The wartime art of Laura Knight

Laura Knight was blessed with some of the essential qualities of any great artist: a broadness of outlook and a fascination with the riches of ordinary life.

A new exhibition of her work at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes is subtitled ‘a panoramic view’. It brings together more than 160 of her paintings, featuring scenes from the world of ballet and theatre, portraits of marginalised peoples in mid-20th-century America, and also scenes from both the First and the Second World War.

The Cornish Coast (1917) Coastal images were a regular feature of Knight’s work.

Born Laura Johnson in 1877, Knight enrolled as an ‘artisan student’ at Nottingham School of Art, where she met her future husband, Harold. The couple later moved to Cornwall, where they became prominent members of the Newlyn School of plein-air artists.

Physical Training at Witley Camp (c.1916-1917) This Surrey camp was where many Canadian soldiers prepared for service on the Continent.

Knight excelled at seaside paintings, something that was restricted during the First World War. She was forced to acquire a permit to continue painting her beloved coastline, such as in 1917’s The Cornish Coast – a world away from the mud and blood of the trenches.

Knight actually began working as a war artist at this time, receiving a commission from the Canadian government to depict life in soldiers’ training camps, an assignment she fulfilled with a series of works on boxing matches in Surrey.

Her husband Harold, a conscientious objector, was forced meanwhile to find work as a farm labourer. This kind of graft was another subject of Knight’s, although in her paintings the work is more frequently done by her fellow women.

Horse-drawn plough, land girl (1944) Knight’s husband Harold worked as a farm labourer during the First World War.

In 1936, Knight, now a dame, became the first woman elected to full membership of the Royal Academy. When another war broke out three years later, the War Artists’ Advisory Committee came calling.

The most famous piece of her wartime output must be 1943’s Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring. Commissioned by the Ministry of Supply to bolster female recruitment in factories, it was a runaway hit, and was later extensively reproduced in newspapers and for newsreels.

Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring (1943) This large work by Knight was shown at the Royal Academy in April 1943.

Some of her work at this time has amusing hidden details. Corporal Daphne Pearson of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, for instance, insisted on sitting for her portrait with a rifle in hand. But as this was against regulations, Knight was later forced to paint over the rifle with a gas mask, which is why Pearson’s hands still look as if they are braced for combat. Other subjects, such as Corporal Josephine Robins, were more amenable.

Corporal J D M Pearson, GC, WAAF (1940) (above), Corporal J M Robins, MM, WAAF (1941) (below) Corporal Pearson and Corporal Robins both sat in full uniform for paintings Knight made early in the war.

Later, darker paintings, such as 1943’s Take Off, show four men inside a Short Stirling bomber preparing for a raid. Knight spent time inside an obsolete Stirling to get the details right. And when the navigator in the painting, Raymond Frankish Escreet, was later killed, Knight arranged for a copy to be sent to his family.

A Balloon Site, Coventry (1943) A tethered barrage balloon being hoisted into position by a team of women midway through the war.

The ominous theme continued after the war with The Nuremberg Trial, the product of three months’ observation of the court proceedings in 1946.

The Nuremberg Trial (1946) Knight blends a real scene from the war crimes courtroom with a damning indictment of Nazi atrocities.

In a departure from her usual realism, Knight depicts various bored and restless Nazi criminals in the dock, a scene that blends into the chaos and destruction they have seemingly caused. The work is described by Philippe Sands as ‘an image of once powerful men reduced to fearful spectators of their own imminent demise’.

Take Off (1943) The navigator depicted in this painting, Raymond Frankish Escreet, was later killed in action.

Later in life, Knight continued to break barriers. In 1965, five years before her death, the Royal Academy held a retrospective of her work – another first for a woman artist.

Text: Calum Henderson

All images: MK Gallery/The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA/IWM/Wikimedia Commons.
Go further:
Laura Knight: a panoramic view is at MK Gallery until 20 February 2022.
MK Gallery, 900 Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes, MK9 3QA
Phone: +44 (0) 19 0867 6900
Website: https://mkgallery.org/
Email: info@mkgallery.org