Laura Knight at the National Portrait Gallery

I've mentioned Laura Knight on Artwork Wednesdays a couple of times. With exhibitions up and down the country and a performance on the big screen, she's the Cornish artist du jour (well, she's not actually Cornish, but we adopted her).

As you may have seen, she's now the focus of a retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery - and what a glorious retrospective it is. Some of the artworks I've seen before, such as Self Portrait. Others are totally new to me, like Lamorna Birch and his Daughters. It just looks and feels so real. And it really shouldn't - she has certainly got pretty palette-happy here! She's used a rainbow of colours to represent sunshine and it just works. Plus I think the way he's carrying his daughter like she's a little doll is pretty charming. Bless you, you pea-headed man.

Dame Laura Knight, Lamorna Birch and his Daughters

Dame Laura Knight, Self Portrait

This is how the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery starts, all bright colours, pretty girls and warm sunshine. It's the arty version of easy listening.

As Knight's work progresses in the exhibition, it gets slightly grittier. In room two, she's moved on to gypsies and circus performers, which was quite an avant garde choice for subject matter in her day (as the second ever female Royal Academician, straying off the beaten track didn't phase her). If you're anything like me, when you think of gypsies, you immediately think of this:

But I think that might have been a little scandalous, even for Laura.

No, she painted more rugged, traditional types with the weathered faces of people who've spent a long time outdoors.

Dame Laura Knight, Gypsies at Ascot

Despite moving into a slightly more serious subject matter (well, in comparison to galavants in the Cornish sun), a sense of freedom remains. 

The next room slams into you with all the force of an army. Which I suppose was deliberate, because it is a room full of war portraiture. Her shock and fear is written on the walls of the gallery: "I look back with horror at those war years. I could make a long list of factories and workshops where I was employed picturing the making of instruments to kill... but one wants to forget." This is the image that stuck with me most. They look relaxed and in routine at first, but there's no life in their eyes. Very creepy. Knight keeps her trademark multi-coloured palette, but you have to look a little closer to see the array of colours she uses. I suppose she felt she needed to inject at least a little joy into everything she painted, even compositions such as this.

Dame Laura Knight, Take Off

All in all, it is a great show - it really shows how diverse she was. It's not all carefree Cornish ladies dancing around on hills. You've still got until October 13th to take a look for yourself! Enjoy.

Incidentally, this post came from an indirect request. I'm always happy to listen to what you'd like me to write about! If you're not based in London and want me to report back on a show in the capital, or if there's just an artist or artwork you'd like to know a little more about - that's what I'm here for. Just tweet me @ajbs500 or drop me a comment in the box below.


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