Amongst the reasons the painter Mark Gertler gave to his fellow-artist, Dora Carrington, in an attempt to persuade her to marry him, number five was “You would have absolute freedom and a nice studio of your own.” Own in italics. Nice try, but no prize. Carrington chose to live with, if not marry, the Bloomsbury aesthete Lytton Strachey instead. [“I would love to explore your mind behind your finely skinned forehead. You seem so wise and very coldly old.”] Carrington’s portrait of Strachey, all brains and fingers, is one of the best pieces in the exhibition of British Artists from the early years of the last century just winding down at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
But back to Gertler and his seemingly not unreasonable offer of artistic autonomy, just to consider, in the art world, how unusual it was. One thinks of Lee Krasner setting her own work aside in order to minister to Jackson Pollock’s macho posturings and artistic needs and only really resuming once he had died. Or Rose Phipps, who married the artist Roger Hilton, twenty years her senior, to be told, ‘There’s only one artist in this family and that’s me.’ It wasn’t until he died, some twenty years later, that – now Rose Hilton – she began painting again.
I was thinking of these matters after a second visit to the excellent exhibition of Laura Knight Portraits currently at the National Portrait Gallery. [Finishing there mid-October, but going on to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in November and Plymouth in March of next year.]
Enrolled as a full-time student at Nottingham School of Art in 1890, at the age of thirteen, Laura soon became aware of Harold Knight, thought of as the School’s most able student, and ‘manoeuvre(d) to place my easel directly behind his, to see exactly how the work should be done.’ The proximity clearly worked in other ways and, after spending several years living and working in a small community of artists in Staithes, North Yorkshire, they were married in 1903.
As far as one can tell, the couple continued to the mutually supportive throughout their married lives. [Harold died, nine years before Laura, in 1961.] And through that long period in which both continued to work and exhibit widely, there seems to have been no doubt that it was Laura who was the more acknowledged – certainly, the more famous – and, to most eyes, the finer, more interesting artist. In 1927 she was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, only the second woman so elected since the Academy’s foundation – Harold became an Associate two years later – and in 1936 she was elected a full Royal Academician, the first woman to be so since 1768.
1768 – says something that, doesn’t it?
Acknowledged and popular with a wider public, partly thanks to reproductions of her work being made readily available in such as the London Evening Standard and The Illustrated London News, Laura Knight was quite keenly aware of the singularity of her position. ‘Even today,’ she wrote in her 1965 autobiography, The Magic of a Line, ‘a female artist is considered more or less a freak, and may either be undervalued or overpraised, and by sole virtue of her rarity and her sex be of better press value.’
This wonderful painting, titled Self Portrait, from early in Knight’s career, is a statement of intent. Placing itself firmly in the line of artists who have portrayed themselves at a canvas, together with their subjects [Velasquez et al], thus marking herself out, unambiguously, as a working painter [throughout her life, Knight commented on the actual physical work of what she did], it also – daringly, for its time, 1913, showed her with a living and breathing naked model, whereas the norm would have been for women to have worked only from plaster casts and statues. But then, in the words of a much later lyric, the times et cetera …
And it’s one of the interesting things about Knight’s career that, while she eschewed the various tenets of modernism and remained true to realistic representation – and suffering in some critical circles for so doing – her work was always of the moment, perhaps none more so than in the paintings commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee during WW2.
The most famous of these, Ruby Loftus Sewing a Breech Ring, painted over three weeks at the Royal Ordnance Factory, watching the former tobacconist’s assistant performing the highly-skilled task of making a breech ring for the Bofors gun, was widely reproduced as a testament to the skill and importance of women in the war effort.
And how Knight’s own skill is evident in the painting’s structure, the direction of focus towards the task in hand; the small, recurring moments of light; the sheen on the machine bottom left of the canvas, the folds and texture of the blue overall; the lime green of the hair net and red of the shirt. A fabulous work by an artist at her best.