Laura Knight exploited her versatility, verve and clarity of vision, so proving how a woman could be as successful and serious an artist as any man in twentieth century Britain. She was born in Long Eaton, Derbyshire on 4 August 1877, and grew up in the house of her grandmother. Her father abandoned the family at the time of her birth, and her mother had to support the children by teaching drawing in Nottingham. Laura was educated at Brincliffe, in Nottinghamshire, and received lessons in art from her mother and under Wilson Foster at the Nottingham School of Art (1890). When her mother became too ill to work, the fourteen-year-old Laura took over her work as an art teacher in the Castle Rooms, Nottingham.
In 1894, Laura moved to Staithes in Yorkshire with Harold Knight, a fellow student of the Nottingham School of Art, and in 1903 became his wife. In that year, her first painting to be accepted by the Royal Academy was bought by the artist, Edward Stott.
During this period, she and Harold made frequent visits to Holland, where she was impressed by the work of the Hague School. Retaining contact with the area in which she had grown up, she was elected to the Nottingham Society of Artists in 1908.
In 1907 the Knights moved to Newlyn, Cornwall, where they first shared a house with Alfred Munnings before moving to Lamorna. And though they settled in St John’s Wood, London in 1918, they continued to summer in Lamorna each year. The Cornish landscape had an enormous effect on the work of Laura Knight, as displayed in her plein-air coastal scenes and figure subjects.
Between the wars, Laura Knight greatly expanded her range of subject and media, including pastels and various kinds of printmaking. An enthusiasm for theatrical entertainments resulted in many paintings of life backstage, including series relating to Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (1919) and Bertram Mills’s Circus (1925). The period was rehearsed in the book Oil Paint and Grease Paint (1936). Developing an international reputation, she was elected to the membership of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours (ARWS 1919, RWS 1928) and the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (ARE 1924, RE 1932). She twice visited America to serve on the jury of the International Competition at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1927 and 1929).
The honour of becoming a Dame of the British Empire (1929) was capped by her singular election as a full academician, the first woman to be so honoured in a hundred and fifty years (ARA 1927, RA 1936). However, she also acted as President to the exclusively female organisation, the Society of Women Artists.
Though she and Harold lived in Malvern during the Second World War, Laura Knight continued to play an active role in public life and, as an Official War Artist, painted munitions factories, airfields and, latterly, the Nuremberg Trials. In 1965 she rehearsed many of these events in her autobiography, The Magic of a Line, published to coincide with a retrospective at the Royal Academy. Again, she was the first woman to be so honoured. She died at St John’s Wood on 7 July 1970. An important retrospective was held in that year as part of the Nottingham Festival.