Laura KNIGHT — the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts

HerArt Podcast
5 min readAug 9, 2020

Disclaimer: The information provided in this episode comes from multiple sources and is not my scientific studies or discoveries. All authors and sources are credited at the end of this article. Thank you!

Welcome to HerArt podcast, a project for art lovers, especially art created by women. In our third episode, we will talk about Laura KNIGHT— the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts. My name is Nata Andreev and I am going to tell you seven curious facts that you didn’t know about the artist that painted people in action in a realistic style and was able to compete with men on their own terms, managing to get herself elected to that almost entirely masculine preserve, the RA.

Curious Fact #1

Laura grew up in Nottingham where the family home was dominated by strong women, and her mother gave art classes to support her children. Laura showed early talent, attending Nottingham Art School from the age of 13. There she encountered Harold Knight, the star student on whom she modeled herself, setting out her easel behind his to emulate his every move. They married in 1903, honeymooned in London (visiting the National Gallery every day). The Knights stayed in Cornwall until 1919 when London became their base, and from then on Laura became increasingly famous and celebrated — a public figure indeed. Harold’s work hasn’t lasted as well as hers, and they had no children.

Curious Fact #2

When Laura Knight was elected the first female full member of the Royal Academy of Arts at almost 60 years, she fulfilled a lifelong personal ambition and helped paved the way for greater recognition for women in the arts. However, avant-garde artists no longer chose to exhibit at an institution which they perceived to be old-fashioned. Knight, in contrast, embraced the status for which she had fought so hard and used the Academy’s annual summer exhibition as the main showcase for her work throughout her career. The portrait commissions she was able to secure led to financial stability, and she was freed from the anxiety which had dominated her impoverished childhood.

Curious Fact #3

Knight’s large painting The Beach was exhibited to warm reception at the Royal Academy in 1909; during this period, she continued to paint women and children on the rocks and cliffs of the Cornish coast. Her Self Portrait created four years later, was a first for a woman artist: a depiction of herself painting a nude model. The Royal Academy rejected the picture for an exhibition and the Daily Telegraph sneered that “it repels.” As a female art student, Laura was denied access to nude models, which she felt gave the male students an unfair advantage. Here she is setting the record straight, and showing us all that she can paint a nude with the best of them — and actually produce something more lively and interesting than most.

Self Portrait with a Nude by Laura Knight, 1913, oil on canvas

Curious Fact #4

Knight traveled to America in 1926, to join her husband who was working on a number of portraits for the Johns Hopkins Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. She sought permission to work in the hospital wards which, at that time, were racially segregated, making a group of drawings of black patients. During her visit, Knight became increasingly aware of the struggle for racial equality in Maryland. One of her sitters, Pearl Johnson, a hospital secretary, took her to a civil rights lecture and a concert where Knight was the only white person present. Knight’s liberal attitude was nevertheless shaped by her time, and she continued to freely use terms such as ‘picanniny’ and ‘darky’ when naming her works. When she returned to London, she told the Evening Standard that there was ‘a whole world to explore’ in the lives of this group of sitters. I chose to include this part because I want you, whoever listens to this episode, to understand, together with me, that the artists I am choosing for this project were not perfect by any means. There are layers to each of us and we are shaped by times we live in. With that being said I absolutely don’t condone the usage of these words.

Curious Fact #5

As one of the most popular artists in Britain, it was imperative that the War Artist’s Advisory Committee secured Knight’s services. However, this sustained period of patronage challenged the artistic autonomy Knight had enjoyed for over forty years, and she wrangled with the committee over subject matter and remuneration. Knight succeeded in making a remarkably powerful and diverse group of paintings, which are unique records of wartime experience. When the war ended, Knight suggested to the committee that she should be flown to Germany as a war correspondent, to record the trial of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, another immersive project that challenged her entire approach to portraiture.

Beulah, no. 2 by Laura Knight, c. 1930, oil on canvas

Curious Fact #6

In 1965, the Royal Academy held a retrospective of Knight’s work — another first for a woman artist. During her lifetime, Knight’s extraordinary achievements were well-known and she was regarded as a role-model, appearing in books aimed at career-minded young women, alongside the doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and aviator Amy Johnson. She rejected modernism, but she embraced contemporary life and culture in her work. Her portraits provide a bold and distinctive view of life in the twentieth century.

Curious Fact #7

Knight was the down-to-earth working woman who let it be known that she preferred to take a bus home rather than a taxi after dining with the Prince of Wales. To a degree this was calculated showmanship: they each exaggerated aspects of their personalities, just as actors traditionally did (wearing flamboyant clothes and stage make-up in ordinary life): it was good for business. To balance the myth of the genius starving in the attic, there have always been artists skilled in the ways of the world. Laura Knight was one of these.

The Nuremberg Trial by Laura Knight, 1946, oil on canvas

Thank you so much for listening to the eighth episode of season three of HerArt podcast — a project for art lovers, especially art created by women. If you want to follow more of what I do, find me on Facebook and Instagram. And don’t forget to tune in next month, when I am going to tell you about Alma Woodsey THOMAS — the joy of color. This is the sixth episode I am recording during COVID-19. I hope everyone is safe and takes care of themselves and their loved ones. And don’t forget BLACK LIVES MATTER!

References

Sotheby’s | The Spectator | NPG

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HerArt Podcast

-a project for art lovers, especially art created by women-A bilingual podcast (Ro and Eng) about female creators that changed the world www.anchor.fm/herart