design that she would retain all her life. There are many good examples of this in the book, but a watercolour from 1915, The Two Fishers, is a particularly fine one. Two children are absorbed with a running stream, and one of them holds a makeshift fishing line. The banks of the stream are bright with spring, and the fast-moving water brilliantly reflects the early morning sunshine. Although this is a fleeting moment, the atmosphere has a lasting effect. The skill deployed here can be found in many of the works that illustrate this book: Knight seems to have the ability to freeze time, choosing apparently random moments that can be imbued with emotion.
Much of the artistic criticism levelled at Laura Knight concerns her failure —if that is the right word— to engage with more overtly modernist themes. The progressive emergence of abstract art and greater emphasis on formal artistic intention might seem, at first sight, to have passed Knight by. She never experimented with abstraction and her paintings always maintained a close connectivity with the real world, as she saw it. However, all artists must, to some degree, depict the world in which they live, and for Knight this meant engaging with themes of modern life. The book conveniently places some of these together, so that we can see, for example, several paintings concerning ballet, the circus, Gypsies, and her wartime art, for which she is particularly renowned.
There are two paintings for which Laura Knight is, perhaps, best known: Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring (1943), and Self-Portrait and Nude (1913). The latter is the subject of an excellent short essay in the book by Hannah Starkey, a London-based photographer. She explains how this work has been a companion to her for many years, a copy of it pinned to her studio wall. The painting remained unsold throughout Knight’s lifetime, and is now in the National Portrait Gallery. There are several factors at work here: a female artist painting a nude female model; a self-portrait of the artist at work; the unfinished canvas within the canvas itself; and the presence of ourselves as the viewer in the studio, to witness the activity depicted. It brings to mind two other famous works which show the artist at work with their subject in front of them: Las Meninas (1656/57) by Velázquez, and The Art of Painting (1666-73) by Vermeer. Self-Portrait and Nude is a multi-layered painting which deserves its plaudits. If only a little of this constructed scene is unpicked, it becomes apparent that a highly sophisticated artistic mind is at work. If we begin with the self-portrait, it is significant that the artist has chosen to show herself painting. Not only is her model shown, but also the unfinished canvas on which she is working. We are immediately taken in by this double illusion, for we do not really ‘see’ the real model at all, but two painted representations of her. Knight subtly tricks us into thinking that we have just entered her studio. Just as Las Meninas places the viewer within the scene, so Laura Knight uses the same technique to insert us into the constructed image that she has created of herself.
There are significant differences between the two depictions of the model, as if to emphasise that one, the central figure, is real, being complete and with shaded and shadowed background, while the other —partially obscured by the artist herself— is clearly still a work in progress. The subject that Knight has chosen, the female form, is in itself significant, for in 1913 female art students were forbidden to engage in life classes; these were the sole domain of male students, and women could only be judged competent after drawing classical statues. Knight is therefore stating quite clearly that she does not need the permission of the male-dominated art establishment to engage with female models, and her skilful depiction demonstrates that she does not need their training either!
A self-portrait reveals only those aspects of the artist that they choose to put on public display. Sometimes they are painted to advertise the artists’ skills and talent, on other occasions because the artist cannot afford the fees for a model, or perhaps because the artist wants to explore their own psyche and paint is the medium which enables them to do this. In this picture Laura Knight has a complex series of intentions. She is depicting herself as a serious artist who is just as capable of painting the female form as any male contemporary. Her clothes are smart and well made, and she has a fashionable hat with a coloured band and a striped neckerchief, which indicate that she is also a woman who cares about her appearance. But when we look at her face, we see that her attention has been drawn away from her work —she is looking outside the picture frame, towards the far right.
By this simple but incredibly effective device, Knight replicates the same sensation produced by Las Meninas: as spectators, we seem to have interrupted the act of painting by our presence. In Las Meninas, Velázquez looks straight ahead, away from his models to someone who has entered the room. The mirror behind the artist shows that the king and queen for whom the portrait is intended are visiting, but a third figure —the viewer of the work— must also be present for the picture to make sense. The same is the case here: the picture implies that we are entering the studio from the right-hand side.
In his influential essay on modern painters written in 1864, Baudelaire wrote “Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the—eternal and the immovable,” and this seems to perfectly encapsulate much of Laura Knight’s work. Her well-known wartime painting, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring (1943), is a perfect example. She has captured the concentration of a woman at work, a highly-skilled operative making precision parts essential to the war effort. And yet the work is much more than this. Knight has again caught a moment in time which, by its very nature, is fleeting. Women engaging in such work before the war was unimaginable —the skilled engineering factories were solely occupied by men, so that this painting can be read as a statement of the position of women in the workplace as equal to that of men. That it was the war that necessitated such a change is almost irrelevant: what is important is that Knight is showing women as more than capable of the same highly-skilled work as men, to be valued accordingly.
Laura Knight completed several other impressive portraits of women during the war, but perhaps her most notable painting of this period came at the end, when she was invited by the WAAC to record the war crimes hearings. Although she wrote in the second volume of her autobiography that she looked “back with horror to those war years,” The Nuremberg Trial (1946) is arguably one of her finest and most memorable works.
As a certified war correspondent, Knight spent three months in a broadcasting box high above the courtroom in which the surviving Nazi leaders were on trial. It was clear from the outset that this would be an historic event of unique importance, and recording it presented Knight with equally unique problems. As she puts it in her own words, “I can never forget the agony that would seize me, an onlooker, alone in that box.” The tableau of the prisoners in their courtroom stalls was perhaps the easy part; putting such a scene in a suitable context required imagination and some skill. Her depiction of the prisoners on trial shows just how ordinary and unexceptional these men were —men who were responsible for many of the war’s horrors and, by extension, millions of deaths and the destruction of much of Europe. Knight shows that destruction by folding the background of the courtroom into the ruins of Nuremberg, a city almost completely flattened by British and American bombing. So alongside the image of the war criminals being held responsible for their decisions, we are also witness to the destruction and death that those decisions caused. It is an unsettling picture which posits the ordinary and extraordinary together, with the depiction of tragedy and suffering the connecting factor.
Aside from the well-known works, this volume is to be recommended for the multiple reproductions which clearly demonstrate that throughout her career, Laura Knight was driven by the desire to both represent the modern world as she saw it and to connect with people who lived on the edge of mainstream society. She painted Gypsies, ballet dancers, and circus performers; dignified people who did not conform to the mores of the English middle class, but who did not hide their personal pride in their ways of life or the cultures of which they were part. Probably painted in the mid thirties, Gypsy and Girl is typical of these works. The older woman in the picture, identified as Lilo Smith, became a friend of Knight’s and she is depicted in several of her other works. Here she is showing her age, the lines of her wrinkled face clearly visible, but her eyes sparkle, and the hand of the younger woman on her shoulder suggests the affection in which she is held by her community. She is clothed in traditional Gypsy costume, complete with a large black hat adorned with black ostrich feathers. While it might be claimed that Knight is simply recording an image from everyday life (albeit a relatively uncommon one), the honest depiction of these women raises the profile of the women themselves and the culture that they represent, evoking the power and strength that being part of their community gives them.
Throughout her career Laura Knight battled with the sobriquet ‘our finest female artist.’ It was a label which enabled her to survive as a working artist, but which also held her back in terms of achieving real national and international recognition. Her gender seems to have prefaced expectations and in many instances, although she was seen as the pre-eminent English female artist, she was not rated alongside her male counterparts because of these stereotypes. From our twenty-first century perspective, this seems grossly unfair; surely an artist should be judged, valued, and admired for the work that they produce, not their gender. This well-illustrated volume provides ample evidence that Laura Knight was an artist of genuine ability who deserves to be placed amongst our finest twentieth-century artists for the quality and range of her work.--Paul Flux