Friday, November 23, 2012

Lively Lovely Laura

Laura Knight  "Self-Portrait" 1913  Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand
Every painting and photograph I've seen of artist Laura Knight makes me think she must have been a fun and companionable person. She definitely had a warm and playful sense of humor that sneaks into many of her pieces

Knight (1877-1970) was quite an "envelope pusher" right from her earliest days.  Born in England, she survived abandonment by her father as an infant and the death of her mother as a pre-adolescent. By lying to the authorities about how old she was she assumed the care of her remaining sibling, providing for her decimated family of two by teaching art and doing odd jobs.  It is not clear how, but she eventually managed to attend the Nottingham School of Art, where despite her rocky start in life she was still one of the youngest students ever to enroll. Other "firsts": Knight was the first woman artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire (1929), and the first woman elected to to the Royal Academy (1936.) She was also the first woman artist to be honored with a retrospective at the (notoriously hidebound) Royal Academy (in 1965.) Another "out of the box" achievement for this good-natured go-getter was her being appointed an official War Artist for the British War Office, during WW2. In this role she she was one of only three British women war artists who travelled abroad. After the war she served as Britain's official artist at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. An example of her trial work is The Dock, Nuremberg (1946.)

Alfred Munnings "Dame Laura Knight, Painting" Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, England 

This action portrait was painted by Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) and I suspect the title of the piece was later amended to include the honor Knight received in 1929.  Because although the piece is undated, from Knight's hairstyle and manner of dress alone, I propose that it can be dated around 1910-18, especially as this was also during the period the Knight and her husband were part of an art colony in Cornwall, that included Munnings. (This was a fertile period artistically and important to all the many participating artists, who later came to be called The Newlyn School.

Laura Knight was known to look up to and admire Munnings. She later described her friend with these words, " His extraordinary vitality, his joy in his work, none of us could forget him. He was a fighter. He fought the wind that shivered his easel and canvas. He fought the heat and cold. He fought the shifting sun and the changing shadows."  The two artists shared a strong aesthetic and a similar joie de vivre. They would often go out painting together while in Cornwall. While the friendship was entirely platonic, it was a source of jealousy and ire for Knight's husband, Harold Knight (1874-1961.)  In fact, in a fascinating bit of Art History Sleuthing, in 2009 a portrait of Munnings made by Henry Knight around 1911 was found carefully concealed beneath another canvas, of Laura Knight's! It is conjectured that Harold Knight disposed of the painting he did of Munnings, whom he came to despise and dislike, and that Laura Knight rescued it and concealed it beneath a blank canvas that she later painted on. It sounds like a dramatic  device in a made for TV movie but it is true and you can read a more detailed account here.

Harold Knight  "Sir Alfred Munnings Reading Aloud" 1911
 current location unknown

Knight died at age 92, apparently still full of beans and painting very close to the end. She painted over 250 major oil paintings in her lifetime, and was one of the rare and lucky artists who received well-deserved recognition and appreciation both during her lifetime and afterwards!

1 comment:

Marianne said...

Great post - I wish I could have known her, too!