Book Review- Laura Knight: A Panoramic View

‘Even today, a female artist is considered more or less a freak.’ (Laura Knight, 1965)…

The introductory line for this new book on artist Laura Knight (1877 – 1970), reveals imperative understanding on the position of women in the arts over the years. However, Laura Knight: A Panoramic View within its overview of her life and work, clearly sets out to give this artist, undoubtedly one of the greatest British painters of the 20th century, the absolute recognition she deserves.

Lamorna Cove, 1917

Created to accompany a major exhibition at the MK Gallery, UK , (open until-20th February, 2022) the book is indeed positively ‘panoramic’, encompassing a body of eclectically themed work spanning almost a century. Perhaps best known for her remarkably framed peaceful paintings of subjects on Cornish cliffs during her early years living amongst artists known as the Newlyn School, Knight produced so much more. In turn, this book allows a chronological insight into the artist’s huge portfolio. In a timeline expressed via text and pictures, from capturing the frivolity of circus performers to her enduring images of the Nuremberg Trials, Knight is presented as she was and should be forever acknowledged, as an artistic force to be reckoned with.

The ballet girl and the dressmaker, c.1930

Knight significantly played an important role in foregrounding women as workers, performers and artists particularly in her work. Highlights captured here range from images of back stage ballerinas to wartime women working in non-traditional areas. She portrayed fellow females in non idealized and real settings. The Royal Academy’s retrospective exhibition of her work during 1965 was also the first held for a female artist. In addition, Knight created the painting Self Portrait with Nude long before this momentous event, in 1913 in fact, a work which scandalised the art world and beyond. By portraying herself, brush in hand, next to a naked female model in an era in which the art schools Knight attended forbid female students to paint live models, the painter was certainly making a pointed statement on self-representation and for all women as artists.

Portrait of Pearl Johnson, 1926

As well as the authors here enabling such insights into both an extraordinary life and varied works, the voices of those intrigued by or critical of Knight are also given room for expression in this new book. This includes UK artists such as Barbara Walker and Lubaina Himid. Of Knight’s subjects Himid states a viewer’s feelings of intrigue and intimacy concerning Knight’s realist style “I feel the heat of their bodies and can hear their conversations and silences”. Walker however explores the complexity of an artist who platformed marginalised people in her work, from the Romani community to portraits of African-American people. It is noted, for instance, that Pearl Johnson, one of Knight’s US sitters took the artist to a civil rights meeting. Walker, however, recognises Knight also uncomfortably conforming to and benefiting from her racial privilege within the era she worked, as a necessary contemporary review.

Self Portrait with Nude, 1913

This book nevertheless foregrounds Knight as an artist who created an extensive and hugely significant body of work in practices from oils to etchings, over a dedicated and long career. Whether in her roles as official war artist, landscape painter or portraitist, here we find an artist who not only promoted diverse people and aspects of 20th century life but also aided in carving out recognition for women generally in the arts.

Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring, 1943

Beautifully relayed and interestingly formatted, Laura Knight: A Panaramic View is not only timely but imperative to our understanding of the artist it documents and is well worth the attention of us all….

Laura Knight: A Panoramic View

by Anthony Spira (Author), Fay Blanchard (Author), Sophie Hatchwell (Contributor), Sacha Llewellyn (Contributor), Pamela Gerrish Nunn (Contributor)

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