Our Book of the Month is Laura Knight: A Life by Barbara C Morden, reviewed by Welcome Assistant Suzy Trevethan.
Laura Knight: A Life
Laura’s early life was full of incident. She was artistically gifted and grew up in a family in which her talent was encouraged although finances were often precarious. In 1889, aged 12, she went to live with family in France. The hazardous journey there was soon followed by family upheaval on both sides of the Channel, upon which Laura was sent to a French school, where she suffered homesickness, malnutrition, loneliness and anger. Further problems with the family business meant that plans for Laura to study art in Paris were abandoned. She returned home, where she enrolled in the Nottingham School of Art at the age of 13.
After her gruelling experience in France as well as family bereavements, the young Laura bounced back with the resilience which appears to have been the hallmark of her character. The years between beginning art school and marrying Harold Knight go some way towards illustrating the obstacles faced by aspiring young women artists at the time, most striking being the fact that women students were not allowed to draw from life. I found the quick succession of different addresses and various family members’ names bewildering at times during this part of the book but once Laura married Harold Knight and they began married life together, the narrative became easier to follow.
Laura became deeply attached to places and people throughout her life, but she was able to move from one phase of life and work to another with fresh enthusiasm for a new subject. Her love of the places where she worked, especially Staithes and Newlyn, is clear, as is her affection for the communities she became involved with. Very gregarious, she made genuine relationships with her subjects, fishing people, circus people, dancers, gypsies and actors. She encountered many important figures throughout the 20th century but she was extremely democratic in her dealings with people and was a loyal friend.
Her tremendous energy and vitality is conveyed through her own writing as well as her art. Despite sometimes great successes, financial instability was to be a constant theme of her life, and it was partly irritation at the low rates of pay as a war artist that led to her commission to paint the Nuremberg Trial. She acknowledged the influence of Stanley Spencer on The Nuremberg Trial, 1946. The period after her return from Germany seems to have been the only time during which she came close to the depression she experienced in her schooldays in France, and towards the end of her life she embraced the role of Grand Dame with enthusiasm.
This biography is undoubtedly flawed. There are minor errors in the text. There are no footnotes and only the most basic index. Barbara Morden takes issue with previous biographer Janet Dunbar on many points and, by scattering these throughout the text, irritates the reader (at least this reader, who has not read Dunbar’s book). The reproductions are good for the most part but one is quite badly pixelated. However, it’s a good read, fast-paced, often gripping, and thoroughly enjoyable. Laura Knight’s life was so full that this biography could have been twice as long and just as interesting. Laura Knight: A Life has left me looking forward to seeing much more of Laura Knight’s work.
Remember, you can visit the gallery shop any time during opening hours for free.