Laura Knight Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

By Sarah Jackson Published: 23 July 2013

Exhibition preview: Laura Knight Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, until October 13 2013

An image of a painting of a woman working in an industrial factory
Dame Laura Knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (1943)© Imperial War Museum, London
It must surely have felt like the most exquisite form of revenge for Dame Laura Knight that her most famous and critically acclaimed work is her Self-Portrait, painted in 1913.

After being forbidden to examine nude models while she was studying at the Nottingham School of Art, having her most famous work take the form of a portrait of herself painting a nude model – and therefore showing a naked woman’s body twice on the same canvas – might well have provided Knight with some sense of satisfaction.

Self-Portrait, with its daring composition and refusal to follow the status quo, is in some ways typical of Knight’s work. Her portraits tackled a wide range of subjects, all of which seem to dance on the edge of “acceptable” society.

Ballet dancers and circus performers, female World War II factory workers and Gypsies all feature in this first major retrospective of one of the leading British artists of the 20th century.

Born Laura Johnson, Knight’s life was an impressive whirl of achievements, started when she became the youngest pupil to attend the Nottingham School of Art at just 13.

During the 1920s, she gained privileged access backstage at London’s theatres and, later, the racially segregated hospital wards of Baltimore’s John Hopkins Memorial Hospital.

She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1929 and in 1936 became the first woman to become a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts since its foundation in 1768.

In her portraits, Knight sought to understand her subjects and depicted them with sensitivity and empathy after spending time with them in their own milieu, be it the theatre, a hospital ward or Gypsy settlement.

It is this sympathy and compassion that shines through her work and, coupled with her technical skill, makes her one of the most famous and popular painters of 20th century Britain.

  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm Thursday and Friday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @npglondon.

More pictures:

An image of an oil painting of a woman sitting in a chair
Lubov Tchernicheva (1921)© Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
A photo of an oil painting of two women wearing scarves
Gypsies at Ascot (1933)© Hereford Museum and Art Gallery. Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
An image of a painting of a young girl in bed
The Piccaninny (1927)© Private Collection. Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
An image of a painting of a woman in military clothes
Corporal J. M. Robins (1941)© Imperial War Museum, London
An image of a painting of people sitting in rows in a fire-strewn wartime setting
The Nuremberg Trial (1946)© Imperial War Museum, London
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