“It is my opinion that fine realism is indeed true abstractionism,” the British painter Laura Knight wrote in 1954. Her critics complained that she was just copying life, but Knight believed that she transformed the world more than abstract painters, who seemed to her, to ignore its sensuality and specificity.

We can decide for ourselves at the largest exhibition of her work since 1965, curated at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. What becomes swiftly clear is the copiousness of Knight’s subject matter and style. She was a modern painter in many ways: committed to taking on modern life and experience, and to being a modern woman. She wanted to do all that men could do, painting nudes at a time when female art students weren’t allowed to do so. She treated her subjects with seriousness and commitment, but also with enormous sensuous energy and a feel for the pleasures of looking, whether it’s the naked women on Cornish beaches, the garish clowns in her 1930s circus pictures, or even the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force commanders of the 1940s, surrounded by the meticulously rendered paraphernalia of their working lives.

Knight flitted between styles and settings with voracity and enjoyment. Look, I’m an impressionist! a surrealist! a colourist! she cries out, as she conjures new palettes and brushstrokes. When she wasn’t painting, she was learning acrobatics, while living alongside the circus. She was hungry for life and she got almost 93 years of it. Towards the end she wrote that “my inner self continues to say even today – go on, keep on trying something different”.

Knight was so good, in particular, on women working, whether it was her portraits of herself as a painter, the ballet dancers, actors and circus performers she loved observing, or the operatives she painted during the second world war. She took women’s work seriously, including her own: she was dogged in negotiating fees and exhibition space, and was proud to be made a dame in 1929, and the first female Royal Academician in 1936.

Knight knew that women worked from an early age, having grown up in a pretty impoverished house in Nottingham with her mother (who taught art to local children), grandmother and great-grandmother (who had once made corsetry for the Queen). In 1889, aged 13, she became the youngest pupil ever enrolled at the Nottingham School of Art and seems to have fallen in love instantly with 17-year-old Harold Knight, the college’s star student. Harold was proud when her career took off and doesn’t seem to have resented her for outpacing him. Together they made themselves at home among artists in the Yorkshire fishing port Staithes, the Dutch village Laren and the Cornish seaside town Newlyn. Then Knight began her more independent travelling, always on the lookout for performers she could live alongside, and bedding down among the troops in both world wars.

Perhaps Knight’s reputation would have been more easily assured if she’d committed to modernity in style as well as subject matter, like Vanessa Bell or Ben Nicholson. It’s not her style but the vitality and sensuality of her pictures that carry across the decades: the play of concentration and mirth in an expression, the movement of a body in the air, or a barrage balloon in the wind. “I paint today,” she once announced. It’s that “today” quality that makes her work worth revisiting.

Knights to remember – five notable works

Laura Knight’s Ella Ardelty on the High Trapeze.
Laura Knight’s Ella Ardelty on the High Trapeze. Photograph: © Estate of Dame Laura Knight

Ella Ardelty on the High Trapeze, undated
This was one of the most successful of Knight’s 1930s circus paintings. There’s a particular dignity to Ardelty, so relaxed on the trapeze that she holds one hand in the air. Her muscles are clenched with effort, but there’s an element of creative reverie in play that reminds us how much Knight herself values this combination of dreaminess and hard work. The grey-toned background dramatises the blurriness of Ardelty’s mobile existence but also isolates her, and pushes formally towards abstraction.

A Balloon Site, Coventry, 1943 (pictured top)
Knight was extremely active in the second world war, committing especially to painting female war workers, partly to encourage women to join up. Barrage balloons were used to force German bomber planes to fly higher up and were operated by women from 1942. “No praise is too high for their staunchness,” Knight said of these women, whom she portrays in coordinated action. This is a practical picture but there’s a painterly lavishness set loose in the balloon as it inflates, its folds both taut and expansive in ways that seem to resonate with the act of painting for Knight.

Sketch for The Nuremberg Trial.
Sketch for The Nuremberg Trial. Photograph: Crown Copyright, IWM

The Nuremberg Trial sketch, 1946
It was Knight’s idea to go to the Nuremberg trial of senior Nazis in 1946. She was dissatisfied with the view from the spectators’ gallery, so asked to sit in a broadcasting box above the dock. Outside court, she surveyed the starving inhabitants of the ruins and partied in the hotel (aged 68, she amazed her companions by doing a backflip on the dancefloor). She made the men both more pitiable and more terrible by making them ordinary. In this sketch, they are seen reading and writing; in the final painting, she would fuse this courtroom scene with images of apocalyptic horror, painting burning buildings apparently about to subsume the defendants.

Self Portrait With Model, 1913
This is the painting where Knight finds her voice, a defiant image of a woman claiming power as an image-maker that’s also a wonderfully intimate picture of two friends. As a woman painting a nude in a studio, Knight was flouting the establishment. The sitter is Knight’s friend Ella Naper, whose rather stagey pose seems designed to highlight her bodily vitality. There’s something dandyish about Knight’s costume – her trilby hat and red jacket. The reds of the costume and backdrop pick up on the skin on Naper’s bottom, giving her the feeling of a woman recently undressed.

Laura Knight’s Spring in Cornwall.
Laura Knight’s Spring in Cornwall. Photograph: Mark Heathcote and Oliver Cowlin/© Tate

Spring in Cornwall, 1914
A year after the self-portrait, Knight turned to her friend Naper again, painting her and her husband in a Cornish spring. Knight was living in Newlyn and was delighted by the “walls all aglow with primroses, violets and anenomes”. This is a vision of nature that stands in exuberant opposition both to the historical foreboding of the moment and to the prevailing notions of good taste and artistic advance. Cornwall here becomes an almost provocatively extreme vision of natural radiance.

Laura Knight: A Panoramic View is at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, until 20 February. Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing (Bloomsbury).



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