Historical Portraits Picture Archive

HM Queen Elizabeth II when a Princess, 1950 

Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970)

HM Queen Elizabeth II when a Princess, 1950, Dame Laura Knight
Pastel on paper
20th Century
15 x 11 in. (38 x 28 cm.)
Purchased from the artist in 1969 by a private collector; Thence by descent.
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This deeply beguiling sketch by Dame Laura Knight captures Queen Elizabeth II as we rarely see her, informally, aged 23, as a beautiful and fashionable young woman of the mid-twentieth century. The combination of meticulous detail and fluid pastel lines, warmed with regions of vermillion, creates a unique likeness of the Her Majesty. In February 1950 Princess Elizabeth would have been pregnant with Princess Anne, born in August that year, and two years after this portrait was sketched, she was Queen of Great Britain, Head of the Commonwealth and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

This portrait has attached to it a series of letters written between the previous owner and Dame Laura Knight on the subject of negotiating a price for the drawing, and from the Private Secretary to the Queen, Edward Young. Laura Knight writes to the previous owner in 1969, ‘I value the drawing of ‘Princess Elizabeth’, who bloomed like a flower in the field, and loved a bit of fun when occasion permitted’. Young adds in correspondence with the previous owner in 2011, ‘I have shown your letter and the accompanying picture to Her Majesty who well remembers sitting for Dame Laura.’

This portrait of Princess Elizabeth uses the same head type as Knight’s painting of Her Majesty in Princess Elizabeth opening the New Broadgate, Coventry, painted in 1948, and it is possible that Knight reworked a drawing taken from her sittings with the Princess at this time. Knight in her autobiography recalls Princess Elizabeth visiting her studio and picking out ‘the Sick Gypsy’ as her favourite painting by the artist, ‘I must see it again’, I remember her saying as she walked across the studio.’ She also recalls visiting Buckingham Palace for formal sittings with the princess for the Coventry painting, which would commemorate the newly rebuilt ruins of the city, and be hung in the city museum;

‘Her Royal Highness graciously consented to pose for me, in a room hung with gold to be found in one of the upper chambers of Buckingham Palace overlooking the Victoria Memorial. The view from the window there delighted this young Princess. ‘I love looking at the crowds gathering when I myself am out of sight,’ I remember her telling me. ‘How difficult it must be for you to have crowds staring at you wherever you go,’ I said. ‘Yes, you have to dismiss it entirely from your mind or you could not possibly continue,’ were her words.’
Knight writes that during these sittings the princess spoke of her favourite composer Bach and that she was greatly interested in fine art and had a considerable knowledge of Old Masters. Most importantly the artist remembers that she was completely comfortable with the princess discussing every day subjects as if she were ordinary.

Laura Knight was born Laura Johnson in 1877 in Long Eaton in Derbyshire to Charles Johnson, who left his wife Charlotte Bates and their family when the Bates lace manufactory began to fail. Charlotte Bates brought up three daughters as a single parent, teaching art in Nottingham schools to make ends meet. She was determined that Laura, who showed artistic talent from a young age, would be properly trained and was subsequently educated at Brincliffe School and St Quentin in northern France, Laura then attended Nottingham School of Art from the age of fourteen. At the Nottingham School of Art, Laura Johnson met her future husband Harold Knight, although they were never romantically involved at school and did not marry until Harold Knight was almost 30 in 1903.

Laura Knight entered several times into the South Kensington College of Art competitions winning gold, silver and bronze, as well as the Princess of Wales scholarship. Following her marriage to Harold Knight the couple remained in Yorkshire but in 1905 transported some canvases to London to be exhibited by Ernest Brown of the Leicester Galleries. After the First World War the Knights moved permanently to London where Laura received permission to work behind the scenes at the Diaghilev's ballet company.

In 1926 Harold Knight, already an established portraitist, was asked by Dr John Finney of the Johns Hopkins Memorial Hospital to travel to Baltimore to paint him. His payment was so generous that it also paid for Laura to travel and she spent time making meticulous studies of black patients in the wards of the hospital. The following year she was made an associate of the Royal Academy and later in 1936 she was elected the first woman to become a full member of the Royal Academy, as a Royal Academician. In 1929 she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire.

Following the end of the Second World War, Laura Knight was asked to travel to Nuremberg in 1946 to pictorially record the war criminals during their trial; she created several sketches and the large picture that she produced of the prisoners in the dock is now in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Laura Knight was one of the most important portraitists of the twentieth century and explored an incredibly diverse range of sitters from members of the circus and gypsy communities, to African-American patients at the Johns Hopkins Memorial Hospital, to Royalty with this portrait of Queen Elizabeth II as a princess. Her work exists in several public collections including the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Academy, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and the Tate collection.
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