The Show is On: Laura Knight’s Career and Contexts
Conference – Janet Axten, Linda Bassett, Ella Nixon, Lily Ford, Catherine Wallace, Hannah Starkey, Annette Wickham, Alice Strickland, Hester Westley, Damian Le Bas
- 28 January 2022
- 10:00 – 7:00 pm
- A one-day conference on the career and legacy of Laura Knight on the occasion of the exhibition Laura Knight: A Panoramic View
- Milton Keynes, MK Gallery
In 1936, Dame Laura Knight sent a large canvas depicting a backstage scene at a travelling circus, titled The Show is On, to that year’s Royal Academy (RA) Summer Exhibition. In her circus paintings, Knight focused on the suspenseful anticipation of the acrobats, dancers, strongmen and performing horses before they enter the ring, as well as the dynamic action of the performance. These paintings allude to the glamour of the performance while also focusing on the everyday interactions and realities of the lives of the performers backstage.
1936 was a big year for Knight at the RA; for her, the show was most definitely on. Earlier that year, she had been elected the first female Royal Academician since the institution’s inception in 1768. She had been elected an Associate Royal Academician in 1927 and been made a dame in 1929. Both before and after her election as an Academician, she astutely navigated and negotiated the institutions of the British art world, producing a complex body of visual and written work during her long career (1877–1970). She depicted an extraordinary range of sitters and tackled subjects that makes her practice stand out from her contemporaries.
On the occasion of the exhibition Laura Knight: A Panoramic View at the MK Gallery (9 October 2021–20 February 2022) – the largest display of the artist’s works for over fifty years – this conference will present new research on Knight’s career and its contexts, both within the British art world and internationally. This event seeks to reposition Knight’s practice, and to recover those radical contributions to the histories of modern art which have often been overlooked in the effort to define her as an “academic” artist who sat comfortably within the art world establishment.
The conference will be live-streamed and tickets are available via the MK Gallery website:
- MK Gallery Ticket, 10.00–19.00 (£35/£25 concessions)
- Online Ticket, 11.00–17.30 (£20/£10 concessions)
We are offering up to 10 bursaries to support individuals who may not otherwise be able to attend the conference. Bursaries will cover the ticket price (including the online option), travel and some expenses including childcare. If you would like to be considered for a bursary please email firstname.lastname@example.org, please write ‘Laura Knight Conference Bursary Request’ in the subject field, outlining your request for a supported place by 10.00 on Monday 10 January 2022
Friday, 28 January 2022
10.00–11.00 Exhibition Viewing, Laura Knight: A Panoramic View
11.00–11.30 Conference Registration
11.30–11.45 Welcome by Anthony Spira (Director, MK Gallery)
Chaired by Sarah Victoria Turner (Deputy Director, Paul Mellon Centre)
11.45–12.05 Janet Axten (Social Historian), ‘“Fast, Smart and Outrageous”: Art School Fashion in Laura Knight’s Painting’
12.05–12.25 Linda Bassett (PhD candidate, University of Bristol), ‘The “Sew” Must Go On: The Dressmaker in the Work of Laura Knight’
12.25–12.45 Ella Nixon (PhD candidate, Northumbria University), ‘Laura Knight and the Regional Art Gallery’
12.45–13.15 Panel 1 discussion and questions
Chaired by Fay Blanchard (Head of Exhibitions, MK Gallery)
14.15–14.35 Catherine Wallace (Freelance Art Historian), ‘Technique and Experiment: Drawing as the Foundation of Laura Knight’s Success as an Artist’ (ONLINE PRESENTATION)
14.35–14.45 Discussion between Catherine Wallace and Fay Blanchard
14.45–15.05 Lily Ford (Filmmaker and Historian), ‘Aerial Bodies: Laura Knight’s Barrage Balloon Paintings’
15.05-15.25 Hannah Starkey (Artist), ‘So, I ask you Laura Knight – how did this great work come about?’
15.25–15.45 Panel 2 discussion and questions with Lily Ford and Hannah Starkey
15.45–16.00 Comfort Break
Chaired by Annette Wickham (Curator of Works on Paper, Royal Academy of Art)
16.00–16.20 Alice Strickland (Curator, National Trust, London), ‘Creating a Legacy – Dame Laura Knight RA (1877-1970)’
16.20–16.40 Hester Westley (Artists' Lives Interviewer, National Life Stories, British Library), ‘“Like a Half-Rolled Map”: Tracing the Borders of Female Self-Narration in the Careers of Laura Knight and Subsequent Women Artists’
16.40–17.10 Panel 3 discussion and questions
17.10–17.30 Damian Le Bas (Writer and Poet), ‘The Broken Tongue’
17.30–19.00 Drinks reception
Paper Abstracts, Session 1
Janet Axten, ‘Fast, Smart and Outrageous’: Art School Fashion in Laura Knight’s Painting
In 1913, six years after Laura and Harold Knight had moved to Newlyn, Cornwall, from Staithes in Yorkshire, Laura met Dorelia John who, with Augustus, had descended on nearby Lamorna. Dorelia’s striking appearance provoked Knight’s observation: ‘Her clothes were of her own particular style, and it was she who set the fashion for jumpers and short hair’.
This paper explores the connection between fashion and modernity in Knight’s painting. Laura Knight had always been interested in clothes; she mentions them regularly in her autobiography Oil Paint and Grease Paint. She was an excellent seamstress and had made her own wedding dress. She recalls that Harold would paint models wearing her clothes and, memorably, The Green Feather (1911) depicted her friend Dorothy Snell in an exotic emerald green evening gown of stiff silk.
The light of west Cornwall transformed the way Knight painted, brightening her palette. Nevertheless, in the early years of the decade her models were shown in static poses. Young Edwardian women and girls would often sit demurely on the grass with the sea in the background, wearing light floating long dresses, ribbons, and straw bonnets. (In the Fields, watercolour)
Knight’s response to Dorelia was startling. The young women she painted now inhabited a different century. They wore long wool belted sweaters over calf-length skirts and were often bare-headed. They lounged on cliff edges, sat by rock pools, and appeared to be conversing. (In Cornwall, watercolour; The Cornish Coast, oil on canvas)
Since 1899, large numbers of young single women had travelled to Newlyn for an opportunity of tuition at the Forbes School of Painting, under the brilliant tutelage of Elizabeth Forbes. The few years prior to the outbreak of the First World War was one of female freedom and experimentation; Knight called the students ‘fast, smart and outrageous’. With the tragic death of Elizabeth Forbes in 1912 at the age of 52, Knight became the most influential woman painter in the area.
Axten’s research provides new perspectives on Knight through her painterly response to rural feminine modernity, far from any metropolitan centre of culture and fashion. Newlyn’s art school provided women with a place to express their creativity, and this paper will discuss how their unique fashionability is articulated in Knight’s work. Inadvertently, Knight’s modernism would lead to Newlyn becoming the home of Crysède Silks; an international company making fashions for a new and sophisticated female consumer market.
Linda Basset, The ‘Sew’ Must Go On: The Dressmaker in the Work of Laura Knight
During her career Laura Knight produced a number of works which depicted various scenes backstage at both the ballet and theatre. These works are associated with the drama and tension of the performance itself, as well as the more mundane preparations which precede it. Whilst the glamour and energy of the performers would appear to be the primary focus of these works, there is, however, another motif which occurs frequently – that of the dressmaker.
To date, little attention has been paid to the presence of this figure in Knight’s work, yet their role is crucial in delivering a much broader, visual narrative. Certainly, their recurring appearance would seem to suggest that Knight acknowledged their wider significance. With reference to four examples in particular, Dressing Room No. 1 (1923), Dressing For the Ballet (1927), The Ballet Girl and the Dressmaker (1930), and Preparing for her Entrance (c. 1930), this paper examines the role of the dressmaker within Knight’s visual narrative. Comparison with the original versions of these works (where relevant) is also made, supporting the premise that these figures, in fact, contribute significantly to female presence and visibility. The complex dynamic between dancers and dressmakers is surveyed, revealing these relationships as an integral feature of life behind the curtain, but one which remained largely unfamiliar to the public who viewed Knight’s work.
Knight’s dressmakers do not merely provide a decorative foil within the domain of performance — they may be read in their own right as visual elements which comment more broadly on the position of women in both professional and wider, cultural contexts. Their inclusion by Knight encourages debate on how professional women were viewed in the early twentieth century. Moreover, they represent a solid challenge to the dominant, albeit less savoury, doctrines of visual culture concerning professional women that emerged from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, concerned with moral and sexual impropriety. Knight’s dressmakers should be neither overlooked nor underestimated, as this paper demonstrates.
Ella Nixon, Laura Knight and the Regional Art Gallery
The Laing Art Gallery collection contains thirteen prints, three oil paintings, three watercolours, and a Circus dinner set by Laura Knight. It has been theorised that the Laing Art Gallery’s first curator, Collingwood Bernard Stevenson (1874–1957), collected works by Knight because of his personal connection to the artist stemming from their shared time at school in Nottingham.
Since the gallery’s foundation in 1904, Knight’s work has been exhibited in various guises: a 1933 exhibition of the artist, inclusion in the annual Northern Counties exhibition, and most recently as one of the four artists featured in Challenging Convention (2021). The Beach (c.1909) even features as a mural on the outer wall of the Laing.
The intricate connection between the Laing and the artist raises wider questions regarding the representation of female artists within regional galleries. Feminist art history has overwhelmingly focused on the representation of women artists within national museums. However, the prominence of Knight in the Laing collection reflects the existence of a network of local and personal connections, with implications for how her work is understood by local communities. Knight herself sought to avoid categorisation based on her sex, instead attributing her success to hard work. It is crucial to understand the agencies that underpin national narratives and already, within gender history, new methodologies have been deployed to uncover a diversity of experiences. This paper will build upon this approach to interpret Knight’s works within regional collections with particular focus on the role of museums within the ‘civic community’ (Bennett, 1995).
Accordingly, this paper utilises the conceptual tool ‘collecting communities’ (Nixon, 2020) to explore the acquisition patterns of Knight’s works in regional galleries throughout Britain. Collecting communities is a theory inspired by Simon Szreter’s ‘communication communities’, which considers factors including age, class, and gender in shaping behavioural norms and identities (Szreter, 2002: 546). Adjusted for a museological setting, the theory can be utilised to examine the collecting patterns of regional galleries in the context of its perceived ‘public’.
Archival materials provide insight into the collecting practices of works by the artist. Moreover, the collecting patterns of Knight’s works will be compared to both contemporaries of the artist and current collecting patterns of women artists using mapping techniques. The paper concludes by focusing on Knight’s inclusion in the recent Challenging Convention exhibition, providing a modern interpretation of the artist from a regional perspective.
Paper Abstracts, Session 2
Lily Ford, Aerial Bodies: Laura Knight’s Barrage Balloon Paintings
Laura Knight was one of the only artists allowed close access to the ‘silver sentinels of the sky’ that dominated Britain’s wartime landscapes: the barrage balloons. Two paintings of them, In for Repairs (1941) and A Balloon Site, Coventry (1943), are among her WAAC commissions on women’s war work. Knight was fascinated by the visual riddles these objects posed, their lumbering size and difficulty of manoeuvre alongside their fragility and ethereal appearance. She gendered them female and called them silver toads. She was full of admiration for the women in charge of their care and deployment – most of the 33,000 people employed as balloon operatives during the Second World War were women between 1941 and 1943.
Ford’s filmic investigation will look closely at Knight’s own account of working with balloons and consider the artistic challenges they posed. It will explore the cultural existence of the inflatables both in and outside war art, taking into consideration their meaning in a landscape, and the imagined aerial perspective that they offered (for example to cartographer Cecil Brown in his 1946 Devastated London). It will investigate the practicalities of working with barrage balloons as an operative, and the heritage of aviation textiles work done by women, dating back to before the First World War.
Catherine Wallace, Technique and Experiment: Drawing as the Foundation of Laura Knight’s Success as an Artist
In this paper Wallace discusses the importance of drawing as a foundation for the success of Laura Knight’s artistic career and in some ways the greatest skill at her disposal. From her student portraits; her depictions of Cornish harbours; her drawings of ballet dancers and circus performers to her studies of the Nuremberg Trials – this paper illustrates how her drawings had great power and energy, conveying a very different quality to her finished paintings.
When reviewing her lifetime’s work, drawing was a technique that she used repeatedly not only as studies to inform her as to the subject of a final painting but as works of art in their own right. Wallace compares some of Knight’s studies with the finished oil works and explores their differences.
Drawing is a technical skill based on the traditions taught in academic institutions. Laura Knight pushed the boundaries of that formal training, which was laid down in Nottingham, and used it in new and different ways as she developed as an artist. She also combined elements of drawing with painting in her mixed media works that included charcoal, watercolour, gouache, and pastel. Her drawings became experiments with these different combinations of media. In this paper, Wallace illustrates and discusses works which combine these different media and demonstrates how Knight came to control and master them.
The presentation concludes on an investigation into how Laura Knight’s powerful drawings of the Nuremberg trials are visual summations of the characters involved. This is shown by focusing in on individual poses of figures, which when applied to the final painting convey a balanced sense of movement in an otherwise static scene.
Hannah Starkey, So, I ask you Laura Knight - how did this great work come about?
As I sit in my studio looking at both these images, yours on the left and mine on the right, I ask you Laura Knight – how did this great work come about? A conversation between a live artist and a dead one. Voiced by the live artist so the audience can hear it.
A performance of the interior externalised. My mind and my studio wall both of which Laura Knight has preoccupied, is a space I never get to share. Our internal conversation when looking at a work of art particularly between two artists, one alive and one dead is something I would like to attempt to share with the audience. It is a performance that hopes to pay homage and gratitude to a great artist and her legacy which as a contemporary artist, I am currently enjoying. It is a magic space that I hope to share with others, live and on stage.
Paper Abstracts, Session 3
Alice Strickland, Creating a Legacy – Dame Laura Knight RA (1877–1970)
On her death in 1970 Laura Knight bequeathed to the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) the silver salver she had been given by the Society of Women Artists (SWA) some 34 years earlier. Knight was the SWA’s longest serving president from 1932–68 and exhibited at their annual exhibition throughout her membership. Knight’s gift of this particular object to the RA and its association with the SWA is inextricably linked to her being the first woman to be elected as full Royal Academician since Mary Moser RA and Angelica Kauffman RA. This paper proposes to highlight Knight’s work within women’s societies including as President of the SWA, Vice-President of the Forum Club and as a member of the Women’s International Art Club (WIAC). Laura Knight’s promotion of her own work and the careers of contemporary women artists, through election to exhibiting societies, exhibitions, publications and press coverage, offers a vital insight into the professionalisation of women artists during the first half of the twentieth century. Research for this paper will draw upon the SWA’s and WIAC’s archive of minutes and exhibition catalogues held at the Women’s Art Library, University of London and the National Art Library, V&A. The paper will seek to highlight how Laura Knight sought to create her own artistic legacy and how she is viewed over forty years after her death.
Hester Westley, ‘Like a Half-Rolled Map’: Tracing the Borders of Female Self-Narration in the Careers of Laura Knight and Subsequent Women Artists
Drawing on Laura Knight's autobiographical writing, this paper considers Knight's self-representation and its significance for her artistic legacy and reception of her work. This paper integrates the rich audio resources offered by the Artists’ Lives archive – part of National Life Stories based at the British Library – to situate Knight within a context of twentieth-century women artists to examine how they narrate their life stories and practice. While male counterparts were guilty of literally writing women artists out of the history books, this paper examines the importance for women artists of finding their own voices to shape and narrate the telling of their own life stories.
Comparing these women artists’ consideration of certain commonalities and intersectional themes – for example, the space of the studio; their approach to working with the life model and their own relationship with sitter; and the representation of the domestic sphere, often complicated through marriage to a male artist – this paper traces intergenerational threads to understand how the women artists themselves determine agency and subjectivity in defining a space of their own. This power of narration is neatly encapsulated in a critical distinction: self-representation is less ‘what I appear’ than ‘this is what I believe in’.
In addition to audio extracts drawn from the Artists’ Lives archive, this presentation weaves into its discussion archival images and footage of women artists discussing their approaches to representation. This paper rights – and rewrites – the legacy of Laura Knight through her own autobiographical voice and communicates with subsequent generations of women artists who have used the retelling of their life story to affirm their place in the history of British art.
Damian Le Bas, The Broken Tongue
Damian Le Bas will read a series of poems about the British Gypsy experience that may chime with some of Laura Knight’s incredible paintings of rural Romany life.
For the past six years Le Bas has been writing prose, with few exceptions, but before that, he used to write a lot of poetry. Poetry was the first thing Le Bas tried really hard to write well. It seemed to be the natural way to write about Romany Gypsy history and culture, and the experience of being a Traveller in modern Britain, all its unsung joys and travails, the prejudices, the secret wells of strength.
There’s something about Travellers and poetry. When Le Bas edited a magazine for Travellers, one of their biggest mailbags was of poems written by readers. He thinks there are many reasons for this. Travellers prize songs and singing, and of all the written arts poetry is the one most closely tethered to song. Poems seem to provide a natural home for the Traveller languages: the Romany language of British Romany Gypsies, the Gamin of the Irish Travellers, the Beurla-Reagaird of the Scottish Travellers of the Highlands, and the Romanès of Britain’s more recently arrived Roma people, which in form and often in sound is still very much the Indian language it was when their forebears first carried it out of Asia in their minds. Poems welcome strange words into themselves: they don’t seem to judge you for being different, or for having many tongues. Other than text messages sent to family members, and the odd little word list he used to compile as a child, poems were the first place where he found he could make a home for his ‘other mother tongue’, the Romany language or, as some people call it, the poggerdi jib - the ‘broken tongue’.
About the speakers
A social historian specialising in St Ives and its artists, Janet Axten was awarded a First-Class Honours Degree with the Open University in 1993. Later she was volunteer administrator for St Ives Tate Action Group which raised £130,000 towards Tate St Ives, opening in 1993, following which she wrote Gasworks to Gallery – The Story of Tate St Ives.
In 1996 Axten set up a St Ives community archive and was its Heritage Manager. She gained an MA in Cornish Studies with the University of Exeter in 2004. Axten gives illustrated talks on St Ives and its history and is a Tate Specialist. She is currently researching women in the textile industry in west Cornwall.
Linda M. Bassett is a third year PhD student (History of Art) at the University of Bristol and a member of Bristol Doctoral College. Her thesis, Laura Knight: Beyond the Body, focuses on the artist’s representations of women between 1911 and 1930 and examines Knight’s encounters with female subjects in marginal areas. She collaborated with MK Gallery for their 2021 exhibition, Laura Knight: A Panoramic View, and her wider research interests include British art of the early twentieth century, women as models and makers of art, representations of the female body, and gendered visual culture.
Ella Nixon is a doctoral researcher at Northumbria University. Her project is a Northern Bridge-funded (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Award which uses the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to explore the representation of female artists within regional art galleries. Her research looks at wider feminist art history in relation to museology from the second half of the twentieth century to the present day. She has been involved in various curatorial and educational projects, including the recent Challenging Convention (2021) exhibition at the Laing, and frequently writes about art on various platforms. Ella applies her scholarly research to provide new curatorial and marketing techniques in developing business portfolios for artists. Previously, she completed a History BA at the University of Cambridge followed by a History of Art MA at the Courtauld Institute, specialising in twentieth-century European art.
Lily Ford is a filmmaker and historian based in London. Her PhD was on the history of flight in the 1920s; her book Taking to the Air: An Illustrated History of Flight was published by the British Library in 2018. Her current interest is in the women behind the scenes of aviation in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century and she has made two research films in this area, Aerial Bodies (2022) and Dear Ella (2020). As a filmmaker, she has worked with academics and artists to make several films including Chasing the Revolution: Marie Langer, Psychoanalysis and Society (2021) and A Humbrol Art: The Paintings of George Shaw (2018). She produced the feature-length documentary The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (2016) which premiered at the Berlinale Film Festival. Most films are available to watch at lilyfordresearch.com/films
Catherine Wallace is a freelance art historian, curator, writer and lecturer specialising in British nineteenth- and twentieth-century art with a focus on artists based in Cornwall. After gaining degrees in fine art and art history, Catherine has over 25 years’ experience as a curator working both in the public and commercial sectors in Scotland, London and the South West of England. Catherine has written many articles and several books on Cornish art, and recently contributed two essays for Laura Knight: A Celebration. She is an accredited lecturer for the Arts Society and runs independent art history courses.
Since the late 1990s, the Northern Irish artist Hannah Starkey has dedicated her work to women and the ways in which photography has shaped ideas about what it means to be female. Known for her cinematic mise-en-scenes, Starkey constructs portraits of women of different generations, often situated in everyday urban contexts. She lives and works in London.
Annette Wickham is Curator of Works on Paper at the Royal Academy of Arts. In 2019 she co-authored Laura Knight: A Working Life (with Helen Valentine) to accompany a display of Knight’s sketchbooks, drawings and paintings. Annette has curated numerous displays and exhibitions from the Academy’s collection and regularly publishes and gives talks on various aspects of the institution’s collection and history.
Alice Strickland is a curator for the National Trust in London and the South East. She is co-lead for the British Art Network’s research group British Women Artists 1750–1950, supported by the Paul Mellon Centre and Tate. Her doctorate considered British women artists of the Second World War. She was awarded a Paul Mellon research grant for a publication of women artists of the First World War. Her interest in Laura Knight has culminated in publications including Laura Knight (Eiderdown Books, 2019) and a chapter in the exhibition catalogue Laura Knight: A Celebration for Penlee House’s exhibition in 2021.
Hester R Westley interviews for ‘Artists’ Lives, National Life Stories’, at the British Library. Hester’s recent research focuses on intersectional histories of female self-narration. Formerly Goodison Fellow for National Life Stories (2016/17), Hester favours modes of dissemination that highlight the aurality of her methodology.
Highlights from Hester’s publications include: ‘Art Education for the Many: Clifford Ellis and the Founding of Corsham’ (2021); ‘The Many Lives of the Life Room’ (2015); ‘Expanding the Boundaries: The New Creativity in Art Education’ (2010). Hester co-curated Reception, Rupture and Return: The Model in the Life Room: 1890 to Present at Tate Britain (2014–15).
Damian Le Bas is a writer from the south coast of England. His first book, The Stopping Places: A Journey through Gypsy Britain, won the Somerset Maugham award, a Jerwood award, Radio 4 Book of the Week and was shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman travel book of the year. His next book is due to be published by Chatto & Windus in 2023.
Damian is a former editor of Travellers’ Times and a regular broadcaster, presenting the critically acclaimed BBC film A Very British History: Romany Gypsies in 2019. He is a native speaker of the Romany (Gypsy) language and a keen scuba diver, hill walker and year-round outdoor swimmer. He lives in Worthing, the seaside town where he grew up, with his wife, actor and writer, Candis Nergaard. He read theology at St John’s College, Oxford, graduating with the highest first in his year in 2006.