Past Events

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:

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 [email protected], 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)

Session 1

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

13.15–14.15 Lunch

Session 2

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

Session 3

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

In collaboration with:

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 updated headshot

    Ella is a research associate at The Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, where she is co-organising an upcoming conference about the collection (March 2024) funded by the Paul Mellon Centre. She holds a history BA from the University of Cambridge and a history of art MA from The Courtauld Institute of Art 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

  • 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.

  • Headshot of Hannah Starkey

    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.