Circus act. Strength Athlete -  Strongman

Dame Laura Knight

English ( b.1877 - d.1970 )

Circus act. Strength Athlete - Strongman

  • Pencil on paper
  • Signed lower right

Image size 11.4 inches x 7.5 inches ( 29cm x 19cm )
Frame size 15.6 inches x 11.6 inches ( 39.5cm x 29.5cm )

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Sold by Big Sky Fine Art; this original pencil drawing by Dame Laura Knight dates from the 1920s.
The drawing is signed lower right.
The work is presented and supplied in a sympathetic contemporary frame, mounted using conservation materials and behind glass.

Dame Laura Knight was one of the most popular and pioneering British artists of the twentieth century. Indeed, in her day, she established herself as the most important woman artist in Britain.

Her early live was modest and tough. She was born in Long Eaton, Derbyshire on 4 August 1877, the youngest of three daughters of Charles Johnson and
his wife, Charlotte Bates. Her father died when she was a child and she was brought up by her mother who taught art in a local school. A talented artist, Laura entered Nottingham School of Art at the unprecedented age of 14. Her place was secured on a scholarship, won in a national competition. After one of her sisters, both grandmothers and her mother all died, Laura supported herself and her remaining sister by giving art classes in the evenings. While at the Nottingham Art School, she admired and learnt from its most talented student, Harold Knight, five years her senior. They became firm friends. In 1894 they visited Staithes, a fishing village on the Yorkshire coast, where Laura drew the people and the surrounding farms, showing the hardship and poverty of their lives. Laura and Harold married in 1903, and spent their honeymoon visiting the National Gallery every day.

In 1904 and 1905 they spent several months living in Holland, visiting the artists’ colony at Laren. a group of followers of the Hague School. In 1905 Ernest Brown of the Leicester Galleries gave an exhibition of their work and they sold enough paintings to fund a tour of Europe. On their return they settled in Newlyn, Cornwall, joining a community of artists known as the Newlyn School. This included Stanhope Forbes, Elizabeth Forbes, Alfred Munnings, Walter Langley and Frank Bramley. By 1908 both Laura and Harold had work exhibited at the Newlyn Art Gallery and Harold was an established portrait painter. Laura spent the summer of 1908 working on the beach at Newlyn making studies for her large painting of children in bright sunlight. The Beach was shown at the Royal Academy in 1909 and was considered a great success. Another work from this time, The Green Feather, was sent to the International Exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada.
Knight’s life in Cornwall is remembered in the film Summer in February, starring Dan Stevens, which explores the Newlyn colony, where Knight flourished and emerged as one of the most interesting painters of the early 20th century.
In 1913 Knight made a painting that was a first for a woman artist, Self Portrait with Nude, showing herself painting a nude model, the artist Ella Naper. As an art student Knight had not been permitted to directly paint nude models but, like all female art students at the time, was restricted to working from casts and copying existing drawings. Knight deeply resented this, and Self Portrait with Nude is a clear challenge, and reaction, to those rules. The painting received a mixed reception at first, but many years later it was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery, and is now considered both a key work in the story of female self-portraiture and as symbolic of wider female emancipation.

During the First World War Harold Knight, was a conscientious objector. Instead of being sent to prison he was directed to work as a farm labourer. In 1909, after the war the couple left Cornwall and moved to London. Knight began to seek our new subjects among the artistic avant-garde. She was captivated by the wild glamour of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev’s dance company, which made several sensational visits to Britain. Between 1919 and 1921 she met and painted some of the most famous ballet dancers of the day, including Lydia Lopokova, Anna Pavlova and the dance teacher Enrico Cecchetti.

In 1922 Laura and Harold moved to St John's Wood, which was to be their permanent home and where each had a studio. She was introduced to Bertram Mills, the owner of Mills's Circus, who gave her permission to go where she liked during rehearsals, and soon she was producing studies of trapeze artists, acrobats, tumblers, jugglers, clowns, and the circus animals. She painted a huge canvas, Charivari, which brought in nearly everyone in circus life; it was exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1929 and was caricatured in Punch, with politicians portrayed as the various circus performers.

Always curious about other people, Laura Knight was drawn to painting women who, like her, were breaking new creative ground. In 1924 she captured actress Gwen Ffrangon-Davies in her dressing-room prior to stepping out on stage as Juliet opposite John Gielgud’s Romeo. This was followed by a stunning portrait of Ethel Bartlett, a classical pianist whose 'simple lines of beauty took me by storm’. Knight, though, did much more than show her friend as a beautiful woman in a fashionable frock. By concentrating on her powerful arms and delicate hands, she drew attention to the years of training and skill Bartlett had invested in her career. Shown at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1926, Ethel Bartlett confirmed Knight as the country’s pre-eminent painter of women, a stamp of approval that freed her to take risks.

Later in 1926 Laura went to Baltimore with Harold and obtained permission to paint in the racially segregated maternity wards of John Hopkins hospital.
One of the most stunning results was a portrait of Pearl Johnson, a long-serving John Hopkins nurse who soon became a friend. An energetic campaigner against segregation, Johnson took Knight to lectures and concerts to observe this early phase of the Civil Rights movement.

At the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam Laura Knight won the Silver Medal in Painting with the painting Boxer. In 1929 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in June 1931 she received an honorary degree from St. Andrews University. She was elected President of the Society of Women Artists in 1932 and held the post until 1967. In 1936 she became the first woman since 1769 to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy.

Knight was greatly interested in, and inspired by, marginalised
Communities. In the mid-1930s she befriended and painted groups of Gypsies at the Epsom and Ascot racecourses, painting from the back of an antique Rolls-Royce car, which was large enough to accommodate her easel. Often pairs of Gypsy women would pose at the open door of the Rolls-Royce, with the race-day crowds in the background. From Epsom Knight was invited to the Gypsy settlement at Iver, Buckinghamshire, normally closed to outsiders. She visited and worked there every day for several months, producing a series of portraits of great intensity.

During the Second World War Laura Knight was an official war artist, contracted by the War Artists Advisory Committee. She was commissioned to paint portraits of the women and men who had demonstrated exceptional courage in the face of the enemy. Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner celebrates two young women in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who were awarded the Military Medal for Bravery in recognition of the way they had stayed at their posts after their building received a direct hit. Soon after Knight produced what has since become one of her most famous paintings, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring, which celebrates the skill of the factory hand Ruby, who helped make the guns that were so vital for the war effort.

After the war, although nearly 70, Knight was sent to Nuremberg to paint the historic trial at which Nazi leaders were to answer for their war crimes.
This was a side of war very different from the heroism she had celebrated in her portraits of British service women and factory workers. Knight had expressed her ambivalence about spending the previous four years 'picturing the making of instruments to kill’. Now she wanted to find out the full horror of what war had meant for thousands of ordinary Europeans. For once she abandoned her strictly realistic approach. Deeply disturbed by what she heard at the testimony, she painted a group portrait of prisoners including Göring, Hess and Speer floating above a landscape of urban desolation, like a vivid nightmare, and the walls of the courtroom crumbling to reveal the destruction and desolation that lay beyond. Coolly received at the time, the painting has since been recognised as one of the most powerful depictions of war ever produced. Laura Knight had proved, once and for all, that there was no limit to the subjects that women artists could tackle.

After the Second World War Harold Knight’s health declined and the couple decided to move to Colwall. He died there at the Colwall Park Hotel on 3 October 1961. After his death Laura Knight put on an exhibition of Harold's pictures. Although her own career had eclipsed his, the couple had remained close and she was supportive of his work to the end.

In 1936 Knight had published her autobiography, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, and in 1965 she published a second volume, The Magic of a Line. The same year she had a large retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy, another first for a woman.

Knight’s work uniquely also covered many media forms that included not only
oil and watercolour painting but every form of print, including aquatints, dry-point, mezzotint, linocut, woodcut and lithographs. She also produced posters for London Transport, charities, railway companies, public galleries and exhibitions. She also created theatre costume design for Stratford and London Theatre productions and ballet costume designs for Stanislas Idjikowski. She designed glassware and ceramics for Clarice Cliff and others and made and decorated jewellery and enamels with Ella Naper.

Knight’s life may started in poverty, but she became financially successful and developed lasting friendships who ranged from not only gypsies, circus folk, the farm and factory worker but also with those more fortunate, that included famous authors, actors, playwrights, judges at Nuremberg and aristocrats. Knight also travelled widely in the UK, Europe and America. All this was achieved in an era, when women were still fighting to vote and in instances where women were at times not generally accepted in some masculine quarters.

Knight died at her home in London on 7th July 1970, aged 92, three days before a large exhibition of her work was due to open at the Nottingham Castle Art Gallery and Museum. Huge numbers attended her Memorial service held at St James Church, Piccadilly 28th July 1970. She left quite a legacy. Although she might not have regarded herself as a feminist, she spent her entire professional life simply demanding the same opportunities and rates of pay as her male contemporaries. Her success in the male-dominated British art establishment undoubtedly paved the way for greater status and recognition for women artists.

Her many achievements include
• The first woman to be elected as a Royal Academician.
• The only woman to be given War Commissions in the Two World Wars.
• In 1946, at the age of 69 being commissioned as the only British artist to cover the Nuremberg Trials.
• The first female artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire at a time when such awards were rarely given
• The first husband and wife to be Royal Academicians.
• The first woman to have had a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy.
• Exhibiting at the RA some 284 works over 67 years, plus a further 176 at her retrospective exhibition, a total not exceeded by any other artist.
• Exhibiting over 190 works in 40 years at the Royal Watercolour Society.
• Exhibiting over 400 works at The Leicester Galleries.

In 1913 the National Portrait Gallery staged a major exhibition of her works, Human touch: a reminder of her talent in over thirty works revealing her highly distinctive style and diversity of subjects.

This original drawing, from Dame Laura Knight’s time spent with circus performers, depicts an athlete or strongman. He is wearing socks and trunks, and is standing on his head, balanced upon a pole. His torso is lean and muscular and his poise suggests many hours of practice! The curved lines top and bottom of the sketch suggest the venue is a tent or marquee, perhaps the circus ring itself. This is a fleeting sketch, but one done with the confidence of experience and true skill.