The Friends of Dame Laura Knight Society,
Malvern & Colwall Branch

Review Article

A new biography of Laura Knight

Laura Knight: a Life.  By Barbara C. Morden.  McNidder and Grace, Pembroke, 2014. 254pp.

Barbara Morden’s biography of Laura Knight appears at an apposite time.  The first full-length biography of the artist was written by Janet Dunbar and published in 1975.  This was followed by Caroline Fox’s briefer, more pictorial, life in 1988. Since that time there has been a proliferation of literature devoted to, or touching upon, particular aspects of Knight’s life and work.  The art colonies with which she was associated before the Great War – Staithes, Newlyn, and Lamorna – have become better known to us.  Her friends – the Napers, Dod Procter, and Munnings – have emerged more fully into the limelight.  Individual facets of her art have received specialised treatment – her prints, her portraits, and her theatrical work, for example. And finally, interest in her has been given an unexpected boost by the revelation in book and film of the dramatic events that took place during her residence in Cornwall – events to which Dunbar never even alluded.  All in all, the time is ripe for a fresh overall look at Knight’s life.

Morden has accomplished this task with considerable skill.  She integrates many of the new insights that have been won in recent years into her narrative.  At the same time she provides greater detail about certain stages in the artist’s life, drawing, in particular, on ‘original material and information’ provided by Knight’s great nephew, John Croft,  and on British and overseas newspaper archives.  She enlivens her narrative with her own often illuminating, and sometimes provocative, interpretations.  The result is a densely packed book, both informative and stimulating.  It is the fullest biography we have of Knight, and worth a place on the shelves of all who are interested in the artist.

The downside of the book is that it lacks polish and finish: there are too many careless errors in the text, many of them typographical, some of them factual.  There is a general reluctance to give precise sources for information and citations.  There is not a single footnote in the book.  The index is slapdash.  The chapter headings consist solely of dramatic quotations from Knight’s autobiographical works.  In a word the author seems to have sacrificed scholarly precision to ‘reader appeal’.  This, it may perhaps be said, is preferable to a sacrifice in the reverse direction.  Possibly.  But surely the best alternative is an equal marriage of the two?  The lack of a firm scholarly framework prevents the book from being definitive.

Looking more closely at the text, some chapters – inevitably – are more compelling than others.  I particularly liked the account of Knight’s early years, which occupies the first fifty pages of the book.  The copious material provided in Knight’s two autobiographies has been well distilled and synthesised, new details have been added, and the interpretation by the author is convincing.  The loneliness and anxieties of the young Laura when she was uprooted from her English home and deposited in northern France, for example, have been vividly reconstructed.  The sights, sounds, and excitements that played on her receptive mind when she lived in and around Nottingham, are rightly dwelt upon, not least because, as Knight herself remarked, they influenced the directions which her art was to take much later on. Knight’s lifelong fixation on the monetary value of her work and – a fresh revelation! – her intense appreciation of food, must also have had their roots here.

The seventh chapter is probably the most controversial in the book.  Here the author, having reached the eve of the Great War, interrupts her narrative account of Knight’s life, ‘to engage more directly with her personality, her sense of identity and relationships - with her own and the opposite sex.’  In the somewhat rambling discussion that follows, Morden’s main preoccupation seems to be to fend off the suggestion that Knight’s relationship with some of her friends, and in particular with some of her female models, had a sexual undertone.  To substantiate her opinion Morden attempts to place Knight’s preoccupations in a wider context.  She runs her eye over the evolution of opinion on the relationship between ‘gender’ and ‘art’ in the modern age.  Throughout this rapid survey she hammers out a single message: the use of ‘gendered’ terminology, ‘gendered’ discourse, ‘gendered’ conventions, or ‘gendered’ judgements, when assessing artists and their works, has become completely inappropriate.  In other words, to identify, or to distinguish, or to weigh up ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements and attitudes in paintings or in artists, is now irrelevant and positively reactionary. Art and artists – the theory and practice of artistic creation – belong to a world insulated from such crude sexual distinctions.

Modernism, for Morden, equals ‘degenderisation’in this sense, and she sees Knight as being aligned to Modernism in spirit even if she cannot be counted a member of the movement.  Knight’s relations with her models are hence defined by Morden as being purely aesthetic; her pictures of nudes, such as ‘Daughters of the Sun’, are seen as not even ‘tacitly gendered’; she herself is described as ‘androgynous’ – though it is worth noting that in using this word Morden has not actually succeeded in freeing Knight from the dread shackles of ‘gender’, as it is impossible to define androgyny without reference to distinct male and female characteristics.  

There is clearly much to be digested here.  Perhaps a mention of an interesting subsidiary feature of Morden’s biography will help to make her attitude to gender a little less abstract.  Throughout her book she engages in a kind of running battle with her predecessor as biographer, Janet Dunbar.  This is surprising, as Morden has patently absorbed much from Dunbar into her own work, and admits as much in her note on ‘source material’ at the outset, when she writes ‘supplementary material (selectively used) from Janet Dunbar Laura Knight.’ Why then does she persistently denigrate Dunbar, portraying her as an irresponsible sensationalist, ‘spicing’ up her work with fictitious incidents and gossip?    

I think the answer is that Dunbar had the temerity to suggest that Laura had ‘a partly masculine nature’ and to maintain also (while discussing Laura’s relations with Heather Cross), that she had ‘frequent “crushes” on other women, especially those with great feminine appeal.  It had been the same with many of the models she had painted in Cornwall; she took frank pleasure in sensuousness…’  Morden takes even greater exception to Dunbar’s assertion that Harold Knight was deeply ‘smitten’ by two women – besides Laura – during the course of his life.  As we have said she accuses Dunbar essentially of making up all these ‘gendered’ relationships in order to add spice to her biography.  The reader is urged not to pay any attention to them; Dunbar’s book, it is suggested, is not a serious biography.

This really will not wash.  Dunbar remains a shadowy figure; she was unusually self-effacing.  She was, however, also a thoroughly experienced and highly esteemed biographer, not in any way given to arbitrary fabrication or exaggeration.  Her slang word ‘crush’ seems to me to be nicely chosen to indicate that Laura had feelings towards some women that were more intense than those of conventional friendship, but fell well short of a desire for a serious ‘affair’.  I think we need a word of this kind, and Morden herself can be found using it at the very end of her book when she suddenly and surprisingly calls Peter Casson the last ‘crush’ of Laura’s life!  As for Harold’s amorous inclinations, these were not introduced by Dunbar arbitrarily, or to whet salacious appetites, let alone to suggest that they seriously undermined his relations with his wife.  She introduced them calmly because she had evidence for them, which she scrupulously cites, and because, throughout her book, she displays a real concern to bring Harold’s feelings ‘into the picture’ and not to take them for granted.  

Dunbar’s account of Laura and Harold’s life may not be infallible or perfect – its main weakness is that it concludes very abruptly, the author being prevented, doubtless by infirmity (she was seventy four when she published the book), from  drawing the threads of her interpretation together at the end.  However her interpretation cannot be swept aside in a cavalier fashion.  She based it not only on extensive conversations with Laura herself, but on talking to, or otherwise communicating with, a whole host of close friends and acquaintances of the artist.  For this reason above all her book remains invaluable.

There is no need to end on a negative note. Morden, as I have tried to indicate, has also performed a notable service.  She has widened our knowledge significantly, and welded together a fluent and lively narrative.  Her interpretation, with its new angles, will hopefully provoke discussion.   What, we may ask, is her final verdict on the ‘essential’ Laura Knight?  From her remarks at the beginning and end of her book, she seems to see the artist as in essence a childlike, freewheeling, impetuous spirit, with a mischievous streak.  In her own words: ‘Laura Knight was essentially “impish” – sprightly to the end.’

Murray Forsyth
May, 2014