Before learning about the opening of the new summer exhibition at the National Portrait exhibition I had never previously heard of Laura Knight. Considering I have just spent my last semester at university studying the foundations of the Royal Academy and British art up until the early 20th century it was a crying shame. For some reason Knight is rarely spoken or written about and the NPG exhibition has politely reminded the world what it has been missing.
Laura Knight was a war artist, a painter of Gypsies, the Ballets Russes and the Nuremberg Trials. She had a career that transcended genre and cultural borders. On display at the National Portrait Gallery are thirty portraits which give us a brief glimpse into her spectacular career.
Knight was the first female Royal Academician since Angelica Kauffman, the first woman in over a century. The fact that so few women were given any status and are still somewhat inferior in the historical canon of art says much about our cultural attitudes to women in art history as britons. That said, Knight was the first ever female artist to be given a damehood in 1929.
For me the most memorable paintings are those of Gypsies and also the portraits Knight painted in Baltimore; here she accompanied her painter husband, while Mr Knight chose to use surgeons as his subject matter, Knight instead painted women in a racially segregated maternity ward. It is clear that she had no problem painting what might have been considered ‘lower’ subject matter. She pushed boundaries, asking herself to go to the Nuremberg Trials after already being successful as a war artist.
This exhibition shows us that we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to our women artists in a display which is both a triumph for feminism and British art; definitely a summer must-see.
Laura Knight Portaits is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until 13 October