Dame Laura Knight

Source: The Swan Gallery

Study of a Girl, s.d., charcoal, 19.5” x 15.5”, private collection, © photo Bonhams
Laura Knight, “Study of a Girl,” charcoal, 19.5” x 15.5”, private collection, © photo Bonhams

 

“I am just a hard-working woman, 
Who longs to pierce
The mystery of form and color,
And with full hear
Add a mite to 
The treasure of the world.”

– Laura Knight (1877-1970)

Laura Johnson (1877-1970) was born in Long Eaton in Derbyshire to Charles and Charlotte Johnson. Her father died not long after her birth, and Laura grew up in a family that struggled with financial problems. In 1889, at the age of 12, she was sent to France with the intention that she would eventually study art at a Parisian atelier. After a short time in French schools, she returned to England. There, at the age of 23, she entered the Nottingham School of Art, one of the youngest students ever to join the school. At school, Laura met one of the most promising students, Harold Knight (1874-1961), aged 27, and determined that the best method of learning was to copy Harold’s technique. They became friends and married in 1903.

Laura Knight, “The Beach” (ca. 1909), oil on board, 50.24” x 60.31”, Laing Art Gallery, United Kingdom, © photo Laing Art Gallery
Laura Knight, “The Beach” (ca. 1909), oil on board, 50.24” x 60.31”, Laing Art Gallery, United Kingdom, © photo Laing Art Gallery 

In 1907, the Knights moved to the artists’ colony in Newlyn, Cornwall, alongside Lamorna Birch, Alfred Munnings and Aleister Crowley, where she painted in an impressionist style. The Beach (1908), widely admired both by other artists and the public, is an example of this style. Another interesting work is The Green Feather, which was painted in one day. In 1913, she made a painting that was a first for a woman artist, Self Portrait with Nude, showing herself with a nude model, fellow artist Ella Naper. In 1919, she established a studio in London and later became famous for her circus and theatre paintings.

After the First World War, the Knights moved to London, where Laura met some of the most famous ballet dancers of the day, such as Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with Lydia Lopokova, Enrico Cecchetti, and Anna Pavlova. Her most famous work dates from this period. 

At the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, Laura Knight won the Silver Medal in Painting with the painting Boxer (1917). In 1929, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 1936 she became the first woman elected to the Royal Academy. 

From 1933, Dame Laura and her husband became regular visitors to Malvern. They found much inspiration for their work in the Malvern Hills and in the surrounding Worcestershire countryside. A blue plaque at the Mount Pleasant Hotel on Belle Vue Terrace, Great Malvern, commemorates the time they spent in the area.

During the Second World War, Knight was an official war artist. She worked on several commissions for the Ministry of Information’s War Artists Advisory Committee, and she was one of only three British women war artists who travelled abroad. After the war, she was the official artist at the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazi war criminals. One result was The Dock, Nuremberg (1946).

Selected Works

Laura Knight, “Interior with Children Reading” (ca. 1906-07), oil on canvas, 13.75” x 11.25”, private collection
Laura Knight, “Interior with Children Reading” (ca. 1906-07), oil on canvas, 13.75” x 11.25”, private collection

This charming picture was probably painted c.1906-1907 when Knight painted a series of intimate interior scenes of children and mothers in the Yorkshire coastal village of Staithes where she and her husband Harold had lived since they married just a few years earlier. Contemporary pictures depict similar scenes The Elder Sister (Rochdale Art Gallery), The Knitting Lesson (Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston) and Dressing the Children (Ferens Art Gallery, Hull).

Laura Knight, “The Elder Sister” (ca. 1907), oil on canvas, 32.5 x 25 cm, Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service, United Kingdom
Laura Knight, “The Elder Sister” (ca. 1907), oil on canvas, 32.5 x 25 cm, Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service, United Kingdom

Laura Knight, “Boys (aka The Boys Newlyn Cornwall)” (1910), oil on canvas, 60” x 72.25”, Johannesburg Art Gallery, South Africa, © photo Johannesburg Art Gallery, First exhibited London: Royal Academy 1910 No. 360.
Laura Knight, “Boys (aka The Boys Newlyn Cornwall)” (1910), oil on canvas, 60” x 72.25”, Johannesburg Art Gallery, South Africa, © photo Johannesburg Art Gallery, First exhibited London: Royal Academy 1910 No. 360

Laura Knight, “Marsh Mallows” (ca. 1914), oil on canvas, 30.25” x 25.25”, private collection, Catalogue Note Sotheby’s
Laura Knight, “Marsh Mallows” (ca. 1914), oil on canvas, 30.25” x 25.25”, private collection, Catalogue Note Sotheby’s​

In a summer garden shimmering with dazzling sunlight, a young woman gently lifts up a marshmallow flower and dreams in languid reverie. Her beautiful profile is set against a profusion of contrasting color applied with thick, broad strokes conveying the heady atmosphere of a perfumed garden in full bloom. Brilliant sunlight illuminates her golden hair and skin with the heat of midsummer and plays sensuously over the textures of her pale dress. This masterpiece of British Impressionism was painted in 1914 at the moment when Laura Knight’s work was reaching the zenith of its maturity. It is full of vitality and joy and captures the artistic freedom that Knight felt at this period in her career – painted only a year after she exhibited her famous self-portrait with a nude model (National Portrait Gallery, London), a painting which made a forthright claim of independence and confidence as an artist and as a woman in a man’s world. Marsh Mallows was painted in Cornwall, where Laura lived for a number of years.

Laura Knight, “A Ballet Dancer” (19??), oil on canvas, 23.43” x 18.11”, private collection
Laura Knight, “A Ballet Dancer” (19??), oil on canvas, 23.43” x 18.11”, private collection

Catalogue Note Bonhams
Soon after moving to London with her husband, Harold, in 1919, Knight was invited backstage during the third season of the Ballets Russes. According to Knight, “this put a proper finish to [her] nostalgia for the sea She became close friends with Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova (1892-1981), who allowed Knight to use her dressing room as a studio, a privilege she describes vividly in her autobiography: “The dressing room of such a ballerina has a unique glamour. The dressing-table, crowded with pots of creams, powder puffs, trays of make-up, a comb, and pink ballet-shoes with ribbons hanging down [...] Lydia's own dainty figure is seen as she steps into the round opening of her white tarlatan skirt. Into this she lifts her lovely limbs clad in rose-colored silk, all ashine in movement.”

The present lot is an excellent example of Knight’s unique backstage experience observing the dancers. Various colorful costumes are draped around the dressing room, with the strong light of the dressing table mirror echoing the dramatic effect of a stage spotlight, illuminating her slight figure and the stiffly starched texture of her white skirt. The shadowed background hints at the unseen buzz of activity and anticipation beyond – the orchestra tuning up, dancers loosening up their limbs in the coulisses, the excited murmur of the audience taking their seats. Knight captures a very intimate moment with the ballerina, her stance centered and steady, taking a moment to herself to reflect before leaving her dressing room for the performance.

Laura Knight, “The Ballet Girl and the Dressmaker” (1930), oil on canvas, 38” x 48”, private collection, © photo Sotheby’s
Laura Knight, “The Ballet Girl and the Dressmaker” (1930), oil on canvas, 38” x 48”, private collection, © photo Sotheby’s

Catalogue Note Sotheby’s
‘Laura was undoubtedly happiest when painting informal scenes backstage or dancers in their dressing rooms… Her dressing-room paintings express this joy in her surroundings…’
– Caroline Fox, Dame Laura Knight, 1988, p.52

“...this painting displays no self-conscious artifice. The dancer is caught mid-glance looking left, her body arrested in movement, while her dresser fixes a flounce on her skirt. Notwithstanding the delicate color harmonies, the pink tights and ballet shoes and petal-like net of the skirt, here there is authority, power and control.”
– Barbara C. Morden, Laura Knight – A Life, 2013, pp.173-174


Laura Knight loved the ballet and had a particular fascination with the backstage rituals of the performers which she captured with the intimacy and sensitivity of someone who was closely observing and being inspired by not just the starlight and glamour but also the more domestic aspects of stage life. The Ballet Girl and the Dressmaker was commissioned by the vacuum-cleaner millionaire H. Earl Hoover in 1930 when he visited Knight’s studio and saw her last ballet picture, entitled Motley and showing a dancer and clowns in the wings being prepared to take to the stage. Motley was too large for Hoover so he asked Knight to paint him a similar back-stage scene. Knight designed a clever composition; ‘…of two interlacing pyramids. To me it is more difficult to arrange two equally important figures together than three. However, my pyramids worked and the picture went through from start to finish without the slightest alteration, one of those lucky ones that paint themselves without disagreement with the painter.’ (Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, 1936, p.322) The model was a dancer named Barbara Bonnar; ‘…a vital and sparkling young creature, [who] was rehearsing for a show at the time and many of the sittings had to take place in the early morning before she went to the theatre.’ (op.cit Knight, p.322). A detailed figure drawing for the painting is in the collection of Nottingham City Art Gallery. The artist’s own dressmaker, Miss Fergusson, posed for the woman making the alterations to the dress; ‘her hands and type were perfect.’ (op.cit Knight, p.322). The picture was originally intended to hang in the office of the new headquarters of Hoover’s business in Chicago but Hoover was so delighted with it that he decided to hang it in pride of place at home. It has remained there ever since.

When the painting was exhibited at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg it was reproduced in several newspapers which made it briefly famous across America and beyond. Knight was particularly delighted to receive a letter from Harry Backhouse of The Ranchmen’s Club in Calgary, Canada; ‘The spelling is exact – almost too wonderful to be actually written by a cowboy. It was, I know, quite genuine, a tribute that warms my heart whenever I think of it. I value that letter and shall always keep it.’ (op.cit Knight, p.324). The letter reads; ‘Me and Alkali Alf and Cottonwood Bill an the Cow Foreman ave just been drinkin of your ealth in ‘The Bucket of Blood.’ We’ve come to the conclusion that you be all right an if ever you be in the Great Open Spaces where men are men you must have a glass of beer along o’ we. We be just a lot of ignorant undedicated cow-punchers an pologrooms, without book larnin, an we know nothing about eyebrow art critickism. In them circumstances you won’t feel flattered when we tell you that you done a dam good job when you painted that pitcher ‘Ballet Girl an Dressmaker.’ Alkali Alf sez that the drorin an the modelling o’ them features an them limbs is good enough for Mike Angello or Rembrandt… The Cow Foreman sez the Ballet Girl be a helluva swell-looking jane with the right kind o’ legs for topping off bronks and the face such as only grows on gals wot as quite the right sort of savvy. An the dressmaker? Yes! Wot abart er? Cottonwood Bill wot wos born in Derbysher, which is a dam good place to be born in, sez that dressmaker be a dam capable woman. You can tell she be absoloot master of er job. Cottonwood zes she be the sort of dame wot ud look after er man and bring er kids up respectable… Eres to you Laura, and we hope that this summer you’ll flabbergast the ole bloomin Royal Academy. An don’t forget we be a watchin of yer.’ (op.cit Knight, pp.224-4)

Laura Knight, “A Balloon Site, Coventry” (1943), oil on canvas, 40.35” x 50”, Imperial War Museums, United Kingdom, © photo IWM (Imperial War Museums)
Laura Knight, “A Balloon Site, Coventry” (1943), oil on canvas, 40.35” x 50”, Imperial War Museums, United Kingdom, © photo IWM (Imperial War Museums)

Second World War Artist’s Studio in a Bomber Factory: Charge hand Wilfred Powell helps Dame Laura Knight to set out her paints on a work bench in readiness for the day’s work. During the Second World War, Knight was an official war artist. She worked on several commissions for the Ministry of Information’s War Artists Advisory Committee, and she was one of only three British women war artists who travelled abroad. Her works during this period include In For Repairs (1941), A Balloon Site, Coventry (1942), Ruby Loftus screwing a breech-ring (1943), Take Off (1944), Factory Workshops and Land Girls, amongst many others.

Laura Knight, “Portrait of Lady Hayter” (1960), oil on canvas, 26.5” x 22”, private collection
Laura Knight, “Portrait of Lady Hayter” (1960), oil on canvas, 26.5” x 22”, private collection

The sitter in the present lot is Margaret Alison (d. 1986) who was the second wife of Charles Archibald Chubb, 2nd Baron Hayter (1871-1967). Following the First World War and as Peggy Pickard she embarked on a career as an actress appearing at the Old Vic with a number of actors who would subsequently become famous including Eric Portman, Brenda Bruce and Elizabeth Allan. During her time at the Old Vic she appeared in four Shakespeare plays including playing Hippolyta in Two Noble Kinsman. In 1928, Margaret joined the Bristol Little Theatre Players as their leading lady and stared in no less than fourteen productions in her first year including as Nadya in Noel Coward’s The Queen was in the Parlor. After a successful period performing in Bristol her acting career rather sadly seems to have come to an unexplained end, just when it appeared that she was destined for even more important roles. After the war Margaret Alison was married to Lord Hayter on the 23rd March 1949, the couple settled in Kensington before moving to Witney, Oxfordshire.

As well as an actress she was an accomplished sculptress and as Alison Pickard she produced a number of impressive bronze works most significantly of the famous Polish dancer and director Yurek Shabelevsky which was shown at the Royal Academy in 1938, no. 1532 and last sold at Christe’s in 1994.

This portrait painted in 1960 and first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1961 is a fine and elegant example of Laura Knight’s supreme skill as a portrait painter and shows that Knight’s command of painting was retained well in to her eighties. The delicate palette of the work combined with the fine detail of Margret's dress and the shimmering silk of the cushion imbue the painting with a genteelness and subtle refinement befitting a lady of Lady Hayter’s status.