Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Still Life of Phlox and Lupins 1924

Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970)

Still Life of Phlox and Lupins, Dame Laura Knight
Oil on canvas
20th Century
29.75 x 21in. (75.6 x 53.3cm)
Private Collection, UK
This painting of phlox and lupins is a modern approach to the traditional still life subject, in which Dame Laura Knight flirts with composition and colour to produce a luxurious work with bold and voluptuous brushstrokes, embroidered satin material and soft petals. This interesting combination of flowers could be read symbolically, with the word ‘phlox’ (which derives from the Greek for ‘fire’), meaning harmony or ‘sweet dreams’, and lupins, a symbol of imagination.

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 pictorially to 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 artists of the twentieth century and explored an incredibly diverse range of subjects. 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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