At the moment the National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition of Laura Knight’s portraits. There have been quite a few Laura Knight exhibitions over the last few years, including Laura Knight in the Open Air and Laura Knight at the Theatre, plus appearances in Cornish Childhoods, Women War Artists and The Magic of a Line. This exhibition is somewhat different, since it only features portraits, usually of named figures. These portraits, as the exhibition notes point out, are “in the realist, figurative tradition”, demonstrating her “distinctive” approach to portraiture, “bold and compassionate” and “reflecting her experience of modern Britain”. Though these descriptions seem to contain a lot of buzzwords, in fact I tend to agree: there is a remarkable modern colour and life about Knight’s portraits. Still, I have seen several reviews of the exhibition which suggest that Knight’s approach was rather old-fashioned even at the time – that her contemporaries were experimenting with modernism and other isms, which make her recognisable approach seem rather regressive. Looking at this exhibition, I don’t agree. While her work is infrequently experimental, her empathy with her subjects and her expressiveness of style makes her work always interesting, and after all she was hardly the only successful painter not to embrace the art movements of the twentieth century.
The exhibition begins with the famous self-portrait, exhibiting her pleasure in being able to paint nudes after being denied the opportunity at art school. This is accompanied by a lovely, informal sketch of Ella Napier, the model for the nude, sitting in a tree. I was interested in her large oil of Lamorna Birch and his daughters, which I don’t recall seeing before: it’s an odd painting, combining a realist style with an impressionistic background. While the painting indicates freedom and an unconventional and happy childhood, the figures are not smiling. Birch, a fellow Newlyn School painter, was a friend of Knight’s and one feels there must be history behind the painting.
The exhibition is divided into sections: Early years and Cornwall; Ballet and Theatre; John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore; Circus; Gypsies; War; The Royal Academy. These show a helpful trajectory in Knight’s life, work and subjects, though as ever the ballet and theatre paintings seem to take centre stage (no pun intended!) These paintings are so detailed, with many, such as her portrait of Lubov Tchernicheva, almost photographic. It is interesting that she paints Tchernicheva not as a dancer but as a fashionable young woman, with sad, soulful eyes, in contrast to her painting of Lydia Lopokova, also a dancer, this time in the act of preparing to dance, looking almost childlike.
Knight’s paintings of gypsies have led to accusations that she abused the trust of her sitters by painting them over and over, but I find it difficult not to be drawn to these images, particularly those of the women, strong but sad, with experiences drawn into every line on their faces. I think Knight is at her most sympathetic as an artist when representing those whose lives have been a struggle, and the sadness of the gypsies’ eyes demonstrate this. There is an inner beauty and strength in many of these women, particularly ‘Freedom’ Smith, in a painting which reminds me of Tess of the D’Urbervilles! And in the war pictures, from “Take Off”, with its focus, concentration and tension, to “Corporal J.M. Robins”, a woman who won a Military Medal for bravery, realism is a necessary part of the picture’s construction and meaning: to say Knight is not avant-garde enough is to miss the point.
Knight is significant for her determination to succeed as a woman artist, not only for finally becoming the Royal Academy’s first full female member, but also her desire to record the experience of women – at work, at war, as mothers. Many of her paintings are deceptively simple, but contain a wealth of meaning and experience behind their bright and vivacious surfaces. While this exhibition may not change your views of Knight’s work, it does bring a large body of her portraiture together and in so doing assemble a strong case for her significance as a twentieth-century painter.