Harold Knight was a quiet and gentle man, and his wife, the painter, Laura Knight, feared that she had ‘stood in his way’, as a result of the strength of her personality and achievement. Nevertheless, he has received acclaim as a painter, both in his lifetime and since, and especially for his sensitive portraits and interior scenes with figures, which emulate those by his favourite artist, Vermeer. Harold Knight was born in Nottingham on 27 January 1874, the second of five children of the architect and amateur painter, William Knight, and his wife, Elizabeth (née Symington). His mother has been described as having a ‘rigid puritan temperament’, which ‘did not make for a happy home life for the family’ and ‘sternly repressed’ Harold’s ‘natural instincts’ (Janet Dunbar, 2004).
Between 1881 and 1888, Knight attended Nottingham High School. Then, at the age of only 14, he began to train at Nottingham Municipal School of Art and Design, one of the oldest and best of the provincial art schools. While there, he met his future wife, Laura Johnson, and they both studied under Herbert Wilson Foster.
Knight was considered the best 123 student at the school, and won a number of prizes, including a Prince of Wales Silver Medal in 1894, and gold, silver and bronze medals at the annual National Competitions held by the Science and Art Department, South Kensington. He exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts for the first time in 1896.
As the result of receiving a British Institute Scholarship in 1895, Knight went to Paris in 1896, and studied at the Académie Julian under Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. However, he left after nine months, either, or perhaps both, because he ‘did not find the French ateliers congenial’ (Janet Dunbar, 2004) or had ‘run out of funds’ (Kenneth McConkey, Impressionism in Britain, Yale University Press/Barbican Art Gallery, 1995, Page 143).
In 1897, Knight joined Laura Johnson, her elder sister, Eva (known as ‘Sis’), and their great aunt West, on a holiday to Staithes, a fishing village on the Yorkshire coast. Deciding to remain there to paint, he became a member of a burgeoning artistic colony, which included Arthur Friedenson and Fred Mayor, with whom he shared lodgings at the Porritts’ cottage in Gun Gutter. He produced paintings of the daily lives of local fisher folk, which he sold to dealers in Nottingham.
From 1899, Laura also began to live in Staithes on a more permanent basis, settling into Ebor Cottage with her elder sisters, Nellie and Sis. Harold and Laura then both established a routine, and worked extremely hard. Two years later, in 1901, they broke away from the Yorkshire Union of Artists, based in nearby Whitby, and founded the Staithes Art Club, which held exhibitions in the Fisherman’s Institute.
In 1903, Harold Knight married Laura Johnson at St Helena’s Church, West Leake, Nottinghamshire. Initially, they remained in Staithes, but achieved additional stimulation by taking trips to the Netherlands. They made their first, six-week visit, in June 1904, with Henry Silkstone Hopwood, a fellow member of the Staithes Group. They stayed in Amsterdam – where Harold studied the work of Vermeer, the artist that he most admired – and then moved on to the artists’ colony of Laren in North Holland. In the following year, the Knights returned to Laren for a period of six months and, as before, lodged at the English-speaking pension run by Vrow Kam. As a result of these visits, Harold’s paintings increasingly revealed the influence of members of the Hague School, including Josef Israels.
Knight had his first success in 1905, when A Cup of Tea, showing a poor family grouped around a table, was bought from the Royal Academy by Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia. His ability was recognised in the following year when he was elected to the membership of the Institute of Oil Painters, and further marked by his first London exhibition, entitled ‘Dutch Life and Landscape’, which was held jointly with Laura at the Leicester Galleries. Sales from that enabled them to make their third and longest trip to the Netherlands. When they returned in January 1907, they brought with them ‘a large number of canvases, some of which they sold’, and others which they ‘burnt or painted over’ (Janet Dunbar, 2004).
In November 1907, the Knights left Staithes and moved to Newlyn, in Cornwall. In 1908, they settled into permanent lodgings with Mrs Beer at Penzer House, and remained with her for a year. Harold continued to produce the genre scenes with which he had established his name, but responded to the Cornish light by brightening his palette, and became integrated into the local artistic community, being elected a member of the Newlyn Society of Artists.
In 1909, the Knights became tenants at Trewarveneth Farm, and Harold began a series of paintings of women in interiors that were inspired by the example of Vermeer and would help define his oeuvre. In 1912, both Harold and Laura became seriously ill, and had to refrain from painting for a period of six months. Nevertheless, they were championed by Norman Garstin, a fellow member of the Newlyn Society of Artists, who later the same year published an appreciation of their ‘unconscious collaboration’ in the magazine, The Studio. In 1913, they made something of a fresh start, when they moved to Oakhill, Lamorna Gate, St Buryan, and Harold began to gain commissions for portraits and exhibit more widely, including at the Paris Salon in 1914, and at the short-lived National Portrait Society, of which he was a member. By the outbreak of the First World War, they had become key members of the Lamorna Group, comprising the second wave of Newlyn artists headed by Samuel John ‘Lamorna’ Birch, who took his epithet from the cove just south of Newlyn.
During the war, Knight took a pacifist stance as a conscientious objector and, as a result, was shunned by colleagues and former friends, a situation that put a strain on his health. In 1916, he was called to report for service and, after several meetings to review his case, was forced to work on farms in North Cornwall. However, by 1917, his health had so deteriorated that he was excused further labour.
In 1919, the Knights moved to London, and soon settled at 1 & 2 Queen’s Road (now Queen’s Grove), St Johns Wood (while returning to Cornwall in the summer months throughout the 1920s). In 1922, they moved a short distance to 9 Langford Place (later changed to No 16), which became their permanent home, and where each had a studio. They would purchase it in 1937.
Harold consolidated his reputation as a portrait painter and, in 1925, was both elected to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and received a silver medal from the Paris Salon for his painting of the pianist, Ethel Bartlett. Then, in September 1926, he received an invitation to go to Baltimore to paint Dr John Finney of the Johns Hopkins Memorial Hospital. Laura joined him at the end of the year, and they stayed in the United States until April 1927. In 1928, Harold was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and almost a decade later, in 1937 would become a full academician (on each occasion a year after his wife). Between 1936 and 1945, he was also President of Nottingham Society of Artists.
From 1929, the Knights had regularly attended the annual Malvern Festival, which was founded by their friend, Sir Barry Jackson, primarily as a showcase for the work of George Bernard Shaw. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, they returned to the Worcestershire-Herefordshire borders, staying initially at the British Camp Hotel, Colwall, and then moving to the nearby Park Hotel. In the post-war period, they would spend most of their summers at this hotel, and in their final years together spend almost all their time there. Harold died at the hotel on 3 October 1961.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the National Portrait Gallery; Laing Art Gallery (Newcastle upon Tyne) and Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery; and the City Hall (Cardiff) and National Museum Wales (Cardiff ).
Further reading: Janet Dunbar (rev), ‘Knight [née Johnson], Dame Laura (1877–1970)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2009, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34349