This exhibition covers Laura Knight’s art from her early studies at Nottingham Art College to her work as a war artist. What a remarkable career she had and what a wide range of work. The book published to accompany the show has further pictures and essays and is edited by Elizabeth Knowles.
We can see her colours brighten on coming to Cornwall after the darker palette she used in Staithes, in North Yorkshire. At the edge of a cliff (1917) is vertigo-inducing through its dramatic view of a stylish young lady standing above the sea.
Like Degas, Knight was fascinated by dancers. She conveys the solidity of a ballerina called Barbara in a study of 1932, choosing pastel blue greys, pinks and a variety of whites to animate every inch of the surface in the costume and curtains behind. There are also fascinating picture of gypsies in Malvern – notably one old lady wearing a feathered hat.
In Baltimore in 1927 Laura Knight painted a black nurse, Pearl Johnson, who introduced her to the civil rights movement with which she sympathised. She was taken into what were segregated wards at John Hopkins hospital to meet and paint women. How shockingly this brings over that problems of racial prejudice remain now.
There’s quite a strange composition in one of the circus pictures of 1950s which makes me wonder if the artist used a camera, because the horse’s head and tail are not entirely within the frame. The label speaks as if she is drawing swiftly and we see her technique change to cope with complex scenes such as women sowing potatoes, which remind me of the loose energetic brush strokes of Van Gogh.
In 1934 Laura Knight designed a ‘Circus’ dinner service under a government scheme delivered by Clarice Cliff, which promoted design in industry. These ceramics reminded me of Russian Revolution figures depicting workers at a similar time.
Then there is the famous painting done by Laura Knight as a war artist of Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (1943). Ruby, 21 years old at the time, was already a highly skilled worker and this remarkable detailed depiction of her at work was shown at the Royal Academy and voted Picture of the Year 1943.
It was the artist’s own suggestion to paint the Nuremberg Trials of 1946 and she also gave a broadcast on the BBC. It’s a remarkable historical record of the Nazi criminals in court, in a lively variety of poses and with the devastation of rubble and fire of war used imaginatively in the background. It looks unfinished in places, with areas of rough of paint creating an abstract expressionist feel.
This is an exhibition that shows how engaged with contemporary life and all its different people Laura Knight was, observing women in particular as working participants.
I overheard an impressed visitor who had not heard of Laura Knight before – an artist who was well known in her lifetime and deserves wide recognition.
Laura Knight: A Celebration, Penlee House, Penzance, May 17 – September 16, 2021
Volume 35 no. 6 July/August 2021