(National Portrait Gallery, London, July-October 2013)
If I was quick off the blocks with the new Elizabeth I and Her People exhibition, I was desperately slow at getting around to Laura Knight, which closed on Sunday. Having meant to go ever since it opened, the more so since the Grumpy Art Historian spoke highly of it when he went to see it back in July, I finally made it on Friday night, immediately after my Elizabeth visit.
I came in a state of blissful ignorance, utterly unburdened with preconceptions or opinions about Knight and, as so often happens in such cases, I ended up wondering how I could ever have failed to register her. Her pictures are crisp and colourful, presenting their sitters with a compelling sense of solidity and weight, and suggesting a warm engagement on the artist’s part with her models’ various personalities. The show was small and focused in its choice of genre – only portraits – but broad in its chronological scope, offering a sweep across Knight’s career from her early days as part of the Newlyn School in Cornwall, to her service as a war artist and her postwar successes.
It’s no wonder that the catalogue’s introductory essay identifies Augustus John as a major influence on Knight. There was so much of John here, especially in the early paintings with their powerful figures and rounded limbs. But Knight never seems to be derivative: her pictures have a spirit all of their own. One of the most striking of the early portraits is Lamorna Birch and his Daughters (begun in 1916), which shows the painter and his two daughters (both also painters in later life) captured in an unguarded moment on the shores of a lake.
It’s not only impressive for its size but also for the sheer informality of the composition. Lamorna Birch is comfortably dressed for a long yomp through the valley, with his seven-year-old daughter Joan casually tucked under his arm, as if they’ve been interrupted in the middle of a game of rough-and-tumble. His elder daughter Elizabeth perches up in a tree, her smock hoiked up above her knees, straddling a branch. It’s a wonderfully carefree and affectionate interpretation for the period. Even the brushwork delights in its freedom: darting over the canvas with dabs and dashes of light, which elongate into shimmering streaks in the reflected surface of the lake. There was nothing else quite so marvellous from this early period, although the brushwork becomes even more abstract in the vibrant portrait Rose and Gold, showing the tragic model Dolly Henry, who was murdered by her lover shortly after Knight painted her. For me, Knight’s ballet and theatre pictures from the early 1920s felt slightly too neat, too careful and ‘official’. However, her sensitivity came back into play with the moving portraits of children made at the Baltimore Children’s Hospital in 1927 while her husband Harold was painting portraits of the surgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
I must differ from the Grumpy Art Historian in that I thoroughly enjoyed the section on gypsies and the circus. Perhaps it’s just because I had Augustus John on the brain at the time, and this section reminded me of the utter fascination that artists of this time felt for the bohemian, nomadic lifestyle. Knight is brilliant at capturing the humanity of a lived-in face: her portraits of the gypsy matriarch Granny Smith are full of sympathetic warmth, and her picture The Gypsy (modelled by Granny Smith’s son) brims over with character, showing a weatherbeaten and grizzled man whose melting eyes, surprisingly, suggest his inner vulnerability.
But these are the last of the pictures where we see that particularly lively brushwork: from this date on, as we enter the period of Knight’s official war pictures, the surface grows smoother and more polished. Many of these have the brisk, smart feel of official propaganda, none more so than the portraits showing plucky factory workers engaged in the war effort, such as the capable Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, which celebrates the focus and skill of female workers. The most powerful picture in this entire room, however, was Take Off, a near-life-size portrait of a bomber crew preparing to set off. This was obviously meant to be propaganda – the neatness and order of the cockpit; the methodical, orderly preparations – but it is also a deeply emotive picture. The young engineer in the foreground has an utterly believable expression of trepidation, which is even more visible in the preparatory portrait drawing also in the exhibition, and you get a powerful sense of how cramped and claustrophobic it was for the air crews. Another reason the picture is so moving – which Knight couldn’t have anticipated – is that the navigator, poring over his map, would be killed in action (at the age of only twenty-six) less than a year after the picture was finished.
It’s interesting to see this hanging so close to another enormous picture, a view of The Nuremberg Trial, which Knight painted as a war reporter in 1946. It’s true that the whole thing is a bit of a mess, with the far wall dissolving to give a view of the city’s ruins beyond, in a way that doesn’t really work – but I found it made a telling comparison to Take Off, in that Knight now shows us the other side of the coin: cities destroyed and laid waste by those very same air crews.
For me, the final room simply couldn’t match the charge of these wartime pictures. There we had portraits dating from Knight’s later years, when she was able to enjoy the full range of opportunities that came to her as part of the artistic establishment – she had achieved the signal honour of being elected as the first full female Royal Academician (since its foundation) in 1936, but war had got in the way. Of these, perhaps inevitably, my favourite was a vigorous watercolour which looked back to the energy of her early days: a portrait of a young Paul Scofield as the Clown in The Winter’s Tale. Underlaid by sweeps of charcoal and firm, spiky strokes of the pen, this was a welcome contrast to the smoother more conventional pictures in this last room.
I’m so glad I managed to see this – it was a much overdue introduction to a very talented artist and I’ll have to keep my eyes open to learn a bit more about Knight’s career. The girl who sold me my catalogue in the shop said that Knight is actually a character in the new film Summer in February, which is already on my list of things to watch; and there’s a new biography due out next year, which should go some way to making her better known.
All in all, it was an excellent Friday evening…