I went to the Royal Academy’s tiny one-room exhibition of Laura Knight a few weeks ago, and was alerted to the fact that she had written a couple of autobiographies, Oil Paint and Grease Paint (1936) and The Magic of a Line (1965). Laura Knight was made a Dame in 1929, and was the first woman to be made a full Royal Academician, in 1936. (Only two women artists before her had been full Academicians: Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were both founding members of the RA, whereas Knight had been elected.) Alice Strickland’s essay in Eiderdown Press’s Modern Women Artists series, Laura Knight, works through the complicated history of women in the Royal Academy that corrects Knight’s own statements in Oil Paint and Grease Paint, and points out that while the law had to be changed to allow Knight to become a full Academician (the eighteenth-century foundation had not conceived that a woman could ever rise so high), she was still barred from the all-male annual RA dinners until 1967.
Setting aside the fact that Laura Knight was one of the great British artists of the twentieth century, Oil Paint and Grease Paint is a remarkable record of an artist’s life and of a woman’s life at a period when women rarely had the freedom and tenacity to pursue their vocation with the dogged perseverance that enabled Knight to make the most of her training and find her own art.
She was prodigiously talented from an early age, but also desperately poor due to the repeated failures of the family lace factories. Early deaths among the family meant that by the time she was seventeen, she and her only surviving sister Sissie were orphans, surviving on so little money that at one point they only had one winter coat between them. Laura had been a student at Nottingham art school since the age of 13, so in this most stringent period of their lives she went to class by day and Sissie had to stay indoors doing the sewing that was her contribution to their joint income. Their uncle in France gave them the very modest allowance that he could afford, and the girls lived cheerfully and hand to mouth on their own in a rented room throughout their later teens.
Once they could afford a studio of their own, Laura started giving art classes, and this and her painting brought in a little more money, enough to allow them to leave Nottingham’s stifling environment. In 1894 she and Sissie holidayed in Staithes on the Yorkshire coast, and moved there the next year. In this fishing village Laura began to learn techniques for herself that Nottingham had been unable to teach her. She had met Harold Knight as a schoolgirl in the art school, and he worked in Staithes alongside them. They married in 1903, and went to paint in Laren in the Netherlands for three seasons, but later settled in Cornwall and in London.
The vigour in Laura’s writing is full of confidence and energy. There is no sense at all that she was a New Woman, that invented fin de siecle label for women making their own living and working to support themselves outside a domestic setting and free from patriarchal control. She defines herself as an artist first, and as a woman second, barely acknowledging the social codes and restrictions that late Victorian society imposed on women. It’s possible to work out that she wasn’t living with Harold in Staithes because she mentions once that he lived elsewhere in the village with a male friend, but this seems an unimportant detail: all that matters from her life in Nottingham and in Staithes was how she worked at her craft with her fellow artists, how they taught each other, whose art she admired and why, and how she and her sister existed cheerfully on almost nothing, living alongside the fishing community on equal terms.
After her marriage, Laura’s association with the theatre and the ballet from 1912, and with the circus in the 1920s, put her alongside the great names of the period. Her stories about working with Diaghilev, Pavlova, Karsavina and Lopokova are remarkable, enthralling in with her details of the daily working lives of such influential artists, and also for the daily working lives of the unremembered dressers and stagehands. So is her account of travelling with the circus, drawing horses, clowns and performers as they moved in and out of the tents and during their acts. She brings to life the itinerant entertainer’s life as vividly as Philip Allingham’s later Cheapjack (1934). This is the world that Margery Allingham (Philip Allingham’s sister) invokes in her 1930s novels, as does J B Priestley’s The Good Companions (1929).
To read about her work as a mature artist, you’ll need to read The Magic of a Line, which documents her work in the Second World War as a war artist painting Home Front workers in civil and military service, and her work for the Royal Academy, performing her duties as the most senior woman artist in Britain. I didn’t find this autobiography as compelling as Oil Paint and Grease Paint, which has the vigour of a young artist proving herself to the world and to herself, and the calm satisfaction of a craftswoman who knows her worth and the worth of her work. There is one problematic chapter, describing her travels in Baltimore and New York with her husband, when her enthusiastic response to Harlem life and its people is made unreadable by her use of the terminology of the day. She is embedded in her time.