Human touch: Laura Knight's National Portrait Gallery show is a timely reminder of her talent

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She was once the best known female artist in Britain. After her death in 1970, she fell out of fashion, but a new show of her wartime paintings and sympathetic portraits is a timely reminder of her talent, says Adrian Hamilton

In her day Laura Knight was the best known and most honoured woman artist in Britain.

She was made a Dame when she was just 32 in 1929 and became an associate member then full member of the Royal Academy in 1936, the first woman to be elected since 1769. Given that, you might think feminist art criticism would make her into something of an idol. While the popularity of some of her pictures, particularly those of Cornwall in the early decades of the last century, has never really waned, her reputation in art circles has tended to languish since her death in 1970. That may be partly due to a feeling that her work, while skilled, remains dated. Although she certainly learned the lessons of Impressionism and Expressionism in her early years as a painter in Cornwall, she kept well clear of Modernism, sticking to a figurative and landscape art that was conservative in form and tone.

That she is not so highly regarded now may also be due to the fact that she fitted none of the requirements to be a modern hero. She didn’t live in obscurity like Gwen John, to be disinterred by a younger generation. Just the  opposite. She didn’t participate in the cultural movements of the day like Vanessa Bell in the Bloomsbury set. She married young in 1903 and remained close to her painter husband until his death in 1961. She showed few signs of outward neurosis or hidden sexuality, despite later suggestions she may have been gay. And she sought all her life the favour of the Establishment and in particular the Royal Academy.

She was, in fact, very much of that generation of women determined to make their way in the 20th century as a professional, the equal of any man. They didn’t have time, or the inclination, to indulge in histrionics, as they saw it, or to make much of the fact they were women. Their object was not to trumpet their sex but to surmount the obstacles to its equality.

A childhood of need helped form her determination to rise in the world. Her father died soon after her birth and she was brought up in straitened circumstances in a Nottingham suffering from the decline of the lace industry. Her mother, a keen amateur painter, packed her off to Paris in the hope she could  obtain an artistic pupilage there. But the family finances didn’t allow it, and at the of 13, still one of the youngest ever to  attend, she entered the Nottingham School of Art, partly because it gave  tuition free to those working to become a teacher. It was the encouragement and marriage with a fellow pupil, Harold Knight, which enabled her to take up painting full time and it was he who  encouraged the move to Cornwall in 1908 – a move that led to an explosion in her painting style and colour palette.

The ambition is all there in the first picture which opens the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of her works as a portraitist. It’s a monumental self-portrait painted in 1913. Shockingly for the time, it shows her painting a female nude. As a woman Laura Knight had not been allowed to study in a life class at her art school in Nottingham. In Cornwall, she found the freedom, and the support of a group of fellow artists, to make up for the deficiency. Even today the picture, oft-reproduced, remains remarkably and powerfully frank. There the artist stands, seen from the back, brush in hand, as she, studies the naked body of the model, who has her hands around the back of her head, her buttocks blushed red and her pose anything but relaxed. Whether Laura Knight meant to be quite as  emphatic as the work turned out is  uncertain. But as a statement of artistic intent it is clear. Here is a woman artist painting the nude just as a man would and quite as unabashed.

She never really achieved the same daring again. That is until the end of the Second World War when she went to the Nuremberg war trials. She’s been  employed by the War Artists Advisory Committee to record and promote the work of the civilians at war work and the soldiers at training. A pacifist like her husband, she’d baulked at the  subjects given. Her pictures of the men and women at work, while fulfilling the  requirements to produce images of the effort behind the fighting, remain propagandist in style and effect. But after the war she had bullied her way into going to Nuremberg as an accredited reporter, to sketch the proceedings.

The final painting, The Nuremberg Trial of 1946, and the sketch for it, are quite extraordinary. The accused, seen from above, sit in the dock, a line of  military police behind and lawyers in front, listening to the translations on earphones, taking notes, sharing thoughts, quite ordinary in their clothes and demeanour. Then, towards the top left, the artist has made the scene melt into a picture of burning buildings and the heaped bodies of a devastated world that is the backdrop of this trial. What the War Artists Advisory Committee made of this astonishing moral leap one dare not think.

Certainly there was nothing in her career to date that would suggest such passion. The Portrait Gallery has used her figurative work as a way of elucidating her long career as a painter. In one sense, it’s an odd way to approach the artist. Laura Knight was never a great portraitist. Her approach remained conventional and often flat.

Too often she gave her sitters a far-away, abstracted look flattering to the subject but one that gives away little of the character behind. What she did like was genres – the ballet, the circus, Gypsies and hospital workers – and to make series of them. It was a pursuit she embarked on with a firm eye to making her reputation at the Royal Academy. But it was also one that she developed with total dedication and surprising empathy, spending months in the company of her subjects, making constant sketches and rapid oil studies of them at work and at ease.

The National Portrait Gallery has  assembled first-class examples of them all. They show an artist with an acute eye and a quick brush. First off were the dancers, although rather  disappointingly traditional given her time spent with the Ballets Russes. Her work became more spontaneous as she picked less conventional subjects. Staying in Baltimore, where her  husband had been commissioned to paint portraits of the surgeons at John Hopkins Hospital, she chose  instead to sketch and paint the black women who worked there and their  community. Although, embarrassingly enough, she uses titles such as  The Piccaninny, from 1927, for some of the works, her watercolour sketches are entirely sympathetic. So too with her paintings of the Gypsy Smith family she first met reading palms at the Derby and then followed to other races and their own settlement at Iver. 

Most touching are her circus paintings. She followed Great Carmo’s Circus around the country and the two pictures on display here, the oil Three Clowns and the charcoal and watercolour sketch Two O’Gusts and Two Lions catch perfectly the melancholy reflection of the comic between performance.

Could Laura Knight have been a different, greater artist if she had allowed her moral sense and her sympathy for the underdog freer play and found the style to express it? It’s a fanciful question. She wanted to be at the top of her profession and she made it. The rest was private and she kept it so.

Laura Knight: Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020 7306 0055) to 13 October; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (0191 232 7734)  2 November to 16 February; Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (01752 304774) 1 March to 10 May

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