Laura Knight RA: A Working Life @ the Royal Academy

Laura Knight was the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts (in 1936) and the first woman to receive a large retrospective exhibition at the Academy, in 1965. She was awarded a Damehood in 1929.

Born in 1877, Knight had a long life (passing away in 1970) and a long and successful career, working in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint until well into the 1960s.

She never departed from the figurative, realist tradition of her youth and was, for this reason, in her heyday, one of the most popular painters in Britain.

Portrait of Joan Rhodes by Laura Knight (1955) © The estate of Dame Laura Knight. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts

Given Knight’s mid-century fame, and her role as a pioneering woman artist, it is a little surprising that this FREE display of some of her work is a) so small and b) tucked away in a dingy room through a doorway off of the main first floor landing. There was no signage, I had to ask an RA staffer where it was hidden.

If you google Knight or look at her Wikipedia article, you immediately see a series of highly realistic and vivid oil paintings, starting with the cracking Self Portrait with Nude of 1913, and including the evocative paintings she did during the Second World War (she became an official war artist at the outbreak of war, and her portrait of Ruby Loftus operating industrial machinery was picture of the year at the Academy’s 1943 summer exhibition).

As you explore further online you come across lots and lots of oil paintings of chocolate box scenes of the countryside, especially of the Cornish coast, featuring soulful looking ladies with parasols (before the First War) or in flapper style dresses and chapeaux (after the First War).

In this little display there are only three oil paintings on display here, although they include the very striking portrait of Joan Rhodes (above) and an equally realistic and sensual double nude, Dawn. (It is hard not to be struck by the firm pink bosoms in this painting, though maybe I am meant to be paying attention to the women’s soulful gazes…)

Dawn by Dame Laura Knight (1932-33) © The Artist’s Estate. Photo by John Hammond

No, the bulk of this display is made up of display cases of Knight’s drawings and sketchbooks of which the Academy holds a substantial collection – small, monochrome, often unfinished sketches, which are – to be frank – of variable quality and finish, some were very appealing, some seemed, well, a bit scrappy.

The works are grouped into three distinct themes from Knight’s long working life – the countryside, the nude and scenes from the theatre, ballet and circus.

Countryside

Knight had several spells of living in the countryside – in the 1890s she moved to the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes and painted scenes of the coast and life among the fishermen and their wives. In 1907 Knight and her husband moved to Cornwall and became central figures in the artists’ colony known as the Newlyn School. In the 1930s she and her husband settled in the Malvern Hills, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Thus the exhibition includes sketches she did of Mousehole in Cornwall, alongside sketches of a ploughed field, trees beside a river, Richmond Park, Bodmin Moor, two land girls in a field, seeding potatoes, and so on.

Mousehole Harbour, Cornwall, with Figures in Foreground by Laura Knight (mid-1920s or early 1930s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

It was only later, when I googled her many finished paintings of Mousehole and other Cornish scenes that I realised where these sketches were heading, and what I was missing. I wish the exhibition had included at least one finished painting of this kind of scene alongside the sketches, to help you understand the process better, and the purpose of the sketches.

Nude

We’ve already met the two dramatic nude women in Dawn. There are a small number of other nude sketches and studies on display, which I thought were a bit so-so. Like the countryside sketches, they strongly suggest that the ‘magic’ of Knight’s paintings was precisely in the painting, in her skill at creating an airy, light and luminous finish with oil paints.

Standing Nude with Her Arms Behind her Head by Laura Knight (mid-1950s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

Theatre, ballet and circus

This broad subject area contains the largest number of sketches and drawings. Knight sketched ballet dancers, and circus performers, there are drawings of boxing matches held among soldiers training during World War One, and ice skaters and trapeze artists and many other performers. The wall labels tell us that she even spent some months travelling with famous circuses of the Edwardian era, drawing and sketching every day.

Trapeze Artists by Laura Knight (1925) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

They’re all competent. Some of them piqued my interest. But none of them seemed to me as vivid as the drawings of, say Edward Ardizzone, who had a comparable sketching style, using multitudes of loosely drawn lines to build up form and composition.

The Lion Tamer by Edward Ardizzone (1948)

Maybe I’m mixing up fine art (Knight) with book illustration (Ardizzone) and maybe I’m giving away my failings of taste in saying so, but I much prefer the Ardizzone. It’s more vivid, more evocative, more physically pleasing (more tactile), more fun.

Also, as with the nudes and landscapes, a quick search online reveals that Knight converted her sketches into scores and scores of paintings of the circus, and I immediately found the paintings much more pleasurable than the sketches – a little cheesy and old-fashioned, like vintage Christmas cards, but much more finished and complete than the sketches.

Grievance

The introductory panel and all the wall labels exude what you could call the standard feminist spirit of grievance and offence. The curators point out that Knight, despite her success with the public, was only granted membership of the Royal Academy in 1936! That she was the first woman to achieve this accolade (why so late Royal Academy)! But that, even then, she wasn’t invited to Academicians’ Annual Dinner until 1967! We are told that, as a woman art student before the Great War, she was forbidden to paint or sketch from real naked models, but had to work from sculptures and statues! It was only in the 1930s in Newlyn that she paid local people to pose nude for her! And so a work like Dawn was an act of defiance against a male-dominated art world! Down with the patriarchy! #MeToo! Time’s Up!

Well, I’m sure all of this and much more along the same lines, is true and scandalous and we should all be up in arms about it. But, seen from another perspective, all this righteous indignation amounts to a skillful evasion of asking the rather obvious question, which is whether Knight’s art is any good – or is of anything other than antiquarian interest designed to bolster the outrage of righteous young feminists.

This tricky question is not addressed anywhere in the (very informative) wall labels, but, when you think about it, is amply answered by 1. the Academy’s choice of location for this little ‘exhibition’ – tucked away in a dark and dingy side-room – and 2. by the fact that it is more of a ‘display’ of half a dozen notebooks, three paintings and a poster, than a full-blooded exhibition.

If Laura Knight is so eminent and so worthy of consideration, why didn’t the Academy give her a larger exhibition in a more prominent space?

Ironically, the curators who complain that Knight was overlooked and patronised in her own time, have done quite a good job of repeating the gesture – displaying only a small and not very persuasive part of her output, and even that in a side room which nobody in a hurry to see the blockbuster shows on Anthony Gormley or Helena Schjerfbeck or Félix Vallotton is in too much danger of actually stumbling across.

Suggestion

In all seriousness, why not give Laura Knight a much bigger exhibition? If you look at the paintings embedded in the Wikipedia article or all across Google, it’s clear that she painted absolutely brilliantly, but in a straightforward naturalistic style which was completely outdated and provincial by the 1930s, let alone the 40s or 50s – in a style which carried on its Edwardian naturalism into the atomic age as if the rest of modern art had never existed.

But despite that – or more likely, because of it – Knight was very popular and successful with the public. Her paintings of Edwardian children playing on the beach or soulful ladies standing on clifftops sold by the dozen and – from a Google search of them – look immensely pleasing and reassuring in a lovely, airy, chocolate-box kind of way. And her wartime paintings perfectly capture the earnest heroism of the conflict, and of the social realism, the committedness, of the wartime artists.

To me this all suggests a whole area of investigation, an enquiry into why British artistic taste remained so isolated and uncosmopolitan for so long, which would reference:

  • the way the director of Tate in the 1930s could proudly say that Tate would only buy work by the young whippersnapper Henry Moore ‘over his dead body’
  • or Sir Alfred Munnings, the horse-painting president of the Royal Academy, addressing the academy’s 1949 annual banquet, delivered a drunken rant against all modern art and invoked the support of Winston Churchill (sitting next to him) who he claimed, had once asked him: ‘Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his … something, something?’ ‘And I said ‘Yes, sir! Yes I would!’

A big exhibition of Knight’s work would:

  1. put to the test any claims about her importance and relevance
  2. be very popular among the sizeable audience, who still like their art extremely traditional (think of the sales of prints and other merchandise!)
  3. allow the curators to explore and analyse the long-lasting appeal and influence of the anti-continental, anti-modernist, anti-avant-garde tradition in 20th century English art of which, for all her skill and ability, Laura Knight appears to have been a leading example

This – the philistinism of English art, the determined rejection of all 20th century, contemporary and modern trends in art and literature in preference for the tried and tested and traditional – is something you rarely hear discussed or explained, maybe because it’s too big a subject, or too vague a subject, or too shameful a subject. But it’s something I’d love someone better educated and more knowledgeable in art history to explain to me. And I’d really enjoy seeing more of Laura Knight’s lovely airy innocent paintings in the flesh. Why not combine the two?

For once mount an exhibition which is not about a pioneer or explorer or breaker of new ground, but about a highly capable painter of extremely traditional and patriotic and reassuring paintings, and explain how and why the taste which informed her and her audience remained so institutionally and economically and culturally powerful in Britain for so long.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Beardsley Generation @ the Heath Robinson Museum

This small but entrancing exhibition explores the impact that a radical new photographic means of reproduction (process engraving) had on the art of illustration at the end of the 19th century.

Through 50 or so drawings and 20 or so illustrated books and magazines, the exhibition brings together a treasure trove of images from what many consider the golden age of illustration which lasted from around 1890 to the early 1900s.

The Pilgrim stretched both of his hands up towards Heaven by Charles Robinson (1900)

The Pilgrim stretched both of his hands up towards Heaven by Charles Robinson (1900)

Informative

As always the exhibition is in just the one room at the Heath Robinson Museum and looks small, but there are now fewer than 20 wall panels, some quite lengthy and packed with technical, historical and biographical information, so that reading all of them almost feels like reading a small book.

A brief history of Victorian illustration techniques

In the early Victorian era, book illustrations were mostly produced from steel engravings. Artists such as George Cruikshank (some of whose prints I was looking at earlier this week, in the Guildhall Art Gallery) and Hablot Browne were expert at etching on steel. However the process was expensive, requiring the illustrations to be printed on different paper separate from the text and then bound in with the rest of the book.

By the 1850s publishers preferred to use wood engravings, with the result that master wood-engravers developed large workshops which employed many engravers. The artist presented his picture on paper or on a whitened woodblock and would hand it over to the skilled engraver. The engraver then converted the picture into a woodcut, carving away the areas that were to appear white on the final print, leaving the raised lines which would take the ink, be applied to paper, and produce the print.

Thus the engraver played a major role in interpreting the artist’s work, sketch or intention, often superimposing his own character and style on the image.

Still, it did mean you could make illustrations without having to be a skilled etcher and among the first artists to take advantage of the new medium were the pre-Raphaelites, led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais.

They were followed by a second school of artists, sometimes called the ‘Idyllic School’, which included G.J. Pinwell and Arthur Boyd Houghton, who infused their essentially realistic works with intensity and emotion.

Job's Comforters by Arthur Boyd Houghton (c.1865)

Job’s Comforters by Arthur Boyd Houghton (c.1865)

There followed in the 1870s and ’80s what the curators call ‘a period of dull realism’ which is not dwelt on. It was at the end of the 1880s that the technical innovation which the exhibition is concerned with came in, and transformed the look of British illustrations.

Process engraving

In the late 1880s process engraving replaced wood engraving. An artist’s drawing was transferred to a sheet of zinc so that areas to be printed in black were given an acid-resistant coating and white areas left exposed. The plate was then dipped in acid so that the white areas were eaten away. The plate was then attached to a block of wood which could be inserted into the block holding the type, so that illustration and text were generated together by the same printing process.

This new process required that the artist’s image be in pure blacks and whites without the kind of fine lines which had flourished in etching on steel or in wood engraving. Moreover, the artist could be confident that the line he drew would be exactly what would be presented to the reader, without the involvement of a wood engraver to enhance or (possibly) detract from it.

At a stroke, the older generation of artists who had relied on master wood-engravers to work up their rough sketches for publication was swept away and replaced by a new young generation of penmen who relished the clarity of line and space encouraged by the new technique.

The most dramatic proponent of the new look, who exploded onto the art scene like a small atom bomb, was Aubrey Beardsley (b.1872)

How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram from the Morte d'Arthur by Aubrey Beardsley (1892)

How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram from the Morte d’Arthur by Aubrey Beardsley (1892)

Beardsley was an illustrator of genius who had created an entirely new and personal visual world by the incredibly young age of 20. There are four prints and two drawings by him here, plus three book covers and books laid open to show his illustrations in situ. What a genius.

Having explained this major new development in print technology, the exhibition also explains several other influences which were swirling round at the time and contributed to the development of the ‘new look’. These included:

  • Japanese art
  • European Symbolism
  • Venetian and Renaissance art
  • with a dash of Dürer thrown in

Japanese

After the Harris Treaty of 1858 reopened trade links between the West and Japan, one of the many consequences was a flood onto the Western art market of Japanese woodblock prints.

Known in Japan as ukiyo-e or ‘pictures of the floating world’, the Japanese style was notable for not using perspective to add depth, or light and shade to create a sense of volume and space in the images. Instead the Japanese used ‘dramatic boundary lines’, i.e. clear, distinct, black lines – to create images – and then used colour, again not to create depth, but decoratively, filling in the shapes created by the lines with plain washes.

Japanese art had a profound influence on Western artists at a time when they were looking for ways to revive what had become tired traditions and to combat the rising challenge of photography.

Setting a Japanese print (in this case Nakamura Shikan II as Benkai by Utagawa Kunisada) next to the works by Beardsley allows you to immediately see the liberating impact that the Japanese habit of stylising the image has had for the European – allowing him to abandon almost all conventions of perspective and depth.

Actor Nakamura Utaemon Iii As Mitsugi’s Aunt Omine by Utagawa Kunisada (1814)

Beardsley’s best images float in an indeterminate space, bounded by extremely precise and clear lines which give his best images a wonderful clarity and dynamism. But Beardsley wasn’t alone. A greater or lesser element of simplification and stylisation characterises most of the artists working in the ‘new look’.

The last fancy of the contemporary buck for Pall Mall magazine by Edmund J. Sullivan (1900)

The last fancy of the contemporary buck for Pall Mall magazine by Edmund J. Sullivan (1900)

Symbolism

Symbolism was an art movement which swept northern Europe in the 1880s and, although its techniques remained largely realistic, in some case hyper-realistic, it applied these approaches to subject matter which was infused with obscure and semi-religious feelings.

Symbolism took images of death, yearning, loss and mystery, and showed them, no longer in the bright light of nineteenth century rationalism and optimism, but brooded over by a more modern sensibility and psychology. A drawing of Salomé by Gustave Moreau is used to exemplify the Symbolist effect.

Its influence can be seen in an illustration like this one by Charles Ricketts, which takes the well-worn subject of Oedipus and the Sphinx but drenches it in arcane symbolism – inexplicable figures and flowers adding to the sensual, erotic yet mysterious atmosphere.

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1891) by Charles Ricketts

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1891) by Charles Ricketts

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

The exhibition lists and explores other influences including the impact of a classic printed book from Venice titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili or The Strife of Love in a Dream, published by Albertus Manutius in 1499, and regarded as a masterpiece of typography and design by collectors.

A Garden Scene from 'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili' attributed to Francesco Colonna (c.1499)

A Garden Scene from ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’ attributed to Francesco Colonna (c.1499)

Copies of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili became available in England in 1888 and influenced Edward Burne-Jones, Walter Crane, Charles Ricketts, Aubrey Beardsley and Robert Anning Bell.

List of artists in the exhibitions

The exhibition includes works by all of those illustrators and more. I counted:

  • Aubrey Beardsley – 4 prints, 2 drawings and three book and magazine covers or pages
  • Alice B. Woodward – 2 drawings
  • Louis Fairfax Muckley – 1
  • Herbert Granville Fell – 2 drawings and a watercolour
  • Alfred Garth Jones – 2
  • Thomas Sturge Moore – 1
  • Laurence Housman – 5
  • Charles de Sousy Ricketts – 2
  • Paul Vincent Woodroffe – 1
  • H.A. Eves – 1
  • Harold Edward Hughes Nelson – 1
  • Byam Shaw – 1
  • Edgar Wilson – 1
  • Cyril Goldie – 1
  • Henry Ospovat – 1
  • Robert Anning Bell – 2
  • Philip Connard – 1
  • Jessie Marion King – 3
  • James Joshua Guthrie – 2
  • Edmund Joseph Sullivan – 2
  • Charles Robinson – 3
  • William Heath Robinson – 3
  • Arthur Boyd Houghton – 1
  • Walter Crane – 1

Books on display

  • Le Morte d’Arthur illustrated by Beardsley
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream ill. by Robert Anning Bell
  • The Kelmscott Chaucer ill. by Burne-Jones
  • Poems of Edgar Allen Poe ill. by William Heath Robinson
  • Poems of John Keats ill. by Robert Anning Bell
  • Poems of John Milton ill. by Garth Jones
  • The Faerie Queene ill. by Walter Crane
  • plus illustrated versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the Book of Job, the Yellow Book, and more

All the works were worth looking at closely, studying and mulling in order to enjoy the play of line and form. Many of the prints are wonderfully drawn and warmly evocative. Every one is accompanied by a wall label, and the twelve or so most important artists merit bigger wall labels which give you their full biography along with influences and major works to set them in context.

These biographical notes help you to make connections between different artists linked by having a common publisher, or working on a common publication or magazine, or who knew each other and encouraged, helped or shared ideas. The exhibition really does give you a sense of an entire generation excitedly inventing a whole new style of art.

Nostalgia

I think at least in part I respond so warmly to so many of the images is because, as a boy growing up in the 1960s, lots of the old books in my local library and the children’s books which my parents bought for me, contained just this kind of late-Victorian / Edwardian illustrations.

Looking at almost any of them creates a warm bath of half-forgotten memories of curling up in a corner and totally immersing myself in thrilling stories of Greek heroes and mermaids and pirates and pilgrims.

Tailpiece by Edgar Wilson (date unknown)

Tailpiece by Edgar Wilson (date unknown)

This is another wonderful, heart-warming and highly informative exhibition from the Heath Robinson Museum.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

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