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

Biographies of Dame Laura and Harold Knight

Harold and Laura Knight
- courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970)
Laura Knight (nee Johnson) was a prolific English artist. Her style was representational 'I paint life as it is'; she is sometimes described as part of the British impressionist movement. She was the most successful woman artist of her era in spite of the dominance of men in British art at the time. Her public accolades included being made the first woman full Royal Academician for a century in 1936, awarded a DBE for her services to art in 1927 and later becoming Chair of the Royal Society of Water Colour Artists and of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers. She painted a huge number of works on a wide range of subjects. She became an expert at using different media including a variety of graphic techniques, creating posters, packaging, designing fabric and costume for theatre and ballet, creating jewellery, ceramics and glass. She also found time to write two autobiographies and attempt poetry!

Born in Derbyshire she grew up in Nottingham and at 13 with great artistic promise she won a place at the local School of Art. Here she met her husband to be, Harold Knight, a star student, 3 years her senior. Her early life was marked by bereavement and relative poverty and her paintings became her main source of income.In 1895 Laura, her surviving sister, Sissie, and Harold were encouraged to move to Staithes where there was a growing artists' colony. They began painting 'In the open air', using local fishermen and their families as subjects. Laura and Harold married in 1903 and, interspersed by 3 periods in Holland in Laren artists'colony, remained in Staithes until 1907. Realising the west of England was becoming an artist's mecca, they moved to Cornwall, joining the Stanhope Forbes School in Newlyn. Here Laura came of age as an artist and described herself as really happy for the first time. Cornwall suited Laura's sociable and extrovert personality. Shortly they moved to the Lamorna Valley, where the Knights became part of a group of artists and friends dominated by Munnings, Lamorna Birch, the Harveys, the Procters and the Napers. In 1919 the Knights decided to base themselves in London where the Leicester Galleries were successfully promoting their work. Now in the heart of artistic activity Laura became fascinated firstly by the Theatre, the Russian Ballet and then in 1922 the Circus. Munnings introduced her to horseracing and to the Gypsies who followed it ; their free Romany lifestyle also attracted Laura for many decades. The Knights were in Cornwall in 1913 when they met Barry Jackson. He became a lifelong friend and was the person who first invited them to his Literary Festival in Malvern in 1931. Here Laura found inspiration in the vistas from the Hills. By this time an internationally recognised artist, she was selected as a War Artist. Post war she volunteered to 'report' in paint on the War Crime Trials in Nuremberg. She produced a strikingly surreal image of the Courtroom juxtaposed with a background of a devastated Germany. Post war the Knights continued to visit Malvern where Laura painted farm workers in their seasonal tasks, portraits of local people and their children and, of course, the ever changing landscape. After Harold died in Colwall in 1961 Laura returned less frequently but in her correspondence she spoke glowingly of the Hills she and Harold had loved.

In London, well into her 90's she continued to paint and contribute to exhibitions, the Grande Dame of British Art. In 1965 she was given a Retrospective Exhibition by the R.A.. A few days after her death in July 1970 Nottingham opened an Exhibition in her honour, recognising the width and depth of her artistic achievements in a very long life.

Heather Whatley,
March 2014

Harold Knight (1874-1961)
Harold Knight was a painter of portraits and interiors. Born in Nottingham, the son of an architect, he studied at Nottingham School of Art and for a year in Paris at the Académie Julian. On his return Knight settled at Staithes on the Yorkshire coast. He married Laura Johnson in 1903 and spent several years with her in Holland studying the Dutch masters, particularly Rembrandt and Vermeer. Knight exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1896 and at the International Society; he also exhibited with Laura Knight at the Leicester Galleries in 1906. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1928, and became a Royal Academician in 1937.

Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Harold and Laura Knight, photographed by Ella Naper, 1914, whilst in Cornwall

  • Harold's War - biographical feature on Harold Knight by Gwyn Klee 2017 - click here
  • 1943: Click here, to find out why the wartime Government in 1943, commissioned Dame Laura to paint a portrait of 21 year old Ruby Loftus
  • 1965: Memories of Dame Laura  from Malvern Gazette, click here.