Throughout her life, Dame Laura Knight was popular with fellow artists and the public alike and she remains one of Britain’s favourite artists to this day.
Best known for painting amidst the world of the theatre and ballet in London, and for being a war artist during the second world war, Dame Laura Knight produced a number of fantastic works over the course of her career. The widely popular and successful artist, often painted people in action in a robust, realistic style, and was able to compete with the men of the 20th century art scene, on their own terms.
Discover 6 things you didn’t know about the life and work of Dame Laura Knight below.
Dame Laura and Harold Knight (Image credit: National Portrait Gallery)
6 Things you didn’t know about Dame Laura Knight
1. She was awarded a DBE
Knights public accolades included being made the first woman full Royal Academician for a century in 1936, awarded a DBE for her services to art in 1927 and later becoming Chair of the Royal Society of Water Colour Artists and of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers.
2. Knight wasn’t afraid to speak up for gender equality.
As an art student Knight had not been permitted to directly paint nude models and, like all female art students in England at the time, was restricted to working from casts and copying existing drawings. Knight deeply resented this, and Self Portrait with Nude is a clear challenge, and reaction, to those rules. This piece was a breath of fresh air, a graphic declaration that women artists were entitled to paint on the same terms as men.
3. Knight loved to paint challenging subjects.
In 1946, at the age of 68, Laura Knight was sent by the War Artists Advisory Committee to Nuremberg to record the trials of the Nazi war criminals. The idea for this audacious mission came from Knight herself rather than from the WAAC.
4. She was very much involved in the war effort
During the war she was asked by the Ministry of Information to paint pictures of women in the forces for propaganda purposes. In 1946, Laura made her own request to become the official war artist at the Nuremburg trials. Most artists would have sat inconspicuously with a sketch book. However, Laura wanted to paint from life and so squeezed a huge canvas into a glass fronted press box.
5. Knight taught art at the age of 15
Knight’s mother Charlotte taught at the Nottingham School of art, and managed to get her daughter enrolled at the school as an artisan student, paying no fees. However, at the age of 15, and still a student herself, Knight took over her mothers teaching duties when she fell seriously ill, in order to continue studying at the school.
6. She ran away with the circus
Throughout 1929 and 1930 Knight went on a tour of British towns with the combined Bertram Mills and Great Carmo’s Circus. Painting within a working circus forced Knight to paint at great speed, as the performers rarely had much time to pose. Knight responded by painting directly onto the canvas without any preliminary drawing.
In this incredible painting, Dame Laura Knight depicts dancing in the evening of the annual May Day Fair on Hampstead Heath in London, which is known as ‘Appy ‘Ampstead. Through the colourful and energetic narrative, Knight manages to capture the excitement felt during the celebrations, drawing the viewer into the painting.
In the early 1900’s Hampstead Heath had become a popular place for crowds of Londoners to visit and “Appy ‘Ampstead’ had become a nationally known phrase, being used in a number of films and songs during the Second World War period. Knight painted this work from memory as she had produced various drawings and etchings of people dancing at Hampstead Heath previously in her career.