Wednesday, 16 January 2019

In Relation: Laura & Harold Knight

Harold Knight, Laura Johnson aged 14,1891 (RA)

When she died in 1970, at the age of ninety-two, Dame Laura Knight RA was the epitome of a national treasure – an establishment figure whose art was reassuringly approachable and unthreatening. It was hard to imagine her upsetting the Royal Academy or having work dismissed as ‘vulgar’, yet Knight’s long battle to express herself freely as an artist, on the same terms as her male contemporaries, did involve challenging the status quo and offending its guardians. Her husband Harold stood beside her throughout.

The couple met in 1890, at the Nottingham Government School of Design. Laura Johnson was thirteen. Her father had abandoned the family when she was young, leaving the family in dire financial straits, but her mother taught part-time at the school and secured her a place as an ‘artisan student’, free of charge. On arrival Laura was entranced by the seventeen year-old Harold Knight, an architect’s son and the school’s star pupil. Laura herself was a live wire, bold and unconventional, criticized by other women for her heavy-handed – mannish, as they saw it – approach to drawing. A year later Harold painted her portrait.

‘While he was painting it,’ Laura later wrote, ‘I first got a hint that I meant as much to him as he to me.’

As their friendship blossomed it was underpinned by the shared conviction that their lives should be devoted to art. Success as a portrait painter came quickly to Harold, enabling them to marry in 1903, although it was Laura who proposed. Far from settling down they set off travelling together. Having experienced the art colony at Staithes, they travelled repeatedly to Holland (showing their work at joint exhibitions in London) before eventually finding their way to Cornwall. While Harold’s portraits put food on the table Laura gradually discovered her vision, moving away from her husband’s solid, studio-based technique towards a much freer style. Working outdoors, she sought to capture the world as she saw it - animated, in motion. The move to Newlyn brought light flooding into her canvases, and she was away.

Already long established as an art colony, Newlyn boasted a small but lively population of young artists, among whom Laura’s exuberant personality found full expression. There were dances and parties with friends like the Procters, and while the more conservative Newlyn residents were horrified by the artists’ free and easy ways the colony gave Laura the opportunity and licence to explore a subject forbidden to her according the conventions of the day. As a student she and her fellow women were denied the opportunity to study nude models, and it was partly in reaction to this that she painted ‘Self-Portrait’ (1913), which shows her at work painting her friend Ella Naper, who is naked. The painting was shown and admired in Newlyn, but rejected by the Royal Academy; when it was shown elsewhere in London one critic commented that it should have been better left in the studio.

Laura Knight, The Coil of Hair (Dover Museums)

Laura’s extrovert personality and interest in painting women has given rise to speculation about her sexuality. Perhaps she was attracted to women, or perhaps she simply liked painting them. It’s unlikely anyone will ever know, so in the meantime let’s consider her relationship with Harold. According to some authors he found Laura’s increasing success and relentless joie de vivre hard to handle; he’s presented as withdrawn and grumpy. According to others he was just quiet, a stable presence in Laura’s life. A man of iron principle he insisted, when called up for military service in 1916, on registering as a conscientious objector, despite the frailty of his health and the inevitable abuse he suffered as a result.

Yet Harold remained a popular and successful portrait painter, and in 1926 he was commissioned to produce a series of portraits at John Hopkins Hospital in the US city of Baltimore; as soon as he had some dollars in his pocket he paid for Laura to join him. A year later it was Laura who was enjoying success, becoming only the second woman to be elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. They continued to exhibit together, with shows at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle (1933) and the Castle Art Gallery (1934) and later in the decade became full members of the Royal Academy; the first married couple to achieve this feat. On her election, however, she became the first woman in history to sit on the Selection Committee for the RA Summer Show, and it was this kind of thing that made the news. Already a Dame of the Order of the British Empire, Laura loved playing to the gallery, yet her choice of subjects – fishermen and their families, circus people, gypsies – suggests that she was more comfortable among people who lived on the margins of conventional society. Among educated people her lack of polish perhaps made her uncomfortable.

Harold Knight died in 1961, when he and Laura had been married fifty-eight years. Neither had ever wanted to children. Instead they had embarked with youthful enthusiasm on a lifelong adventure in art, supporting one another throughout. Writing about her life, Laura recalled how in 1933 she fell at home and broke her leg. The doctor insisted she would be crippled for life but Harold disagreed and set to work on her rehabilitation, ‘giving up his time to support me, step by step, eventually giving me the courage to walk again.’

This is an excerpt from my book 'In Relation: Nine Couples who Transformed Modern British Art' (Sansom & Co), which was the catalogue for my exhibition at the RWA Bristol last year. The Knights feature in my lecture 'Lover, Teacher, Muse... or Rival?' which I happen to be giving today...

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