The Controversy Of Laura Knight

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 64 months ago
The Controversy Of Laura Knight
The Nuremberg Trial, by Dame Laura Knight, 1946. Copyright: Imperial War Museum, London
The Nuremberg Trial, by Dame Laura Knight, 1946. Copyright: Imperial War Museum, London
Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, by Dame Laura Knight, 1943. Copyright: Imperial War Museum, London
Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, by Dame Laura Knight, 1943. Copyright: Imperial War Museum, London
Self Portrait by Dame Laura Knight, 1913
Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
Self Portrait by Dame Laura Knight, 1913 Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
Lubov Tchernicheva by Dame Laura Knight, 1921.  Copyright: Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
Lubov Tchernicheva by Dame Laura Knight, 1921. Copyright: Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
Gypsies at Ascot by Dame Laura Knight, 1933. Copyright: Hereford Museum and Art Gallery. Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
Gypsies at Ascot by Dame Laura Knight, 1933. Copyright: Hereford Museum and Art Gallery. Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
The Piccaninny by Dame Laura Knight, 1927. Copyright: Private Collection © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
The Piccaninny by Dame Laura Knight, 1927. Copyright: Private Collection © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013

Dame Laura Knight is a painter who is at least as famous for what she painted as for the quality of her work. This retrospective looks back across her career showcasing her variety and the subjects she took on.

Knight was never one to shy away from controversy. At a time when female artists were asked to leave the room when a nude model entered, she painted a self-portrait of her painting a female friend who is posing in the nude. Despite the work being branded as 'vulgar' by some, she persisted in pushing for equality for women in art and other professions.

Even her second world war paintings more often feature the women who were instrumental in Britain's war effort, and the majority of this show is portraits of women – from gypsies to ballet dancers.

Knight tackled another controversy when she travelled to the segregated Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore and only painted the black patients, highlighting their discriminatory treatment.

Despite the historic events and controversies depicted, Knight was a talented artist in her own right and there is a wide variety of her work on display. She stuck fast to realism but the contrast between the colourful Rose and Gold and the sombre tones in a study of a ballet dancer indicate the breadth of her range.

Her one surreal work, of the Nuremberg trials, is the most arresting piece here. Nazi war criminals sit at their trial while the background shows us the bombed out city after an Allied raid.  It's an image that can be seen as both patriotic and anti-war.

It's almost impossible to separate an artist from their historical context and though we didn't find all her works to our liking, the variety and significance ensure that this is an exhibition worth seeing for all fans of portraiture.

Laura Knight Portraits is on at National Portrait Gallery until 13 October. Tickets are £7 for adults, concessions available.

Last Updated 14 July 2013