Laura Knight: The British Modernist Who Created History

Laura Knight is one of the many lesser-known women artists from Britain who painted spectacular frames and entertained a 70-year-long career. Read on to learn about her life and art.

Laura Knight

Before I begin to introduce you to one of the finest British painters of her time, Laura, I would like to narrate a historical story of the late 1800s. Now, this is relevant for learning about the artist, as it gives the idea of society in contrast to the artist’s accomplishments. The story begins with the two lead artists, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, who enjoyed a high level of status and respect at the Royal Academy as female academicians, which never caused any problems, but despite their involvement in the Academy, it was a very long time before the Academy appointed another woman artist to their ranks. It was in 1879 that an event caused a stir in women’s society, when Lady Butler missed election by just a few votes, which led to women’s admission to the Royal Academy being considered serious. The Council then decided that since the Instrument of Foundation specified that only specified members, including “men of fair moral character” and artists of “high reputation in their profession”- the historical status of Kauffman and Moser notwithstanding- women were ineligible. Hence, it was a long battle again for women artists to get into the Royal Academy, though Kauffman and Moser impacted the Academy. Nevertheless, at the request of the General Assembly, a resolution was passed that allowed women elections, but with limited privileges. However, this looked more like a conspiracy, as even with this resolution, no women artists were elected, for a long time. It was only until Annie Swynnerton and Laura Knight became associates of the Royal Academy in 1922 and 1927, respectively, that women artists were taken seriously in the Academy. It was Laura who achieved full status as the Royal Academician in 1936, a victory for women artists, which was attained after more than 150 years. Hence, Laura Knight is a significant artist to study. So, today, in this article, we will first look at the artist’s life and then visit her virtual gallery.

Artist Abstract: Laura Knight.

Born as Laura Johnson in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, on 4 August 1877, she studied at the Nottingham School of Art. Laura was the third child of Charles and Charlotte Johnson. Being one of the most celebrated and famous British artists, she exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1903 and got married to the portrait painter, Harold Knight. She lived in Staithes on the Yorkshire coast and in Laren, Netherlands, before settling in Cornwall, in 1907, in Newlyn and then Lamorna. In spite of poverty, Laura worked hard to establish herself as a successful professional painter, and her long and prolific career, which spanned the turn of the twentieth century to the 1960s, bears testimony to her dedication and hard work. Laura was the recipient of honorary doctorates from the University of St. Andrews in 1931 and the University of Nottingham in 1951, and became a member of the Royal Watercolor Society in 1928, the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers in 1931, and president of the Society of Women Artists. Furthermore, she was the first member and associate of the Royal Academy since the 18th century, which is a serious accomplishment. While this is just an abstract of the artist, let us look at her life in detail.

Laura Knight Photograph
Laura Knight, Photograph | Source: National Portrait Gallery, London, Via Wikimedia Commons
ArtistLaura Knight
Birth4 August 1877
Death7 July, 1970
PeriodEnglish Impressionism, Modernism
Famous PaintingPainting in Newlyn and The Staithes Group

Life of Laura Knight.

A self-effacing, forthright, and pithy lady who endeared herself to the public and the art world, Laura earned fortunes through her insightful paintings of outstanding subjects with a thoughtful approach. The artist was drawn to the crowd of hundreds and thousands, which did not limit her artworks to domestic subjects. This crowd included ballet dancers, circuses, gypsies, boxers, hop-pickers, wartime workers, fairs, racecourses, and backstage life, which became her subject of excellent artwork. Despite her fame, very few people actually know her name, which is why this article. Though they didn’t know her name, her artworks fetch very high prices. Contemporary critics and art historians have completely ignored and written her off as old-fashioned and outmoded. One of the significant national galleries turned her work down because apparently, they thought her work was ‘not good enough.’ Laura’s work straddles the contemporary line between modernism and critical respectability. The work of artists such as Eileen Agr and Winifred Nicholson can be identified with, or placed within, a European tradition just as much as it can with a British tradition because they embraced abstract art and surrealism. As a result, Laura Knight never took part in either the Bohemian or the modernist movements in Britain, and she didn’t adapt her work to the developments of those movements. She was an artist, even if her art form was different from many other British artists, and to dismiss her contribution to British art because of this is to ignore the vigor, boldness, and uniqueness of her work.

Laura Knight once wrote,

“I paint what I see, and I don’t gild the truth.” 

With this, let us now move to her life.

Self Portrait aka The Model Laura Knight
Self Portrait aka The Model by Laura Knight | Source: Art UK

The family of Laura was involved in the Nottingham lace trade, an industry that often faced prosperity or decline. Hence, the childhood of Laura was economically precarious. Her mother, Charlotte, led her three daughters to believe that their father was dead, but this was not the case as she moved out from an unhappy marriage. Laura grew up with two sisters, Nellie and Sis, with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Her uncle Arthur was the head of the family, but the family income was from her grandfather’s machine patents. As a child, Laura lived in a moderately prosperous middle-class family with domestic staff, comfortable living quarters, and little money, but it was sooner reduced to living on the breadline, ‘lack of money was a nightmare from which one could never wake up.’

In these worst financial conditions, her mother, Charlotte, took the job teaching drawing and painting at Brincliffe School and also private classes to supplement the income for her daughter’s education. She instilled in all her daughters to be independent instead of just relying on marriage for happiness. In her own words,

“Never be satisfied with what you can learn in English provincial town such as Nottingham.”

When Laura was twelve, she went to France, partly to relieve the financial burden on the family and also in the expectation that she could learn French so as to study in one of the Parisian ateliers. Hence, she stayed in France for about a year, but while she was away, her sister, Nellie, died of an influenza epidemic. On her return, Laura started her studies as an artisan at the Nottingham Art School. However, not long after this, her mother also died due to cancer. So, at fourteen, Laura took all her mother’s teaching commitments and began instructing girls at Brincliffe. She would often work twelve hours a day, combining her teaching with the art school. Laura explains her situation,

“We had no money for clothes and had only one winter coat between us, which made it impossible to go out together in cold weather; Sis had to wait for her walk till I came back from school.”

They began relying on bread, butter, tea, and porridge for their food. All these explain the harsh life that Laura faced in her life. Amidst all these, however, she found that the art school she was attending had some limitations; the men were supposed to paint and draw in life classes, whereas the women were just supposed to learn from plaster casts and statues. Hence, she decided to mix up her classes. Harold Knight provided her companionship and support this time, whom she eventually married. 

Hence, Laura and Harold left the college, at the same time to leave for Paris. Harold got the travel scholarship, and Laura also won a prize that gave her 20 pounds a year for two years, which gave her confidence to start something of her own. Soon, she and Sis found rooms beneath Nottingham Castle, which served as a studio where she started getting commissions of portraits.

After this time, she ultimately moved to Staithes since she was attracted to the place with dramatic landscapes. During this time, she was married to Harold, and her life was going smoothly. Sooner, she would paint Mother and Child, which changed her career as she got the recognition she needed due to its acceptance by the Royal Academy.

Laura Knight and Harold Knight
Laura Knight and Harold Knight, Photograph | Source: National Portrait Gallery

And that’s how Laura Knight, despite her harsh life started her career and got recognition as the best artist of her time. Now, it is time we see her gallery of paintings to learn more about her life.

Exploring the Gallery of Laura Knight.

Laura Knight’s career spanned over 70 years, and in all respects, it was exceptional. Showcasing an enormous versatility through her enormous kind of subjects, she achieved great success during the 1920s and 30s. Among the early charcoal portraits, which she submitted for the annual South Kensington examinations when she was studying in the Nottingham art school, a very precocious technical proficiency and confidence are noted. In her early artworks, there was the use of heavy lines, which most of the male artists used to do at the time. Meanwhile, a few years later, when she moved to Staithes, her early painting from there reflected her allegiance to the tenets of plein-air realism. Laura made lots and lots of watercolor paintings of children playing on the beach, displaying an increasing spontaneity in her figure painting. However, since this period of her artistic career was like enthusiastic experimentation, a lot of her work was subsequently destroyed. Let us look at a few paintings from her gallery, which will describe her style of work in little depth.

1. Mother and Child.

Throughout the life of Laura, she painted women, usually women working or performing, or preparing to perform. It is true that some of her paintings of women are highly sensual, but the focus is on domesticity in many of these early studies, especially those of mothers and children. Although the mood is often tender – a child being taught a task, for instance – the representation never becomes sentimental. In this painting, we see a similar feeling, showcasing a small child kissing its mother where her hands are still engaged in the knitting. The Mother and Child display the inescapable round of hard work and constant activity of the mother for the child’s well-being, whereas the child innocently shows affection to his mother.

Mother and Child by Laura Knight
Mother and Child by Laura Knight | Source: A Man With a Past / Tumblr

The painting of Laura Knight, which was accepted by the Royal Academy in 1903, shows the beginning of the recognition she needed.

2. The Beach.

When Laura spent a few years in Staithes, her painting subjects would often include children, playing outdoors, usually as a group rather than with their parents or guardians. One of the exemplary artworks of this period is The Beach of 1908, which was also exhibited at the Royal Academy in the following year, making a considerable impact. The painting shows the sunlit romanticism and holiday atmosphere, which became an example of English Impressionism. The realism of the optimum photographic quality, this painting is like a momentary slice of life of childhood when children are just carefree. Laura had appropriately caught this innocent scene with the effect of sun, wind, and light playing across all the figures. One of the significant features of this artwork is the awareness of Laura just out of the frame. I mean look at the two young girls, who are in the middle of the picture and central to it, a figurative reminiscent of the timeless work of Laura during her Staithes visit. If you look at the painting, the older middle girl helps the younger one when she takes a step into a rockpool. There are also two more pairs of these girls to the right, poised and staring at the picture, perhaps a bit self-consciously posing. Ideally, if it were a documentary, they would be looking at the camera, doing exactly what people are told not to do in order to maintain the illusion that the camera is not there.

The Beach by Laura Knight
The Beach by Laura Knight | Source: Art UK

3. Summertime Cornwall.

During the period of 1917, Laura painted four artworks that feature the cliff at Lamorna. They soon counted among the most beautiful and radiant works of her gallery. These paintings were Summertime Cornwall, On the Cliffs, Two Girls on a Cliff, and Lamorna Cove, all of them showcasing women sitting on the rocks with the sea behind them. In the Summertime Cornwall, the horizon with the sky forms a blended blue line near the top of the frame, as if the sea is also a significant part of the painting, besides the two girls as subjects. There is a pattern and swirling effect of the waves as if they change their hues to blue and green, rendering the virtuoso skill of Laura.

In Summertime Cornwall, one woman reclines on the rock wearing masculine garb with a dashing hat and boots, whereas the other woman reads out of a book, wearing a plain dress. The subjects could be professional models, her friends (Ella Naper and Gertrude Harvey), or even students from Newlyn. Since their face isn’t clear, and turned away from us, it gives no clue on who they are. However, their presence is deliberate, and together with the solitary blue sea in the dark background with the dark rocks over the cliff gives a haunting look to the picture, though they are filled with sunlight. Laura has used solid and definite use of paint instead of her previous English impressionist style.

Laura Knight Summertime Cornwall
Summertime Cornwall by Laura Knight | Source: Artnet

4. Dressing Room at Drury Lane.

The painting belonged to the 1920s when Laura’s work became looser, and the figure studies are no longer posed, catching a moment of activity as if it has a spontaneous reaction. This period specifically included subjects dressing, tying a shoe ribbon, putting on make-up, or a dancer in repose, waiting to go on, or slumped tired after a performance. In this painting, Dressing Room at Drury Lane, one of the dancers turns back to stare at us insouciantly. A haphazardly hung picture, ballet shoes heaped on the floor, and casual clutter of costumes and make-up testify to Knight’s descriptive and illustrative powers of painting a story in a painting. And of course, Laura used more solid colors with a touch of realism to portray the narrative as if it is more than reality.

Dressing Room at Drury Lane Laura Knight Paintings
Dressing Room at Drury Lane by Laura Knight | Source: Art UK

5. Bank Holiday.

From the above painting, one can look at the aspect of Laura’s creativity, also witnessing that her ballet paintings are not romanticized, but they still look as if she had a special interest in ballet as a subject. It was a combination of the contrast between performance and preparation, the energy expended to create an ephemeral work of art, and the visual appeal of costumes, lighting, and props that painted a strong picture of what to most people seemed a glamorous, unknown world. Laura’s contemporary paintings convey a sense of immediacy and excitement. So, her excitement soon became a hobby and she became fascinated by trying to capture movement in swiftly drawn pencil sketches as she attended ballet classes taught by Cechitti and Lopokova. Due to this, she was drawn to graphic arts. One of the paintings, which is an exemplary example of this kind is Bank Holiday of 1924, depicting the crowded, bawdy, flirtatious, and boisterous atmosphere of an eventing out at the fair.

Bank Holiday by Laura Knight
Bank Holiday by Laura Knight | Source: National Galleries Scotland

In the late 1920s, Laura Knight exhibited several nudes and ballet subjects at the Royal Academy, featuring strong, solid-limbed women to reveal something of the influence of Dod Procter and her new realism. In all these works, she used a cool studio light in strong and structural form and an impressive, physical presence to the model.

During her entire career, Laura showed around 284 works at the Royal Academy. Two of them that were purchased were Spring in Cornwall and The Gypsy. The circus paintings were especially loved by the public and were exhibited in the Royal Academy between 1928 and 38.

Final Words.

Laura Knight was one of the famous British painters of her time. Despite her gradual eclipse in the post-war period, she was once again reassessed due to her excellent work. However, with this article, I intended to show you her work in a more conventional way. Two of her paintings which are inarguably famous are Painting in Newlyn and The Staithes Group.


1. Five Women Painters by Teresa Grimes.

2. The Dictionary of British Women Artists by Sara Gray.

3. Dictionary of Women Artists (Volume 1 and 2) by Delia Gaze.


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