Laura Knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring, 1943, Oil on canvas, IWM, Photo courtesy IWM © Crown Copyright. IWM. All Rights Reserved
Hers is a familiar name, but one that rarely draws the type of gasping excitement that surrounds the likes of her equivalent male counterparts. Us women are bored of this trope by now, but it isn’t going away, so it’s worth bearing out. Some male critics of the Laura Knight retrospective, Laura Knight: A Panoramic View, on at MK Gallery until 20 Feb, denigrate her achievements as an important artist with the suggestion that her work lacks “substance” or that her ability to move between typical styles and genres denotes a failure to find her niche. Well, scrap that hoity toity notion thanks very much Mr Art Critic. After all, no one ever levelled those criticisms at Pablo Picasso, did they? And yet, the same arguments stand. Hmm, funny.
Laura Knight, The Cornish Coast, 1917. Oil on canvas, On loan from and photo courtesy Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights
The first woman to be elected to The Royal Academy, Knight’s place in the Art History canon is secure, but she’s often positioned as less because she is a woman. What curator Fay Blanchard does at MK Gallery is to allow the audience to follow Knight’s incredible journey through her life as a female, working class artist in the twentieth century and the enormous challenges she frankly slayed in order to succeed in her field, and it’s a pretty exciting journey. From heading to Nottingham School of Art at the tender age of 13 to breaking taboos around women drawing from nude life models and immersing herself in her subjects in such a way that her more upper class female counterparts in the Bloomsbury Set, for example, were never able to do, Knight’s dedication to her work is here in glorious technicolour. Well, oil paint, pen and ink, charcoal and even some rather fabulous ceramic ware.
Laura Knight, The Dressing Room at Drury Lane (1922) Photo © The Atkinson, Lord Street, Southport, © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights Reserved
As I take in each huge canvas and intricate sketch, I often find I’m nodding and smiling to myself and have to look around to make sure no one’s looking at me oddly (it often happens). It’s because the paintings speak to me as a woman and as a human in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I walked through the doors. I feel seen and that I am seeing, not just the subjects of the paintings but seeing the artist herself reflected back through the canvas.
Knight’s early paintings of household settings and then the bolder landscapes she painted on moving to Cornwall are examples of this, as she hones her remarkable sensitivity for capturing expression and familial relationships. We can all see ourselves in these images that somehow show both normality and magic rolled in to one.
A woman of substance: Dame Laura Knight at MK Gallery
Laura Knight, Ella Ardelty on the high trapeze, Undated. Oil on canvas. Private
Collection. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights Reserved.
And this is one of the strengths that shines throughout the exhibition and throughout Knight’s career: she connects with her audience through her subjects. From paintings of domesticity to circus performance, backstage at the ballet, Romany travellers and the huge War Office commissions that show women working in Sheffield munitions factories, her subjects are always afforded power and agency and, in spite of their sometimes tragic or arguably squalid circumstances, there’s an enticing glamour in that. After all, who doesn’t see a little bit of themselves in Ella Ardelty on the High Trapeze or Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring and feel inspired?
As I walk through the galleries, I’m reminded of Grayson Perry, Gifford’s Circus, Emma Bridgewater, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. Concepts of high and low art become useless, male-centric and sexist concepts as Knight mines the depths of human experience, of greatness, immense failure and simple mundanity and it’s a truly glorious thing.
Laura Knight: A Panoramic View is at MK Gallery, 900 Midsummer BlvdMilton KeynesMK9 3QA until 20 Feb.
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