Dame Laura Knight at National Portrait Gallery

Over 40 works by Dame Laura Knight are to be displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, in what will be the first major exhibition dedicated to an artist whose work provides an intriguing picture of 20th century Britain.

Self Portrait by Dame Laura Knight, 1913
National Portrait Gallery, London © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA

The National Portrait Gallery will be holding a major exhibition of works by Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970), one of the leading British artists of the twentieth-century. The exhibition, which celebrates the centenary of the creation of her intriguing Self Portrait, also spans Knight’s entire career.

Knight painted commissioned portraits but she is also known for her paintings of people from specific social groups, most famously gypsies and circus performers. Knight also painted portraits of women on the home front during World War II, including females in the auxiliary air force and munitions workers for the War Artists Advisory Board. These works provide an extraordinary visual record of Britain throughout much of last century.

Knight’s Self Portrait includes her friend, the ceramicist and enamellist Ella Naper, posing as the model. This portrait, showing Knight with a paintbrush in hand, considering Naper, was an act of assertion by the artist. As a student she had been denied access to nude models, but here Knight portrays herself as a professional, painting the figure.

“Laura Knight was one of the most famous and popular painters in Britain in the 20th-century,” said the exhibition’s curator Rosie Broadley, Associate Curator at NPG. “She rose to the top of her profession, becoming a role model for many career-minded women. Tirelessly seeking new challenges, Knight tackled a diverse range of subjects including ballet and circus performers, factory workers and gypsies. Her portraits demonstrate her great technical range and sympathetic approach to subjects, who were often on the margins of conventional society.”

Laura Knight was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1929, and in 1936 was the first woman to become a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts since its foundation in 1768, when founder members had included Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman (in 1965 her retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts was the first accorded to a female artist).

Dame Laura Knight’s works are held in major UK public collections including: Nottingham Castle Museum, Museum of London, Imperial War Museum, North and Imperial War Museum, London, National Portrait Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate Gallery.

Laura Knight Portraits runs from 11 July to 13 October at the National Portrait Gallery in London. What is your favorite portrait, and why? Tweet us @BritainMagazine.

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