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A bold story told through art: Laura Knight at MK Gallery

Graphic, poignant, mundane and yet sexy - this ambitious retrospective of one of the twentieth century's most underrated painters is a must see

Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech
-
Ring
, 1943, Oil on
canvas, IWM, Photo courtesy IWM © Crown Copyright. IWM. All
Rights Reserve

Laura Knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring, 1943, Oil on canvas, IWM, Photo courtesy IWM © Crown Copyright. IWM. All Rights Reserved

Known for her paintings of ballet dancers, of women during the war or of the circus, hers is a familiar name, but, hampered by the sexism of her generation Dame Laura Knight is more under the radar than she should be (she’s got a damehood for starters!). Which is why I’m buzzing about the opportunity to have seen Laura Knight: A Panoramic View, at MK Gallery, and share it with you lot. On until 20 Feb, the exhibition follows Knight’s journey as a female, working class artist in the twentieth century and the many hurdles that she – frankly – slayed, in order to succeed.

Laura Knight,
The Cornish Coast
, 1917. Oil on canvas, On
loan from and photo courtesy
Amgueddfa
Cymru National
Museum Wales © Reproduced with permission of The
Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights
Reserve
Laura Knight, The Cornish Coast, 1917. Oil on canvas, On loan from and photo courtesy Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights
Reserved

The first woman to be elected to The Royal Academy, Knight’s place in the art history canon is secure, but it wasn’t an easy ride. From heading to Nottingham School of Art at the tender age of 13 to breaking taboos around women drawing nude life models, and immersing herself in her subjects in such a way that her more upper class female counterparts in the Bloomsbury Set, for example, were never able to do, Knight’s dedication to her work is here in glorious technicolour. Well, oil paint, pen and ink, charcoal and even some rather fabulous ceramic ware. Curator Fay Blanchard really has pulled it off with this telling of Knight’s life.

Laura Knight,
The Dressing Room at Drury
Lane (
1922) Photo © The Atkinson, Lord Street,
Southport, © Reproduced with permission of The
Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021.
All
Rights Reserve
Laura Knight, The Dressing Room at Drury Lane (1922) Photo © The Atkinson, Lord Street, Southport, © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights Reserved

I visited in the opening weeks and was taken aback at how the paintings engaged me. Knight’s early paintings of household settings and then the bolder landscapes she painted on moving to Cornwall are gorgeously graphic and yet sometimes banal, as she hones her remarkable sensitivity for capturing expression and familial relationships. We can all see ourselves in these images that somehow show both normality and magic rolled in to one.

Laura Knight,
Ella
Ardelty
on the high
trapeze
, Undated. Oil on canvas. Private
Collection. Photo courtesy Sotheby's ©
Reproduced with permission of The Estate
of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All
Rights Reserve
Laura Knight, Ella Ardelty on the high trapeze, Undated. Oil on canvas. Private
Collection. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights Reserved.

One of the strengths that shines throughout the exhibition and throughout Knight’s career is that she connects with her audience through her subjects. From paintings of domesticity to circus performance, backstage at the ballet, Romany travellers and the huge War Office commissions that show women working in Sheffield munitions factories, her subjects are always afforded power and agency and, in spite of their sometimes tragic or arguably squalid circumstances, there’s an enticing glamour in that. After all, who doesn’t see a little bit of themselves in Ella Ardelty on the High Trapeze or Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring and feel inspired?

As I walk through the galleries, I’m reminded of Grayson Perry, Gifford’s Circus, Emma Bridgewater, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, as Knight mines the depths of human experience, of greatness, immense failure and of simple mundanity, and it’s a truly glorious thing.

Laura Knight: A Panoramic View is at MK Gallery, 900 Midsummer BlvdMilton Keynes, MK9 3QA until 20 Feb.

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