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Dame Laura Knight

4th December 2023.

Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) was one of the most successful female British artists of the 20th century, and a leading light in British Impressionism. Forthright and determined, she made a name for herself in the male-dominated art establishment, and excelled at depicting real, strong women as they truly were, rather than idealised adornments.

The Maiden - Sold for £33,000 plus buyer's premium

Whilst she was born into a middle-class Derbyshire family in the textiles trade, her childhood was not easy. Her father left the family shortly after she was born, and a decline in the textiles industry led the family slowly into penury. After moving to Nottingham, her mother became an art teacher at Nottingham School of Art, where Laura was enrolled aged just 15 and where she received a thorough grounding in the academic artistic tradition. Laura herself took over some teaching duties when her mother died, and there she met her husband-to-be and fellow student, Harold Knight.

The Repast - Sold for £4,800 plus buyer's premium

The pair travelled to Staithes on the Yorkshire Coast, and here Laura began finding her feet as an artist, rejecting the staid traditions of Victorian painting and discovered the wonders of Impressionism and Realism, capturing the fleeting effects of light on water and painting the often-difficult lives of the poor fishing community in the village, particularly the women. The theme of women on the edge continued throughout her career, following her and Harold to an artist’s colony in Newlyn, Cornwall, where she painted a powerful series of pictures of women standing or sitting on the rocky coastline looking out to sea.

Figures Preparing Backstage at the Ballet - Sold for £2,000 plus buyer's premium

In the Wings - Sold for £3,000 plus buyer's premium

It was on their arrival in London, however, that Laura discovered the world of performers, which was to become central to her art. She delved into the backstage world of London theatre and ballet, including Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe, depicting actresses putting on their makeup, and dancers waiting in the wings. However, in the 1920s she became absorbed with the circus, spending weeks sketching behind the scenes at Swallow’s Circus, Islington. The excitement, the spectacle, the light, and colour drew Laura into this tight-knit and somewhat marginalised travelling community, whom she herself in a later autobiography compared with the fishing community at Staithes with their loyalty, fortitude, and spirit.

The Cossack Act - Estimate: £800-1,200 plus buyer's premium. To be sold in the Modern & Contemporary Art Sale on 2nd March

Bareback Rider - Sold for £3,000 plus buyer's premium. Thought to be a world auction record for an etching by the artist. A further print of this etching will be sold in the Modern & Contemporary Art Sale on 2nd March. 

From 1929 to 1930, Laura toured the country with the conjoined Bertram Mills’ and Great Carmo’s Circuses. Her ability to get on with people from all walks of life allowed her to be completely accepted by the circus community, where she painted this fast-paced, dynamic life. She adored the elephants, lions, zebras, and horses and became lifelong friends with many of the performers including clowns and acrobats. A versatile artist working in numerous mediums, Laura produced a huge body of work whilst with the circus, from quick sketches, to engravings, and full-scale paintings, often with a focus on life backstage.

On the High Trapeze and Ladder - Sold for £4,000 plus buyer's premium

From circuses, Laura moved on to getting to know and depicting Gypsy communities, continuing the theme of marginalised people, and would later become an official War Artist focussing on depicting women from the Women’s Land Army to factory girls and telephone operators, before being commissioned to paint the Nuremberg Trials in the 1940s. During her lifetime, Laura became internationally renowned, and received the distinction of becoming the first full female Royal Academician in 200 years, and in 1969 being the first female artist to be given a major retrospective at the Royal Academy. Her strength, determination, empathy, and vivid personality shines through in all her work.

The Old Garden - Sold for £11,000 plus buyer's premium

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