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Dame Laura Knight from Newlyn to Nuremburg

13th May 2025

Presented By Bernard Allan


Laura Knight was the first artist to be made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British

Empire, and in 1936 she became the first woman elected to the Royal Academy since 1768 -

which is a shocking fact. Even then, although she served on the Council and the Hanging

Committee, she was never allowed to attend the all-male annual dinner!


She was regularly in newspapers and magazines and famous worldwide in her day.

Her success in the male dominated British Art Establishment paved the way for greater status

and recognition for women artists.


She was born as Laura Johnson in Long Eaton, Derbyshire n 1877. Her early life was hard,

because her mother left her father soon after she was born and then died when Laura was 15,

leaving Laura and her surviving sister to fend for themselves.

At the age of 13, she had entered the Nottingham School of Art, becoming one of the youngest students ever to join the school. At art school, Laura met one of the most promising students, Harold Knight and determined that the best method of learning was to copy Harold's technique. They became friends, and married in 1903.


They spent time on the North East coast in Staithes. She said "While working there I saw

greater poverty and misery than it seemed possible for anyone to bear". They helped form the world renowned Staithes Art Club.


In 1907, the Knights moved to the artists' colony in Newlyn, Cornwall, alongside Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes and Alfred Munnings. Here she painted in an Impressionist style, with a far brighter palette and her work blossomed.


Laura and Harold usually painted from life and studied ordinary people going about their lives, following in the footsteps of the Barbizon School, along the same lines as artists at Grez-sur-Loing and the Glasgow Boys and Girls.


After World War 1 they moved to London where Laura met some of the most famous ballet

dancers of the day in Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, including Lydia Lopokova, Enrico

Cecchetti and Anna Pavlova. Laura loved the theatre, especially the private ritual of

preparation for the public performance, which she captured in her drawings, prints and



In 1928 Laura accepted Bertram Mills invitation to work backstage at his circus in Olympia

and then in 1929 she toured Britain with circuses. In 1931 she started sketching at Epsom

races, using an antique Rolls Royce as a studio and concentrating on the travelling people and

their camps.


During the Second World War, Laura Knight was an official war artist and after the war, she

was the official artist at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals.

She continued to paint into the 1960s and in 1965 she was given a large retrospective of her

work by the Royal Academy - another first for a woman artist.


She died on 7 July 1970, aged 92.

A member of The Arts Society
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