56 Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970)

"I am just a hard-working woman, who longs to pierce the mystery of form and colour, and with full heart add a mite to the treasure of the world."

Dame Laura Johnson Knight was a modern realist painter, working in a style similar to Edward Hopper. Knight was one of the most successful painters in Britain. She was made a dame (the female equivalent of knighthood) in 1929, and was the first woman (since 1769) granted full membership into the Royal Academy in 1936. In 1931 she was awarded an honorary degree from St. Andrew's University. The Royal Academy showcased her work in their first retrospective for a woman in 1965. She also won a silver medal in the 1928 Art Olympics in Amsterdam. She wrote a best-selling autobiography, Oil Paint & Grease Paint.

'Fine Feathers'

Laura Johnson had a difficult childhood. Her father abandoned her family shortly after her birth. Laura's mother Charlotee had little money to care for her three daughters - she taught at the Nottingham School of Art. Laura's grandfather's lace-making business also went bankrupt, so he was in no position to help. Laura was sent to France where relatives owned a notherlace-making business, and it was hoped she'd be accepted into an atelier to study art. But when this business also went bankrupt, Laura returned to England.

Laura entered her mother's school at age 13. At 15, Laura's mother became sick with cancer, and Laura took over her role as a teacher at the school. Charlotte soon died, as did their sister Nellie and their grandparents. Laura and her sister Evangeline were alone in the world. Laura kept painting, winning a national competition held by the Kensington Museum of Art. She also fell in love with fellow art student, Harold Knight. They later married in 1903 (Their marriage lasted 58 years until Harold's death in '61). Laura, at this time, earned a meager living from teaching private art lessons.

'Beulah, the Gypsy Girl'

In 1894 Laura, Harold, and Evengeline moved to the fishing village of Staithes, on the Yorkshire coast. Laura continued practicing and developing as an artist, while Harold became a portrait painter. A perfectionist, Laura destroyed any works she didn't like, saying, "Even though my studio was so often warmed by burning canvases and drawings I do not regret all the experimental work done and destroyed. Staithes was too big a subject for an immature student, but working there I developed a visual memory which has stood me in good stead ever since." 

'Ascot Finery'

From 1904-6 Laura and Harold took yearly trips to the Netherlands, to the art colony in Laren. Then, in 1907 they moved to Newlyn Cornwall, making names for themselves as artists, along with Lamorna Birch and Alfred Munnings. Laura began painting portraits of women along the shoreline cliffs, gaining success at her first submission to the Royal Academy in 1909.

'Romany Belles'

In 1913, Laura courted controversy with her self portrait, in which she is shown painting a study of a nude model - her friend and fellow artist, Ella Naper. At the time it was considered improper for women to see each other naked, let alone paint a nude model. The Daily Telegraph called it vulgar, and the Royal Academy rejected it, but other galleries showed it, and Laura continued exhibiting her self-portrait throughout her life. After her death, it was eventually bought by the National Portrait Gallery, and is considered one of her greatest artworks.

'Parham Prunella & Foal'

Harold and Laura Knight dealt with setbacks during WWI. Harold was a conscientious objector, and was forced into farm labor. Meanwhile, artists weren't allowed to paint coastlines as it might benefit the enemy, but Laura was granted a special license to continue painting in 1916. She also received a £300 commission from the Canadian War Records Office to paint soldiers training.

'Penzance Fair'

In 1919, the couple moved to London where they opened a studio. Laura began painting in theatres and the ballet, being allowed backstage and in dressing rooms. She also designed costumes for the 1924 production of Les Roses. The couple bought a printing press, and Laura produced printed advertisements for London Transport for the rest of her life, in addition to her paintings. In 1922 she went to America for the first time, serving as a juror for the Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Pictures. They also traveled to Baltimore in 1926 for Harold to paint several surgeons' portraits. While there, Laura befriended Pearl Johnson (portrait below), a nurse active in the American Civil Rights Movement.

'Pearl Johnson'

In the 20's and 30's, Laura began travelling with the Bertram Mills Circus, painting during performances, directly on canvas with no preparatory sketches. She embraced the challenge, even if some of her works weren't so successful (as critics were quick to point out). She kept going, mastering the art of painting from life, in these fast moving situations. She also enjoyed painting Roma she befriended at the Epsom and Ascot race courses. She would paint from the back of an antique Rolls-Royce, and was later invited to their camp at Iver, Buckinghamshire. She visited for several months, painting portraits.

'Trick Act'

In the 1930's the couple moved to Colwall in Herefordshire. At the start of WWII, Laura became an official war artist, painting several commissions for the War Artists' Advisory Committee. She completed 17 paintings for the committee, and in 1946 she traveled to Nuremberg to paint the war crimes trial (see down below). She wrote, "In that ruined city death and destruction are ever present. They had to come into the picture; without them, it would not be the Nuremberg as it now is during the trial, when the death of millions and utter devastation are the sole topics of conversation wherever one goes – whatever one is doing."

'Circus Matinee'

After the war, the Knights continued living and painting in Colwall to the end of their lives. Laura died, age 92, just three days before a large exhibition of her work at Nottingham Castle.

'Elsie on Hassan'


'The Yellow Dress'

'Theatre Dressing Room'

'Three Clowns'

'Musical Clown'

'At the Edge of a Cliff'

'On the Cliffs'

'Lamorna Cove'

'Lamorna Cove'

'Harbour Scene, probably Lamorna Cove, Cornwall'

'Two Fishers'

'Dark Pool'

'Fishing Fleet'

'In the Sun, Newlyn'

'Take-Off: Interior of a Bomber Aircraft'

'The Nuremberg Trial'

'Balloon Site, Coventry'

'In For Repairs'

'Cpl. J. D. M. Pearson, GC, Women's Auxiliary Air Force'

'Cpl. J. M. Robins, Women's Auxiliary Air Force'

Robins won a military medal for assisting the wounded after an air raid on the RAF base in Andover.

'Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring'

'Sheep Shearing'

'Les Sylphides'

'The Ballet Shoe'

'Behind the Scenes in Coulisses'

'Seaside Holiday'

'Lamorna Birch and His Daughters'

'Marsh Mallows'

'Portrait of George Bernard Shaw'

'Portrait of Joan Rhodes'

'Portrait of Ethel Bartlett'

'Portrait of Lubov Tchernicheva'

'Portrait of Miss Patricia Thompson'

'Henry, Anne & Daphne, Children of Col. Sir Edward & Lady Warner'

'Elder Sister'

'Studio Window'

'Chelsea Embankment'

'Storm Over Our Town, Malvern'

'A Dull Day at Epsom'

'Gypsies at Home'

'His Only Home'

'May Day'


'Rocky Stream'