England’s Trailblazing Woman Artist Rediscovered In Major Exhibition

Posted 29th March 2021

Laura Knight, one of the most popular English artists of the 20th century and first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy, will be celebrated with a major exhibition at MK Gallery from 9 October 2021 – 20 February 2022, the most significant presentation of her work in over 50 years. 

Laura Knight (1877-1970) was in her lifetime one of England’s most prolific artists, a pioneering painter of women, war, and marginalised people with a long and successful career that saw her travel the world and break conventions. Her range of subjects, command of multiple techniques and extraordinary virtuosity combined to make her the first woman modern art star. 

The exhibition at MK Gallery will survey Knight’s career spanning almost a century – from her fascination with the backstage world of ballet and theatre and exuberant portraits of people’s everyday lives, to depictions of marginalised communities and racial segregation in America. It will also feature powerful commissions created as an official war artist during the Second World War. She stormed the traditional male enclave of the Royal Academy, becoming the first woman elected to full membership in 1936, and was the first female artist to be appointed Dame of the British Empire. In her 1965 autobiography The Magic of a Line Knight wrote: “Even today, a female artist is considered more or less a freak, and may be undervalued or overpraised… Now that womankind are no longer born to hold a needle in one hand and a scrubbing brush in the other, what great things may not happen?” 

Anthony Spira, Director of MK Gallery, said: “This exhibition is an opportunity to look afresh both at Knight’s technical virtuosity as an artist and the role she played in dismantling institutional gender barriers in the 20th century. She was a truly modern artist – refusing to shy away from subjects that were underrepresented or hard-hitting and not afraid to reinvent her style throughout her long career.” Laura Knight, A Panoramic View will present an in-depth look at Knight’s career, bringing together over 100 works from public and private collections, including rarely seen paintings and graphic works as well as designs for ceramics, jewellery and costume. The exhibition begins with early work from her time at Nottingham Art School in 1899 at the age of just 13, and landscapes of her beloved Cornwall created whilst living in an artist commune in Newlyn. Thematic groupings will explore key subjects in Knight’s work, such as the backstage life of ballet dancers and theatre performers and the magical world of the circus, as well as portraits of the travelling community in Iver, Buckinghamshire. Also included are paintings of the racially segregated maternity ward at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, where Knight travelled in 1926 and met campaigners of the Civil Rights movement. The exhibition will feature some of Knight’s best-known works, created during the Second World War and commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, depicting women’s work in the war effort and the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals, recorded over three months in Germany. 

Working closely with Knight’s great nephew John Croft, MK Gallery is sourcing many previously unseen works. An extensive catalogue will accompany the exhibition, bringing fresh voices into the appreciation of Knight’s achievements, from a contemporary perspective. These include contributions by artists Monster Chetwynd, Hannah Starkey and Barbara Walker as well as writer Damian Le Bas, amongst others. 

The exhibition is the first in a year-long season of exhibitions by female artists at MK Gallery, including the first major survey of British media artist Ingrid Pollard (11 March – 29 May 2022) and a retrospective of acclaimed 20th century American street photographer Vivian Maier (11 June – 25 September 2022). 

For further information contact MK Gallery: 

Samantha Lennon or Roisin Callaghan 

slennon@mkgallery.org / rcallaghan@mkgallery.org 

T+44(0)1908 676 900