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.


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Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Beauty and barbarism (a note on Banastre Tarleton)

Beauty…

One of the most striking paintings in the National Gallery in London is a full-length portrait of Sir Banastre Tarleton, 1st Baronet, GCB (21 August 1754 – 15 January 1833), who led a cavalry troop in the American War of Independence, depicted by the leading portrait painter of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds, then-president of the Royal Academy of Arts, in 1782.

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton in the uniform of the British Legion, wearing a 'Tarleton Helmet' by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton in the uniform of the British Legion, wearing a ‘Tarleton Helmet’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)

See how he is placed centre stage in a graceful pose which dominates the scene, the storm clouds of war to his right (possibly clouds of smoke from some conflagration on the horizon), while an underling manages two panic-stricken horses on the left, making the link that Tarleton led a notorious troop of British cavalry during the war.

The fallen flags – presumably of the defeated enemy – are draped across one cannon to the left, while Tarleton has nonchalantly placed his left book on another fallen cannon while he does.. what? Is he adjusting a strap in his shapely jodhpurs or adjusting his boot? Or is he going for his sword?

The cream colour of his trousers chime with the white choker, set against the billowing white clouds, and echoed by the white patch on the nose of one of the horse’s.

But he himself is gorgeous, an arrestingly beautiful young man, with full lips and a smooth complexion, both emphasised by the way Reynolds gives them catchlights or white gloss or sheen reflected from the imagined light source. And the way the shadow from the helmet with its fur ruff – which Tarleton himself made fashionable – coquettishly casts a shadow over his right eye.

‘What a stunner’, to use Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s phrase.

… and the beast

Tarleton was phenomenally ambitious. After a spell at Oxford he had joined the British Army and sailed to American to help put down the rebels. Tarleton went on to distinguish himself in the British campaigns around New York. Within three years he rose from the lowest commissioned rank in the army to be a lieutenant colonel.

Stocky and powerful, with sandy red hair and a rugged visage that disclosed a hard and unsparing nature, Tarleton had the reputation of one who was ‘anxious of every opportunity of distinguishing himself.’ (The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling, p.423)

The war of independence was stalemated in the North, in New York and Pennsylvania. So in 1780 the British decided to try a new strategy and attack the colonists in the South. Tarleton went south with the commander-in-chief of British forces in America, Sir Henry Clinton, and his second in command, Charles Cornwallis, to besiege Charleston, port city and capital of South Carolina. He was now leading a cavalry group which was named the ‘British Legion’.

Tarleton won two important cavalry engagements.

In the first he led a devastating attack on about 500 rebel cavalry and militia commanded by Brigadier General Isaac Huger at Monck’s Corner, 30 miles from Charleston, which protected its eastern approaches. This small encounter helped seal off the final escape route for the rebel forces trapped in Charleston and contributed to the eventual surrender of the town on 11 May 1780, the greatest single American defeat of the War of Independence.

After accepting the surrender of Charleston, Clinton ordered Cornwallis to set about pacifying the back country. He knew that a force of North Carolina militiamen, and a separate force of American soldiers, had been marching to relieve Charleston. Intelligence suggested the militiamen had returned home, but the American force under Colonel Abraham Buford was still at large. Cornwallis detached the British Legion to attack Buford.

Tarleton, always mad for a fight, force-marched the 270 men under his command, covering 160 miles in just two days in the Carolina heat and humidity. On 29 May the British cavalry caught up with Buford in an area known as the Waxhaws. Buford was without artillery – having sent it ahead – but still outnumbered Tarleton two to one.

Buford hurriedly assembled his men into one straight line but, without stopping to think, Tarleton ordered his entire force to charge straight into the middle of the line, covering the 300 yards or so which separated the forces in a few seconds at full gallop. Buford’s line had time to get off one thunderous volley – which brought down some of Tarleton’s riders – but then the British were on them.

The momentum of those who were unscathed carried them into the enemy’s lair, or like Tarleton, whose horse was killed beneath him, they simply cleared their fallen mount and sprinted the last few final yards toward their foe. Whether on horseback or foot, the attackers swung their sabres, cutting men to pieces, overwhelming their stunned adversaries.

Battlefields are horrid places, but this one was especially ghastly. Here were men with severed hands and limbs, crushed skulls, and breached arteries. Some men were decapitated by the slashing cavalrymen. Others were trampled by maddened horses. The bellies of many were laid open by bayonets. Although resistance ended within seconds, the carnage continued. Tarleton did not order the slaughter that ensued, but he did not stop it either. As the Virginians screamed for ‘quarter’, for mercy, Tarleton’s men waded among the hapless rebels hacking and bayoneting in a saturnalia of bloodshed. It was a massacre. (‘I have cut 170 Off’rs and Men to pieces’, Tarleton said straightforwardly in his report.)

In a war in which rarely more than 6 or 7 percent of combatants fell on a battlefield, nearly 75 percent of the Virginians fell victim on this day of horror at the Waxhaws. As the British Legion was a Loyalist outfit, scholars have sometimes attributed the slaughter to a frenzy of retribution by neighbour against neighbour, but Tarleton’s men consisted entirely of fairly recent Scottish immigrants who had been recruited in Northern provinces.

Other historians have depicted Tarleton as a bloodthirsty ogre. That, too, seems not to have been true, but he was relatively new to command responsibilities and he had previously exhibited a habit, for which Cornwallis had reprimanded him, of not controlling his men in the immediate aftermath of battle, when churning passions, including bloodlust, drove men to act in unspeakable ways

From this day forward, southern rebels called him Bloody Tarleton and spoke of ‘Tarleton’s quarter’ in the same vituperative manner in which they uttered an expletive.  (The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling, p.437)

I will never look at Tarleton’s rosy lips and trim, sexy figure in the same way again.


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Other posts about American history

Bill Woodrow @ the Royal Academy of Arts

As the promotional material says:

‘This exhibition presents the first comprehensive survey of work by the sculptor Bill Woodrow RA. Comprising around 50 works, the exhibition spans Woodrow’s entire career and explores the themes of his oeuvre from the early 1970s to the present day, highlighting his humour and inventiveness and underpinning his influential role in contemporary sculpture. The exhibition is held in Burlington Gardens, the Royal Academy’s new venue for contemporary art.’

This is not a sell-out exhibition which is a shame. When I got there at 11am it was empty, which meant it was lovely and peaceful to wonder around and let your imagination respond and be inspired by Woodrow’s wonderful creations.

A fairly simple story emerged: In the 50s and 60s there grew up an orthodox school of Modernist sculpture represented by Anthony Caro who made big sculptures in bronze or welded steel, although abstract and Modernist in design, they clearly came from the tradition that sculpture be big and impressive.

1. Early works Woodrow arrived at St Martin’s School of Art in 1968 just after Richard Long and Gilbert and George had graduated and begun to create a movement against the previous generation, invoking conceptual art to find material in the everyday world of the East End (G&G) or on epic walks through strange landscapes (Long). Initially Woodrow followed this line of thinking, in his earliest works such as Untitled 1971 and Corral which feature sticks and images of the countryside. I also liked Babylon, two rows of a dozen ancient bricks holding down a long scroll-like photo of, presumably, the ruins of Babylon.

2. Cutouts and Breakdowns The next and biggest room in the exhibition contained some dozen of the works for which he’s best known. Woodrow seems to be happy to group his works into series with thematic connections. So the cutouts series emerged as he took aviation shears (!) to household white goods and cut out of them strange shapes. Imagine an enormous artillery shell, as tall as a man, a beautifully designed industrial  artefact – and half way down the metal  has uncurled, has been cut away and the shards reworked to for a swallow, painted realistic colours, a natural lifeform emerging from a mass-produced industrial product (nature v man; peace v war) – The Swallow (1984). A kettle has had the bottom cut open an the strands of metal shaped into a giant scarab beetle – The Glass Jar (1983).  Hanging from the ceiling is the fabulous Twintub with Satellite (1982). An elaborate version has a series of wires running from a dismantled filing cabinet yards and yards across the floor to the detached drawers while a a metal monkey leans down to grasp a revolver attached to a hanging  bowling ball (!) – Red Monkey (1985).

Alongside this are examples of the Breakdown series in which he dismantled common white goods and arranged every component in a mat in front. Hence Tape Recorder (1979) and Hoover Breakdown (1979) which made me laugh out loud, and Spin Dryer with Bicycle Frame including Handlebars (1981). A florid example is TV Blind (1979) where the elements derived from smashing in the screens of seven televisions are arranged to spell out the words ‘TV Blind’. Ah the good old days when smashing up a TV was an act of rebellion against the culture industry, or something. A long time ago, a quaint gesture in these days of smartphones, ipads, laptops and desktops which stream TV live or recorded everywhere, to everyone, night and day.

This room put me in a brilliant mood: every artefact was funny, clever, shrewd, well-made, doing what I love most about modern art, showing the incalculable depths of beauty in the everyday. I stood in front of a vast wall-sized sculpture made of bicycle frames arranged into a cross between a family tree and a totem pole and felt glad to be alive and in a world so bursting with opportunities for beauty and invention – Bicycle Frames (1980).

3. Back to sculpture Apparently, his tremendous output during these years, and the inventiveness and originality of these series cemented his reputation, when he made a surprising career move. With success comes money and the ability to experiment in new media and Woodrow took the opportunity to learn more about bronze and steel, precisely the materials used by the previous generation of monumental sculptors and which his generation, born in the 40s and 50s had rebelled against. Along with the more ‘finished’ feel of these constructed works goes a move towards narrative: the pieces tend to be telling some kind of story.

Future Perfect (1988) For Queen and Country (1989) Regardless of History (1998) Cell (1997). The key element in the earlier work was their ‘foundness’ – the viewer shares the imaginative leap of seeing a swallow in a shell, a beetle in a teapot, a satellite in a spin dryer – and the roughness of finish, their punk ethos. Both elements disappear in the later work, which is designed, planned and ‘constructed’ not found – and has a high degree of finish, immaculate metalwork covered in immaculate paintwork which gives many of them an antiseptic, sterile feel.

The sterile feel is worst in the NavigatorEvaluatorRevelator series. Here the white skulls of large animals are placed on smooth blocks of woods, each painted a nice Farrow & Ball colour. Completely failed to engage me, it felt like walking around a  display room in John Lewis or Ikea. Revelator series (2006), Ultramarine Navigator (2005), Kimono Navigator (2005).

Also, in the earlier work the ‘political’ aspect, or the social comment, was implicit in the works: the mere act of dismantling consumer goods is a statement, but a statement implicit in the act. In the later works the social comment or author’s message becomes more obtrusive, and the more obvious it is, the more it risks appearing trite.

There is a beekeeper series, designed to show the delicate balance between nature and man or something – hence Beekeeper and Four Hives (1997). The images, the work, don’t justify the message. Something like Rack 14 (2007) is very well-made but, like the immaculate later Damien Hirst, who cares.

In the final room were a number of new series, the most striking of which were the Inuit series and the Anaconda series. Anyone who labours to tell us that the eskimo way of life is under threat from rapacious western oil companies is on a level with the people telling us the Amazon rainforest is under threat. It is not so much art as visual slogans, the art equivalent of a Guardian pullout or Channel 4 documentary. Far from filling me with a sense of wonder and surprise, as the cutouts did, these works gave me a heavy sense of thumping inevitability.

On this page of the BW website you can click to see the six works from the Black and white series which feature 3-inch high models of Inuit eskimo (made of bronze, painted white) going about their business thumping seals or building igloos or steering sleds, on layers of white ice based in pools of black. That’s the oil sitting under their habitat which wicked western companies want to tap. Geddit?

The Anaconda series from 2009-11 is more inspiring. These also use realistic human figures, these ones a foot or so in height, looking like native tribesmen and, in the various pieces, carrying either a very long anaconda or individual anacondas wrapped round their bodies – Anaconda (2009). For me these had real mystery and strangeness about them and one in particular, of figures carrying snakes waist-deep in water between big lilypads, seemed rather marvellous – Victoria Amazonicanaconda (2011).

Conclusion Bill Woodrow continues to create new works. Go see the show or any new shows you hear about. Check out his website. And make your own mind up.

Bill Woodrow talks to Studio International about his exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts, London from studio international on Vimeo.

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