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Out of Store: Laura Knight

Sat 27 Jun 2020

Neil Walker, Head of Visual Arts Programming

Whilst working from my kitchen table, with the Djanogly Gallery closed for the foreseeable future, I thought what better time to bring to light some of the art works in the University’s collection.

LAMORNA BIRCH (1869–1955), AND HIS DAUGHTERS

By Laura Knight (1877–1970)

The most celebrated of the women artists in the university’s collection has to be Nottingham’s own Laura Knight. Her huge canvas is hidden in plain sight, a commanding presence overlooking the Djanogly Gallery café at Lakeside. It shows her good friend, fellow artist Lamorna Birch, with his two daughters, ‘Mornie’ and Joan; both girls were destined to become artists themselves in adulthood.

What immediately strikes you about this painting is its huge scale. At 7 by 8 feet, it was clearly intended to impress as an exhibition piece although eighteen years were to pass from the time Laura began it in 1916 until it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1934. By that time the elder of the two girls was married with a child of her own, and the younger about to exhibit her first picture at the RA. Laura was also a very different and much more confident artist by the time it was finished.

The other noticeable thing about the painting is the warm spring sunlight that fills the scene; it glitters over leaves and bark, throws dazzling reflections from the still surface of the river and makes flaming torches of the little posies of primroses held by the girls. All of which goes to show that Laura remained at heart the English Impressionist she had been since she and husband Harold first joined the colony of artists in Cornwall at the beginning of the century.

Conservative in her way of painting, Laura Knight was in many ways unconventional both in her life and in what she painted.

For a start, how many times do we see a father – as opposed to the mother – in charge of the children? And those little girls too – high–spirited and rosy–cheeked – are a far cry from the prim and proper norm of a conventional middle-class family of the time. They are, in fact, very much like how Laura describes her own girlhood in Nottingham.

In 1968, Dame Laura Knight, then aged 90, offered the painting to the university that had just made her an honorary graduate. She attached the condition that £1,000 should be raised for Oxfam, which was achieved by a student-organised charity walk.

To find out more about Laura Knight, and to see more of her artworks, visit Art UK’s website.

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