Saturday 3 August 2013

Laura Knight, National Portrait Gallery

I love the National Portrait Gallery! There are always new and exciting additions in the general collection, either made by someone interesting or of someone interesting. My favourites from my trip on Thursday were Maggie Hambling’s Stephen Fry and, in a completely different style, Andrew Tift’s incredible portrait of Eric Sykes, both of which hang side by side. It was also thrilling to see, out the corner of my eye, Mark Quinn’s blood head (I’m a big fan, although I know not everyone is!).

Despite enjoying the general collection, I was at the National Portrait Gallery to see the Laura Knight exhibition. Dame Laura Knight was an English impressionist painter who specialized in portraiture. In 1936 she was the first woman in 167 years to be elected to the Royal Academy, a destiny her mother had foretold when Knight was only five years old! The portraits in this exhibition are a great representation of how Knight not only enjoyed painting diverse cultural groups, but would immerse herself into the lifestyle as well. She spent several months with ballets, circuses, gypsies, in racially segregated hospital wards in America, in wartime factories and, in 1945 when the war ended, she travelled to Nuremberg as a war correspondent to record the trial of Nazi war criminals.

I love Knight’s paintings, and was so pleased to be introduced to more of her work (before I had only known her most famous self-portrait, which hangs permanently in the Portrait Gallery). Although she uses impressionistic strokes and bold colour, Knight always paints the faces and hands of her sitters with such care so that their character and personality really shines through.

Unsurprisingly, I had quite a few favourites! Above all, I loved the portraits of the women of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Corporal J.M. Robins, Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner were amongst the first women to receive the Military Medal for bravery in the Battle of Britain, and went on to achieve even greater military success. Despite being women of war, Knight’s attention to detail in the make-up and jewellery makes them undoubtedly feminine. 

Joan Rhodes or ‘The Mighty Mannequin’ as she was known is exceptionally beautiful in her portrait; you would never guess from this angelic pose that she was actually a wrestler and stuntwoman from an incredibly troubling background. The most colourful portrait in the exhibition would have to be Rose and Gold, whose fiery hair leaps at you from across the room. Standing amongst flowers in almost a pre-Raephalite fashion, the sitter Dolly Henry sadly also had a tragic end; shortly after this portrait was made, Henry’s lover, artist John Currie, shot her and then took his own life. It is fitting to have portraits of these inspirational women hanging in the collection, considering what an inspiration Knight was herself. Everyone she painted was real, and Knight would give them importance whether they were poor or rich, famous or unknown.

Aside from the paintings, her sketchbooks are also on view, as well as articles about her work (shockingly sexist, as you can probably imagine!) and some wonderful footage. This exhibition is full of life and character and, at £7 for a full price ticket, is a must-see. Open until 13th October.

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