Dame Laura Knight, 'Self Portrait', 1913. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013. When painter Laura Knight became a Royal Academician in 1936 she was the first female to be elected with full membership status since 1768 – a frankly outrageous fact that speaks volumes for the lack of opportunity for women in the country’s cultural life until late.
In 1913 the Academy’s Summer Exhibition hanging committee passed over what is Knight’s masterpiece, her famous self-portrait in which she is painting a nude female model (see left). The opening work in the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition of Knight, it has a visceral visual punch – in its sensuous treatment of flesh and confident use of bright red – that stays long in the mind’s eye.
“It is my opinion that fine Realism is true Abstractionism in the best sense of the word,” wrote Knight two decades later, and while modernists across the Channel and the Atlantic turned their backs on representation before and after the war, the British artist continued to be committed throughout her career to candidly observing the world in all its complexity.
Dame Laura Knight, 'Gypsies at Ascot', 1933. Copyright: Hereford Museum and Art Gallery. Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013. The strongest works in the National Portrait Gallery’s survey do indeed represent emotional presence at the same time as appearance. Gypsies at Ascot (1933) is one of a series on gypsies that show an artist at the height of her powers. The painting features two gypsy women: the gaze of the older – empathetic if world-weary – contrasts with that of her young companion, who seems restless, ill at ease. Knight does not sentimentalise her subjects here, instead allowing the gravitas of their personalities to solidify in paint.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine