Laura Knight's Nuremberg Trials diary and Goering sketch is compelling at NPG

By Richard Moss | 25 September 2013

Visitors to the Dame Laura Knight exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery may be impressed by her portraits. But an exhibit from her native Nottinghamshire threatens to steal the show.

a detail from a diary with a sketch of Herman Goering in the corner
© Nottinghamshire County Council
Beneath her 1946 painting, Nuremberg Trial, an extract from her Nuremberg Trials diaries is on display. Having persuaded the War Artists Advisory Committee to let her cover the trials as the Official British War Artist (Knight was 70 years old), she spent months sketching and listening to the appalling testimony of the Nazi leaders.

Knight was horrified by the devastation she saw during her time in Germany and shocked by what she heard and witnessed during the tirals. Her diaries from the time offer an unprecedented insight into the proceedings and her sketches capture the characters of the men who sat in the dock.

Born in Long Eaton, on the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border, the former pupil of Nottingham Art School bequeathed her Nuremberg diaries to Nottinghamshire Archives, who have loaned them to the exhibition.

During the trials Knight began work on the now famous painting featuring Rudolph Hess, Herman Goering, Albert Speer and other leading figures of the Nazi party, who she depcited seated in the courtroom beneath a landscape of desolation and destruction.

Dame laura Knight working on her Nuremberg Trials painting at Nuremberg
Dame Laura Knight at work in Nuremberg in 1946.© Nottinghamshire County Council
Sitting in the broadcast box almost on top of the main protagonists, her  diary of sketches and observations reveals a fascinating "double portrait" of Hermann Goering, the former Nazi Reichsmarshall who at one time was deputy to Hitler.

Goering was a charismatic presence at the trials, and at times Knight found herself staring intently at his great bulking form.

The entry, dated January 12 1946, reads: “Goering was not his usual devil-may-care self...his great mouth stretched across his face, his nostrils pinched. At certain moments he raised his slightly singed eyes, looking at nothing.”

Next to her sketch of the appallingly enigmatic founder of the Gestapo, Knight observes:  “He must take eights in hats and his face also is enormous.”

She continues: “The Court today was very full and I felt pretty ruthless myself to be absorbed in my own doings while such history is being made.”

Goering was eventually sentenced to death by hanging for his complicity in the atrocities of the Nazi regime, but he took his own life by ingesting a cyanide capsule before the sentence could be carried out.

Councillor John Knight, the Committee Chairman for Culture at Nottinghamshire County Council, describes the sketch of Goering as “haunting” and says he is delighted to support the exhibition.

“Knight instructed in her will that certain papers and documents be left with our archives service, which demonstrates her fondness for the county in which she grew up.”

It was a valuable bequest and one that should be seen and read more widely.

  • Exhibition continues at the National Portrait Gallery until October 13. It will then be at The Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle from November 2 2013 - February 16 2014 and Plymouth Art Gallery from March 1 - May 10 2014.

More pictures:

An image of a painting of people sitting in rows in a fire-strewn wartime setting
Laura Knight, The Nuremberg Trial, 1946.© Imperial War Museum, London
What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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The human perspective of a candid drawing adds a different dimension to Goering's character, an honesty that a camera can't achieve.
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