Sunday, 14 July 2013

Laura Knight: Portraits – National Portrait Gallery, London.

Back in the frame: art pioneer is star of show and film

A working-class woman who became a star of the art world is in the limelight again — with the first major exhibition since her death and a leading role in a new movie.

Dame Laura Knight was a household name for most of her lifetime, and in 1936 became the first woman to become a full member of the Royal Academy. But her enormous popularity made her unfashionable with critics, and her reputation had faded even before her death in 1970 aged 92.

Now her career will be re-examined in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Its staff began preparations before knowing about the film Summer In February, which stars Hattie Morahan as Dame Laura, Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, and Dominic Cooper.

The film is set in the artists’ community in Newlyn, Cornwall, which was a formative period in Knight’s career.

National Portrait Gallery curator Rosie Broadley said the starting point for its exhibition was a painting from that time, a 1913 self-portrait. Ms Broadley said: “The timing is good for us that the film is coming out for the summer — but it just happens to be a coincidence. It’s the centenary of our painting and she is an artist ripe for reappraisal.”

Knight was born in Nottingham in 1877 and became the youngest pupil to attend the local art school at 13. She married artist Harold Knight and moved to Cornwall, where she had the freedom to study from life in a way refused to her — as a woman — at art college. The self-portrait includes a female nude, her friend Ella Naper.

Ms Broadley said Knight produced some of her most important work in the Cornish period. Yet her career was only just beginning and she went on to win fame for backstage depictions of actors and dancers in London, as well as gypsies and then female air force and munitions workers during the Second World War. She also designed ceramics and posters for the Underground.

“Critics were snobbish about her,” Ms Broadley said. “Yet she had a real talent for friendship and becoming accepted by different groups. It means her portraits are some of her best work because she really got to know her subjects.”

Laura Knight Portraits runs from July 11 to October 13, admission £7. Summer In February is released on June 14.

Laura Knight: Portraits – review
National Portrait Gallery, London
Rachel Cooke

In 1946, at the age of 68, Laura Knight was sent by the War Artists Advisory Committee to Nuremberg to record the trials of the Nazi war criminals. The idea for this audacious mission came from Knight rather than from the WAAC, a fact that tells you a great deal about her: at an age when most artists of her reputation might have been inclined to rest on their laurels – by this time she was very famous indeed – Knight was still questing after challenging new subjects.

The result was remarkable. Faced with both the devastation of the German city, and the inconceivable crimes for which the men were being tried, Knight, a realist all her life, found her usual narrative methods unequal to the task. "I am trying out a rather crazy idea which gives me the opportunity for space and mystery," she wrote in her diary. "I do hope so much I can bring it off… Stanley Spencer could do it. I will fight for it." From her press box high above the proceedings, she diligently sketched Goering and the others: their drab suits, their headphones (for translation), their bald patches. But when the time came to turn all this to paint, she gave the courtroom only one visible wall, framing the dock instead with what she called "a mirage" of the ruined city – a fire even now burning among its rubble, the better, perhaps, to symbolise the impossibility of reparation.

The Nuremberg Trial was, you gather, received with a certain coolness at the Royal Academy's 1946 Summer Exhibition, but it is one of the highlights of a small new show of Knight's work at the National Portrait Gallery. For beside it, in a glass display case, are some of Knight's diaries from the trial, a collection of vivid documents that bring her disorienting painting into startling focus. On one page she has inked a sketch of Goering, a dramatic doodle that caricatures his widow's peak and the stubborn slope of his back. It is quite horrible. Beside it, in her neat hand, names jump out at you. "Today, Hess's eyes and mine interlocked," she writes, adding that she was unnerved to find herself wondering if she should smile at him. Reading these scant pages – I wish the curators had included more – is fascinating, but unsettling too. Knight's sheer appetite for her work is palpable: it seeps through the solemnity like light through a broken venetian blind.

Of course it was ever thus. Knight was born in 1877, in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, the youngest of three daughters. Her father having left the household soon after she was born, money was tight, and it was surely this formative experience of what it meant to be broke – her mother's dream that her daughter would study art in Paris ended before Laura was even a teenager – that fired both her work ethic (she would later turn out paintings in a single day) and her preoccupation with the value of her art; she had a tendency to price her paintings too highly, with the result that they sometimes did not sell.

But work gave her something else, too: a means to be extrovert at a time when women were all too often expected to be mice. As she put it: "An ebullient vitality made me want to paint the whole world, and say how glorious it was to be young and strong and able to splash with paint on canvas." This ebullience stayed with her, girlish and delightful, throughout her career. Her technical skills, which were considerable, she learned at art school in Nottingham, and from her husband Harold Knight, a Vermeer-wannabe who was its star pupil (they married in 1903); but her great charm as a painter, her flamboyance and use of colour, were all her own.

Laura Knight: Portraits has more than its share of omissions, and sometimes I had a lowering sense of the curators having only made do (her luscious, slightly ghoulish 1934 painting of Kathleen Manners, Duchess of Rutland, is, for instance, represented only by a preparatory sketch). The show also includes some frankly terrible work, notably her portrait of George Bernard Shaw from 1933, a peculiarly amateur picture that is not a likeness, and captures the playwright's essence not at all. But nevertheless, I urge you to go. Thanks to its dinky size, it takes you so very niftily through her career: from Cornwall, where she and Harold lived at the artist's colony at Newlyn; to London, where she painted dancers and actors in the nervy calm of their dressing rooms; to Baltimore, Maryland, where she chose as her subjects the black nurses of a segregated hospital; and to the racecourses of Ascot and Epsom, where she painted Gypsy families, using her chauffeur-driven Rolls as a makeshift studio.

Each section contains at least one painting that will have you wondering whether Knight isn't these days rather underrated. (Alas, her lack of sympathy for modernism has made it all too easy for her critics to sneer; when the Royal Academy, to which she was elected in 1936, rejected Wyndham Lewis's portrait of TS Eliot, she was quietly on its side.) Her 1930 portrait of the ballerina Barbara Bonner is a masterclass in flesh and taffeta. Her gorgeously economical painting (from 1939) of a Gypsy called Gilderoy Smith has an intimate sexiness quite at odds with Knight's usual emphasis on beauty – a sheen that pleases the eye but sometimes distances the heart.

Most stirring of all, though, are the pictures she did during the second world war under the auspices of the WAAC. Yes, they are technical exercises. Yes, they are propaganda. But somehow none of this matters when you stand before them, your lip beginning sentimentally to tremble. My favourite is Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner (1941), which stars two young women who were awarded the Military Medal for bravery, both of them having continued to work on their switchboard even as their RAF base was bombed by the enemy. Oh, the expressions on the faces! They look so marvellously unimpressed. And while Knight has given all due attention to their uniforms, their equipment, and even to a map on the wall behind them, it is the distinctive orange-red of their lipstick that catches the attention, all their pluck somehow captured in the careful application of a little Max Factor.

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