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Dame Laura Knight - The bather

Dame Laura Knight

The bather

Oil on canvas: 18.1(h) x 18.1(w) in / 46(h) x 46(w) cm
Signed lower right: Laura Knight

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 Long Eaton, Derbyshire 1877 - 1970 London


The bather


Signed lower right: Laura Knight

Oil on canvas: 18 1/8 x 18 1/8 in / 46 x 46 cm

Frame size: 24 ½ x 24 ½ in / 62.2 x 62.2 cm


Painted circa 1916



Private collection, UK


To be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Dame Laura Knight currently being prepared by R John Croft FCA



Fond memory tells of the beauty of line and colour seen daily during the warmer months from my painting hut on the Cornish coast. In a private spot my young friends and hired models swam and dived in the deep pools at low tide or lay in repose on the rocks. How holy is the human body when bare of other than the sun.’ Laura Knight[1]


Laura Knight places the nude model basking in the warmth of the sun in the top left corner of this peaceful, square composition, allowing us to contemplate the luminous depths of the sea-green pool, as she does.[2] The undulating waterline, highlighted white as it touches the warm rocks, follows a serpentine route from top left to lower right, making the brilliant body of water the central subject. Its gorgeous range of verdant hues varies from deep, moss green to vibrant emerald, tranquil olive to delicate sage, with yellow-toned, green-gold in the foreground shallows, turning russet as the rocks reach the beautifully smooth, still surface. Sitting on frothy white ripples of discarded clothing like seafoam, the pale figure is gracefully posed and skilfully modelled, her lithe, right leg connecting her to both land and water. Fine white highlights articulate the soft, sculptural form of her limbs from shoulder to wrist, hip to ankle, while ochre shadows reflecting the warmth of the rocks provide a mid-tone to darker touches of violet at her throat, neck, lower back and legs.


Laura Knight’s nephew, R John Croft, suggests the dark-haired beauty could by Aileen, one of the daughters of artists, Jessica and Frank Gascoigne Heath, depicted in several of Knight's Cornish rock pool scenes, including Bathing (private collection) and The bathing pool (Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand), both circa 1912. The location is most likely beneath the cliffs at Lamorna, where the Knights kept a studio. Laura writes about the idyllic, secluded setting in her autobiographies, The magic of a line and Oil paint and grease paint; recounting that initially while staying at Trewarveneth, Paul, she cycled to the rocks near Lamorna to pose models hired from London, nude in the golden sunlight.[3]    

She also mentions, ‘Benjy Leader, a painter, son of Leader of Victorian fame, lent us his furnished cottage on the hill by Lamorna Gate. Harold wanted to paint in the valley and I to work on the rocks with a figure model, where very few visitors then came. The cliffs, rocks and sea were fine to paint with figures bathing and swimming in the pools or dressing and undressing - I wanted particularly to study the nude out of doors.’[4] Later, she recalled, ‘Colonel Paynter built a hut on Lamorna cliffs for me to work in, where I went every day…Close by my hut, Carn Bargis towered. No human hand could have fashioned so architecturally magnificent a pile of granite. On the flat rocks below it were deep pools for swimming and pools in which to paddle. Pinkish fern-like coral, delicate growth of weed, tiny crabs and fish showed clearly in the shallows, as a picture seen through green-tinted glass. On warmer days Haughton, Lamorna Birch’s wife, often brought Mornie and Joan to race about the rocks and go in and out of the water. Sometimes other girls and children came. Their bare flesh showed amber or purple - rich against pale rock or water and pearl pink against dark shadow or the blackness of some deep gully. I revelled in studying all, determined to make up my lack of knowledge of the nude, filling dozens of sketch-books with notes of every pose, movement and effect.’[5]


Even the restrictions on painting the coastline imposed during the First World War (when the present work was painted), didn’t inhibit Knight’s zest for this setting and subject: ‘Later, we were allowed special permits for working out of doors, so that spring and summer found me with three models, working harder than ever on the rocks by my hut, a period when everything I touched came off well.’[6] The time Knight spent in Cornwall, from 1907-1918, saw the maturation of her vivacious style. As Caroline Fox observes, ‘inspired by the beauty and light of West Cornwall, encouraged by the support of fellow artists, and for the first time enjoying an active social life...her art blossomed, showing a greater awareness of light, the use of bright colour and freer, more vigorous brushwork.’[7]Buoyed by her success at the Royal Academy with works such as, On the beach (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, exhibited at the RA in 1909, no.439) Boys (Johannesburg Art Gallery), Flying a Kite (Iziko Museums of Cape Town; both exhibited at the RA, 1910, nos. 360 and 712) and Daughters of the Sun (exhibited at the RA in 1911, no. 329; her largest painting to date, later damaged and destroyed by the artist), each expressing the joy of painting sunlight in Cornwall, Knight began to paint more female figure studies, often naked and outdoors, commencing what she referred to as an ‘intensive study covering many years - that of the nude figure in its natural surroundings.’[8]


Knight was ‘establishing a new precedent’, as Fox reflects, ‘it had previously been unknown for a woman to paint a female nude out of doors.’[9] Knight’s iconic, Self-portrait with nude, 1913 (originally known as The Model, National Portrait Gallery, London), proved a controversial subject for this reason and was reputedly rejected by the RA exhibition committee. Set in her Lamorna studio, Knight depicts herself (seen in profile wearing her favourite scarlet cardigan and large hat) painting a nude female life model (her friend and fellow artist, Ella Naper) and is described by the gallery as ‘a bravura statement about the ability of women to paint hitherto taboo subjects on a scale and with an intensity, that heralds change.’[10]At the time Knight attended art school in Nottingham with her husband Harold, female students were not permitted to paint live models and were restricted to copying casts and drawings.


Though less characteristic of his work, Harold Knight also painted the nude and shared models with Laura, occasionally hiring professionals from London. A painting by Harold entitled, The bathing pool, at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1917, seems to show the same model posed at Lamorna.




Harold Knight, The bathing pool (RA 1917, no.279)              Laura Knight, Self-portrait with nude, 1913

Oil on canvas: 30 ½ x 30 ½ in / 76.6 x 76.6 cm                 Oil on canvas: 60 x 50 in / 152.4 x 127.6 cm

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle                                           National Portrait Gallery, London





Long Eaton, Derbyshire 1877 - 1970 London


Laura Knight was brought up in impoverished circumstances, her father died early in her life

(1883), learnt to draw and paint at an early age from her mother. Her mother Charlotte Johnson taught art and had to give private tuition to help provide essential housekeeping monies. At the age of 13 Laura joined the Nottingham School of Art and was probably the youngest pupil they ever enrolled. One year later her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died four years later. In the interim period Laura was awarded the Princess of Wales Scholarship an award of £20 pa for two years as she had won more awards than any other woman in Britain.


In 1900 together with her sister Eva, Laura moved to Staithes (1900 – 07), where in 1903 she married Harold who she met at the Nottingham School of Art. In the last three years Laura and Harold spent short periods of time at the artist colony at Laren, Holland. In 1903 Laura had her first painting hung at the Royal Academy Mother and Child No.1


Towards the end of 1907 Laura and Harold moved to Cornwall where they stayed for ten years till 1918. Laura developed a close friendship with both Alfred Munnings and also with Lamorna Birch and his wife “Mouse” and spent much time in Lamorna.  Several of Laura’s well-known early works were painted in and around Lamorna e.g. Lamorna Birch and his daughters 1913; Spring 1916.


On moving to Cornwall Laura’s work developed and flourished; her work became much softer and yet aglow in colour and painted en plein air. As in Staithes Laura continued to paint children e.g. The Beach 1908; The Boys 1910 and Flying the Kite 1910. The Beach was a transitional work moving away from the less flamboyant painting of the Staithes period.


For some of Laura’s most delicate paintings in this period she employed the medium of watercolour, something she had started with great effect in the early 1900’s. An early example of watercolour and bodycolour was Cheyne Walk 1909 and another example of this delicate painting was the gouache and watercolour Wind and Sun c1913.


Following the move to London another new period of change started in her work, as she became increasingly absorbed in new subject matters, that were to include –the ballet, the theatre, the circus and, country and rural scenes.


Although Laura attended the Diaghilev Ballet Russes before the Great War 1910 – 1914, it was not until the 1920’s that she had obtained permission to work backstage.  In the world of ballet, Laura befriended and painted many of the great ballerinas and ballet dancers of the time that included Karsavina, Lopokova, Pavlova, Spessitseva, Tchernicheva and Massine amongst others.

Working backstage at the ballet improved her drawings as it forced her to produce quick drawings that reduced line to a minimum, they were equally important drawings that were accurate. If Laura’s drawings were inaccurate the famous ballet instructor Cecchetti would blame the dancer not Laura. Also in the 1920s Laura met Bertram Mills and the Great Carmo that began Laura’s famous circus scenes.


In the early 1920’s Laura also experimented and developed other artistic techniques that included etchings, aquatint, linocuts, woodcuts and lithographs (during WWI she had already produced painted jewellery, ceramics and enamel plaque work with Ella Napper).


The 1920’s were a decade of major achievements for Laura:

- Cementing friendships that helped her in developing new subjects of ballet/ theatre/ circus etc.

- Attending the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh USA together with French artist Lucien Simon as European jury representatives for an international exhibition in 1922

- She was made an Associate of the RA in 1928, being only the second woman after Anne Surymerton

- Appointed a DBE 1929, being the first woman artist ever to receive this title


Laura is not famous for her portraiture, but the wide range of portraits are perhaps not sufficiently recognised as they include the famous such as Anna Pavlova; George Bernard Shaw; Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies; Lubov Tchervichev; Paul Scofield, WH Davies as well

as the not so famous such as clowns, gypsies, children and other people, that include Dolly in

Marsh Mallows, which was sold for £331,500 in 1999.


In the 1930’s Laura spent much time in the Malverns invariably receiving invitations to Barry Jackson’s Malvern Festivals and where as his houseguest she met authors, playwrights, actors and notabilities from all walks of life. In the same period Laura was drawing/painting boxers at Blackfriars and painting ceramics dinner sets for Arthur Wilkinson and Clarice Cliff!


During the War Laura received various Commissions via the War Artists Advisory Committee e.g. In for repairs 1941, A Balloon site, Coventry 1942, Ruby Loftus 1943, Take Off 1944, factory workshops, Land Girls and many others. Laura Knight’s fame continued after WWII, with her commission for the Nuremberg Trials 1946, being elected to serve on the Royal Academy Hanging Committee 1946 and a further Commission for the Coronation 1952.

Laura found most of her painting subjects in London during the winter months and in the brighter months of the year they stayed in their hotel in Colwall.  Laura painted many agricultural and country scenes in the Malvern area before, during and after WWII.


When Barry Jackson took control of the Stratford on Avon theatre, she again became

theatrically minded and spent many seasons with him and Scott Sunderland. Later Barry

Jackson asked Laura to do a number of records for him at The Old Vic “I filled many big

sketch books with perhaps the best drawings I ever did of life backstage” p.325 Magic of a Line.


After the death of her husband Harold in 1961 the number of her works declined.


Laura started life in poverty, but became financially successful and developed lasting friendships who ranged from not only gypsies, circus folk, the farm and factory worker but also with those more fortunate, that included famous authors, actors, playwrights, judges at Nuremberg and aristocrats. Laura also travelled widely in the UK, Europe and America.

All this was achieved in an era, when women were still fighting to vote and in instances where women were at times not generally accepted in some masculine quarters. 

All of these friends and most of her acquaintances kept in contact with this remarkable woman to the end, as demonstrated by her Memorial service held at St James Church, Piccadilly 28th July 1970.


In her last years Laura asked me “Have I tried too many different media, too many different subjects?”  I could not give her an answer as she then went on, “I do not know, except that my inner self continues to say even today - go on, keep on trying something different



Biography written by R. John Croft FCA – Dame Laura Knight’s great nephew


[1] Laura Knight, The magic of a line: The autobiography of Laura Knight DBE, RA, William Kimber, London, 1965, p.140.

[2] Knight employs this compositional technique in a number of Cornish coastal works, such as Two girls on a CliffLamorna Cove and On the Cliffs, all c.1917 and in private collections.

[3] Laura Knight, The magic of a line, op.cit., p.139.

[4] Laura Knight, Oil paint and grease paint: Autobiography of Laura Knight, Ivor Nicholson & Watson, London, 1936, pp. 174-5.

[5] Ibid., pp.190-91.

[6] Laura Knight, Oil paint and grease paint, op.cit. p.209.

[7] Caroline Fox, Dame Laura Knight, Phaidon, Oxford, 1988, p.25.

[8] Laura Knight, The magic of a line, op.cit., p.140. ‘In those early Cornish years, I had met with success in the Royal Academy and became known as a painter of the nude figure in sunlight…I had found something all my own.’ Ibid., pp.139-140.

[9] Ibid., p.34.


Other Works By
Dame Laura Knight:

Dame Laura Knight - The two fishers